THE LAND OF DEBT.
One of the darkest shadows on the Indian horizon is that of debt. A drowning man will snatch at a straw, and it would surely be inhuman for us to find much fault with the unhappy creatures who constitute the submerged tenth for borrowing their pittance at even the most exorbitant rates of interest in the effort to keep their heads above water.
I have no desire here to draw a gloomy picture of the Indian Shylock. In some respects I believe him to be a decided improvement on his European and Jewish representative. It was only a short time ago that I read a blood-curdling description of the London money-lender, which put any Indian I have ever come across altogether into the shade.
Nevertheless, Shylock flourishes in India as perhaps in no other country under the sun. His name is Legion. He is ubiquitous. He has the usual abnormal appetite of his fraternity for rupees. But strange to say he fattens upon poverty and grows rich upon the destitute. Whereas in other regions he usually concentrates his attention upon the rich and well-to-do classes, here he specially marks out for his prey those who if not absolutely destitute live upon the border-land of that desolate desert, and makes up by their numbers for what they may lack in quality. He gives loans for the smallest amount from a rupee and upwards, charging at the rate of half an anna per month interest for each rupee, which amounts to nearly 38 per cent. per annum. As for payment, he is willing to wait. Every three years, a fresh bond is drawn up including principal and interest. Finally, when the amount has been sufficiently run up, whatever land, house, buffalo, or other petty possessions may belong to the debtor are sold up, usually far below their real value.
I remember one case, which came before me when I was in Government service, where the facts were practically undisputed, in which a cultivator was sued for 900 rupees, principal and interest, the original debt being only ten rupees worth of grain borrowed a few years previously. Ultimately it was compromised for about 100 rupees. This is by no means an exceptional case.
Of course it may be said in favour of the money-lender that he is obliged to charge these high rates, to cover the extra risk, and that as a rule, he is generally prepared to forego half his legal claim when the time for payment comes. I am aware also that the subject has long occupied the earnest attention of Government, and that in some parts of the country enactments have been introduced for the relief of poor debtors. But these are only local and the evil is universal. A judicial Solon is sadly needed who shall rise up and boldly face the evil. The extortions of usurers have led to revolutions before now, and it seems high time for an enlightened Government to do something on a large scale for the abatement of the evil, if only by an absolute refusal to enforce any such usurious contracts.