Bangladesh's government provides food to low-income earners hit by the pandemic. Many people who have lost their jobs are not able to pay installments to credit unions. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
Fabian Biswas was a cook at a private company in Dhaka until February last year but now he stays at home in Pabna district. Like many others, he is facing uncertainty during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Biswas, 41, is a Paharia indigenous Catholic and father of three. Among his five-member family, only his eldest son has a regular job, working as a day laborer.
In 2018, Biswas took a 200,000 taka (US$2,400) loan from Gopalpur Christian Cooperative Credit Union to buy a piece of land. He was due to pay back this loan within five years. Everything was fine until January last year but since then he has not been able to pay his installments.
“When the two of us were working, the family was doing well with an installment of 5,500 taka, but now only my son works. I sometimes work as a day laborer but I can't work all the time because of my poor health. So I have been in arrears since February last year,” Biswas told UCAN News.
Due to his arrears, his debt has increased. He now owes the credit union 295,000 taka including interest and fines.
“As the days go by, the amount of arrears will continue to rise. I'm worried about this. I have already been notified by the credit cooperative but I am helpless. Now the only way is to resell the land I bought but the price of the land is also lower now.”
Ropus Rozario, president of Gopalpur Christian Cooperative Credit Union, said that if the government offered a subsidy, it would be possible to alleviate these credit union problems.
“In the 2018-19 financial year, the total distributable profit of our credit union was above 150,000 taka, but it dropped to around 50,000 taka for the 2019-20 financial year. Now members don't have work, so the credit union is in this situation,” he told UCA News.
The credit union has 650 members and around 100 are irregular with their installments, up from less than 50 a year earlier.
“In these circumstances, we can’t pressure members because we know of the difficulties caused by Covid-19. We have no alternative but to wait until the pandemic ends. If the government had given a subsidy to creditors as it has given to other big industries, that could have benefited the members.”
Bablu Ranatus Corraya, a director of the Cooperative Credit Union League of Bangladesh, said there is no survey of how many people in the Christian community have actually lost their jobs because of Covid-19 but many who have lost their jobs are not able to pay the installments to credit unions.
“It is true that the credit union sector is going through a crisis. We applied to the government for a loan of 5 million taka with 4 percent interest but we have yet to receive an update from the ministry,” he said.
“We advised the local credit union to do some extraordinary work for the members. They could arrange professional workshops for members who have lost their jobs to help them rebuild their lives.”
An official from the department of cooperatives told UCA News on condition of anonymity that the department thinks it is logical to provide a government subsidy to the cooperative sector.
In the 1950s, Christian missionaries pioneered cooperatives to assist the poor and save them from loan sharks. The movement became popular and spread across Bangladesh.
According to the state-run Cooperatives Department, about 1.77 million registered cooperatives operate in the country, with more than 10 million members.
Of the 900 cooperative credit unions in Bangladesh, 250 are based in the Christian community, Catholic sources say.
The government has so far announced a set of stimulus packages worth almost $12 billion to offset the impact of Covid-19 on various sectors of the economy and minimize the suffering of people hit hard by the nationwide shutdown imposed to stem the deadly virus, the Financial Express, an English daily, reported.