Fortunes won and lost in Bangladesh cooperatives

Credit unions have helped many people climb the financial ladder but recent events have tarnished their image
Fortunes won and lost in Bangladesh cooperatives

Parvien Juliana Chiran, 35, an indigenous Garo Catholic, in front of her beauty salon in Dhaka in 2017. She credits her business success to her hard work and financial support from the Christian Cooperative Credit Union Ltd. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)

Parvien Juliana Chiran moved to Bangladeshi capital Dhaka from central Sherpur district in search of work 18 years ago, and her first job in a beauty salon paid 500 taka (US$6) per month.

Today she runs a beauty salon in Dhaka, employs six staff and makes a profit of about 150,000 taka (US$1,765) per month.

The 35-year-old indigenous Garo Catholic and mother of two has also bought a piece of land in her home village.

Relentless hard work and financial support from the Dhaka-based Christian Cooperative Credit Union Ltd. (CCCUL) have changed Chiran's fortunes.

After moving to Dhaka, she became a member of the credit union and started her own business 13 years ago.

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"I borrowed 100,000 taka from the CCCUL and never looked back. I have a happy life with my husband and my two children," Chiran told ucanews.com.

Alfred Swadhin Mondol, 46, a Bengali Catholic from southwestern Meherpur district, started his career as a private car driver in Dhaka with monthly pay of 4,500 taka about 16 years ago.

Now he runs rent-a-car business in Dhaka with four cars and employs six drivers. He saves 70,000 to 90,000 taka a month from his income.

"I partnered with a colleague and bought an old car with 100,000 taka. After becoming a CCCUL member, I took up a series of loans to extend my business," Mondol told ucanews.com.

His loans from the credit union now amount to 1.3 million taka, which he pays back in monthly instalments.

"We cannot go to banks for loans, which requires mortgaging land or property. We don't have enough land or property to do so. The credit union is our last resort," Mondol said.

There are many such success stories credited to the CCCUL, which celebrated its 63rd founding anniversary on July 3, days before International Cooperatives Day on July 7.

 

Foreign missionaries

From a humble beginning with 50 members and initial capital of 50 taka six decades ago, the CCCUL today has more than 40,000 Catholic and Protestant members and assets of more than 5 billion taka (US$66 million).

The organization was the brainchild of two American Holy Cross missionaries more than 60 years ago — Archbishop Lawrence Leo Graner of Dhaka (1947-67) and Father Charles J. Young.

The Christian community faced economic hardship in those days. Failing to meet the requirements of formal institutions like banks, they borrowed money from moneylenders at exorbitant rates for emergency needs. High-interest loans caused many to lose their belongings and property when they could not meet repayments.

In 1953, Archbishop Graner sent Father Young to Canada to study cooperatives. In 1955, Father Young launched what is now the CCCUL, now based at Tejgaon in central Dhaka.       

The cooperative movement became popular and spread across Bangladesh. According to the state-run Cooperatives Department, there are about 1.77 million various types of registered cooperatives in the country with more than 10 million members.

Out of the 900 cooperative credit unions in Bangladesh, 250 are based in the Christian community, according to Holy Cross Father Liton Hubert Gomes, a social researcher.

"Economic development and fostering unity in the community were behind the cooperative movement. People have become savings-oriented and changed their lives. This was a vital contribution of foreign missionaries," Father Gomes told ucanews.com.

 

A staff member attends to members at the Christian Cooperative Credit Union Ltd in Dhaka in 2017. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)

 

From microcredit to business projects

Despite vital contributions, cooperatives are not free from vices, with recent reports of fraud, illegal businesses and buying property.

Christian cooperatives have not faced any serious financial scandal until recently. However, some financial projects undertaken by the CCCUL have caused irritation in some quarters.

Over the past 20 years, besides regular products — deposits, savings and loans — the agency has invested in income-generating projects including real estate, schools, a cultural academy, security services, a superstore, childcare and a resort.

"Many consider credit unions commercial or business-oriented organizations like banks. As per the law, credit unions are not supposed to do business or they lose their unique identity as a cooperative entity," said Father Gomes.

CCCUL president Babu Markus Gomes said the projects are a sign of the times.

"The socioeconomic conditions six decades ago and today are markedly different. Unlike the past, cooperatives cannot be limited to deposit and loan disbursement. We need to take up creative initiatives, otherwise we cannot survive," Gomes told ucanews.com. 

 

Electoral rivalry and division

The CCCUL was in the spotlight before the January 2017 election of its governing board.

Months before the election, the board scrapped the membership of several potential candidates from the opposition panel because of their alleged involvement in anti-organizational activities.

They denied the allegations and accused the board of illegally barring candidates from contesting the election on Jan. 6. An appeal to the Cooperatives Department saw them win back their membership.

The board challenged the decision in the Supreme Court and following a series of arguments the High Court on Jan. 5 halted the election and rescheduled it for Jan. 15.

After more wrangling, the election was held on Jan. 25 and for the first time in CCCUL history 212 member-representatives cast their votes instead of all eligible members. The panel backed by the existing board was elected amid heavy protests and police security.

The disgruntled opposition panel termed the election farcical and unacceptable, and it continued its legal battle in the Supreme Court.

The moves from the board and the controversial election are signs of power hunger among some so-called Christian leaders, said William Proloy Samadder, vice-president of Bangladesh Baptist Church and a backer of the opposition camp.

"Dhaka Credit has become a social and economic powerhouse for the Christian community, so power and politics have taken it over and it's not a service-oriented organization anymore. They are so desperate to get a post that they can even sacrifice everything," Samadder told ucanews.com.

"Attempts to hang on to power are not just fueling division among Christians but also in churches across the country. Rural Christians are getting a wrong message that they can do anything to hang onto power, even with an unfair election."

Observers believe the breakdown of Bangladesh Christian Association, a major social forum, and the formation of a new forum, Christian Association Bangladesh, in March 2017 was a result of the controversial CCCUL election.

CCCUL president Gomes defended the 2017 election as legitimate.

"As per the court order, the election was held where 13,000 members selected 212 representatives to cast votes. This was done with fairness in a very short time. According to cooperatives law, a cooperative with more than 3,000 members can hold an election by representatives. We didn't want to resort to this method, but it was forced on us by the opposition group," he said.

Gomes blamed the opposition panel for spreading false information and fueling division in the community.

"They knew they couldn't win in a free election, so they spread malice against the board and then resorted to a legal battle. We are still open to dialogue, but they are not interested," he added.

 

A massive scam

In March 2018, several news outlets including Jamuna TV reported on a huge financial scandal at the Cooperative Credit Union League of Bangladesh (CCULB), an apex body for cooperatives, which Christians pioneered and have led since its launch.

The CCULB was founded in 1979 and has about 678 affiliated member cooperatives with total assets of more than 10 billion taka (US$132 million).

Citing an investigation by the Cooperatives Department, the channel reported embezzlement of 1 billion taka by the CCULB board from 2014 to 2016.

An audit report found anomalies in transactions of 1.14 billion taka in the CCULB account since 2014. The department ordered the board to return the money by June 18 this year or face legal action.    

Former president Simon Pereira and general manager Ratan D'Costa, both Catholics, made fraudulent transfers in the name of investing in a fake company allegedly planted by Pereira, the report said.

Pereira has reportedly fled to the United States to evade arrest and prosecution, according to Emdad Hossain, current secretary of the CCULB.

Members of the former board secured a stay order from the High Court against the Cooperatives Department order, Hossain said.

"The Cooperatives Department will deal with the High Court order. Our lawyers are looking at how to charge Pereira and D'Costa for their role in the fraud," Hossain told ucanews.com.

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