G Venkatasubramanian trots out some astonishing numbers. Over the last 15 years, he and his fellow researchers at Pondicherry’s French Institute have been studying debt bondage among families in 20 villages in Tamil Nadu. Half of these settlements are in the coastal district of Cuddalore, and the others are in the adjoining district of Villupuram.
Their study is throwing up some puzzling changes in how much these families borrow – and how. In 2001, the average annual income of these families was Rs 16,000. Average debt was Rs 10,000. Come 2016, annual income has risen five-fold to Rs 80,000. Average debt, however, stands at Rs 250,000. This is a 25-fold increase.
How these families borrow has changed too. Earlier, only land-owning communities – Mudaliars, Chettiars or Reddiars – lent money. But now, said Venkatsubramanian, the Scheduled Castes are increasingly lending and borrowing among themselves. “A family will borrow Rs 50,000 and lend Rs 25,000,” he said. At the same time, communities that once looked down upon moneylending are entering the trade. The Nadars of southern Tamil Nadu, for instance, have begun lending in central and northern parts of the state.
A tsunami of debt is building up in Tamil Nadu – and no one knows where it is headed