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The Andhra Pradesh crisis has been something of a turning point in public assessment of microfinance, with a suicide wave caused by widespread overindebtedness badly tarnishing the sector’s image in India as well as abroad. Some Indian politicians are now beginning to identify the idea of alleviating poverty with microfinance as “crap“.

Crilex

Source: M‐CRIL Microfinance Review 2012 (vii)

Microfinance in India remains in protracted decline since 2010 (see graph), although talk of “green shoots” and catharsis after “near-death experience” has been around for some time. The industry’s stance for the past two years has been to deny responsibility for any wrongdoings, downplay its role in precipitating the dozens of suicides, and claim that the AP government’s October 2010 legislation was a surprising and unjust crackdown on healthy practices. I have claimed otherwise.

Yet, fairly surprisingly, my new paper investigating the causes of the crisis, and a recent interview with SKS Microfinance senior managers come to some similar conclusions about the causes. In particular, both versions see the unregulated hyper-competitive market as a significant cause of the tragedy which led to microfinanciers’ troubles. How can this be?

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Ramesh S. Arunachalam, 2011: The Journey of Indian Micro-Finance: Lessons for the Future. Chennai: Aapti Publications.

The microfinance crisis in India which broke out in fall 2010, first imperiling numerous borrowers and then an entire industry, is the most fundamental event in the world of microfinance since the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. In hindsight, it may even turn out to be the defining moment of microfinance history – never before has the dark side of microfinance, and the vulnerability of the industry, been so brutally exposed to a global audience.

Naturally, these events have attracted a host of opinions and analyses ranging from simply blaming the Andhra government for bringing down a healthy microfinance industry, to accusing microfinance of having become worse than loan sharks. And yet, so far, we understand very little of why India’s vast microfinance sector went so far astray. Thankfully, people like Ramesh S. Arunachalam are out to change this.

Arunachalam has earned the respect of many a reader (me too) with his candid and incredibly well-researched blogging on the Indian microfinance sector. He posts prolifically, but despite (or perhaps because of) his over 20 years of work experience in development and rural finance, he has otherwise kept a low profile. He is not an outspoken critic.

Now Ramesh Arunachalam has applied his sharp analytical approach and evident knack for writing to publishing the first book about the Indian microfinance crisis. The result is a meticulous, evidence-based piece of research which brings clarity into what so far has mostly been an interest-driven and polemical battle of explanations.

In some ways what Arunachalam has produced is, in fact, more than a book; it is a dossier of evidence and analysis of how the Indian microfinance sector functions at the deepest levels, and where its errors lie. It is a biography of an industry in identity crisis, and also a handbook on how Indian microfinance might (perhaps) still be saved. Above all, as the book’s (wonderfully illustrative) cover implies, it is a search for the Faustian, troubled soul of Indian microfinance. Read the rest of this entry »

Microfinance in India is still where it was months ago – in a stalemate with the government. The crisis of microcredit in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh which began last October with a rash of client suicides – we were the first to blog about this, and followed its development throughout – climaxed in a standoff in late October between the state legislature and microfinance institutions (MFIs). Mud was thrown by both sides in an intense blame-game, while actually the crisis had systemic causes rooted in weak legislation and a hyper-competitive market.

Neither side has found a way to break out. But the stalemate is becoming unstable. It is increasingly clear to MFIs and their funders that most loans in Andhra Pradesh will not be recoverable, since trust in the MFIs’ promise of being “here to stay” is dwindling, and the new legislation has rendered erstwhile coercive recovery practices impossible. On the other hand, the Andhra government cannot step down from its legislature issued under the promise of protecting the poor without losing face, and the Indian federal government has chosen to largely ignore the issue.

The Economic Times from Mumbai recently provided a thorough update on what happened in the past few months, which I’m quoting here. The growing problem is that the MFIs in Andhra Pradesh will need new capital soon in order to replace the loans they have written off, or will soon be forced to write off. Read the rest of this entry »

One of the things that make blogs particularly interesting are series. The “series” series recommends series at related blogs. This time, I introduce the “State of the Sectorseries on the blog of the enigmatic Indian rural finance practitioner Ramesh S. Arunachalam.

Okay, it took me quite some time to appreciate this blog.

First there was the turn-off boring title “Microfinance in India”. And the strange header “Candid Unheard Voice of Indian Microfinance” – think disgruntled ex-microfinance industry dissident, ranting away in Internet obscurity. Also, the site looks like it was designed in the mid-90’s, even though blogs didn’t exist then.

For this reason, the props Ramesh S Arunachalam deserves for having won me over are even bigger. He did so with his high-quality, insightful blogging about – well – microfinance in India. The transnational field of microfinance mostly generates a dull, glossy, PR-esque discourse. Ramesh is one of the bloggers who have proven their mettle not only by being incisive and dealing with messy issues, but also truly familiar with the situation on the ground.

What got me hooked was Ramesh’s exhaustive coverage (an incredible 44 posts since October) of the Andhra crisis, by now a somewhat all-Indian microfinance crisis. The development of the crisis, its causes and consequences, could be followed in a nutshell via Ramesh’s series of posts on the “State of the Sector“, in which he takes a sweeping view of the MFI sector and its environment.

Ramesh publishes with incredible regularity and energy. Each post appears immaculately researched; often he draws on extensive personal experience. In an in Internet full of babbling voices on microfinance – funders, promoters, academics, advertisers … but rarely real practitioners, and of course never clients – Ramesh’s contributions strike me as some of the most insightful analyses of what’s really going on in Indian microfinance.

His most recent original contribution has been to expose the role of unofficial microfinance intermediaries – “ring leaders” or “agents” who create ghost loans and excessive debt at the expense of naive MFI employees and borrowers.

Strangely enough, it is pretty hard to find information on this prolific blogger. He has authored book chapters on microfinance and gender; was recently named a “top pick of the microfinance blogosphere”; and is found throughout the web as a lively commentator. And yet, apart from “rural finance practitioner” with “over two decades of experience”, the all-seeing Google turns up little info on this enigma. His personal website is undergoing maintenance.

So, without knowing much about the subject of my praise, I must highly recommend listening to this “Candid Unheard Voice of Microfinance” … If, last but not least, just for the delightful way most posts end, no matter how serious the subject, with a cheerful message like

“Have a great day!”

(phil)

In this interview, Professor Malcolm Harper analyses some of the underlying causes and consequences of the microfinance crisis in Andhra Pradesh. Professor Harper is chairman of the microfinance rating agency M-CRIL and editor of the volume “What’s wrong with Microfinance?”. He has been Professor of Business Development at Cranfield Business School, and as the former chairman of BASIX, significantly pioneered microfinance in India.

Professor Harper, you recently returned from India. How bad is the situation for the microfinance sector there?

I was in Delhi at a very large meeting of microfinance people, where of course Andhra Pradesh was being talked about a lot. I then spent some time in Orissa, in a village three kilometres from the Andhra Pradesh border. I called in on the local office – which previously I didn’t even know existed – of BASIX. And the local staff said there had been no trace of any repayment difficulties, even though the Andhra Pradesh border was so close by. This surprised me, and even they were rather surprised. Repayments were at the normal high level.

But I was running a course nearby and my students were interviewing various traders in the local market, and a few of them mentioned that one or two of the microfinance institutions, from which they had taken loans, had stopped making disbursements. And that of course has the seeds of trouble, because one reason why people repay is because they’re going to get another loan.

So it seems that the MFIs are having trouble refinancing themselves now, raising capital for their lending activities.

That’s inevitable, I think, because when the banks are beginning to wonder about the quality of their loans to the MFIs, they’re not about to release further loans. And that, of course, contributes to the problem, because – as I said – people repay mainly because they’re going to get another loan. Read the rest of this entry »

In the past few weeks, I’ve been silent here about the microfinance crisis events in India. But why not let others do the talking? This blog published (what I think was) the first analysis of the A.P. events right after the crackdown ordinance; following up with a two-piece search for the underlying causes (1, 2). Most of the causes I speculated about at the time are pretty much turning out to be true:

  • interest rates were far too high and have been rushed down
  • the sector was under-, or practically un-, regulated (especially, if Kaushik Basu says so)
  • the borrowers were/are overindebted (far more than the MFIs were aware of, I assume)
  • and the profit motive created perverse incentives for MFIs.

One prediction I won’t make, though, is whether microfinance in India will pull through. That depends on politics in Delhi (bailout or not?) as much as it does on the adaptiveness (not the resilience, which means “no change”) of the sector. But I wouldn’t bet my money on an MFI in India at the moment, given the pessimism of Vijay Mahajan (“If this situation continues, there will be no microfinance sector in 2011.”) or the SKS’ shareholders (shares down by 52 percent).

The real surprise story of the week, however, were WikiLeaks’ diplo-inslults.

Or really, were they? Only the Americans are really making a big deal out of the leaked diplomatic cables. If anything, the now-public secret assesments of sundry politicians should provide a few good-natured jokes at upcoming international summits. Would-be Israel-nukester Ahmadinejad will hardly be insulted by being compared with “Hitler”, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle already had their share of laughs about “their” leaks.

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This is the second half of my search for the causes of the microfinance crisis and suicide tragedy in Andhra Pradesh. In my last posting, I outlined the macro causes as I saw them. I found evidence that MFIs were charging borrowers interest rates over and above what they actually could have charged them. I also found that the government failed to regulate despite an evident lack of self-regulation; that is, until Andhra Pradesh clamped down two weeks ago. In this posting I search for micro-level causes.

Since my last post, SKS on Saturday posted profits up by 116 percent y-o-y (read: more than doubled), and also apparently held a secret board meeting over the weekend. You don’t need to be a Marxist to find a steep rise in profits disturbing for a bank which lost at least 17 of its clients to debt-driven suicide in the same quarter. Yet the crisis in AP is far bigger than SKS, and the five biggest MFIs’ have realised this and collectively announced last Friday to restructure distressed loans. Finally. It took nearly two months of suicides, a heavy-handed regulatory clampdown and a media backlash to drive enough sense into the MFIs. The women’s Self-Help-Group movement is also pushing for better regulation. How did we get here in the first place?

The poor are prone to debt traps

The media have caught onto some of the macro issues, but here I will identifiy drivers for the heavy debt burdens and suicides which operate at the micro level. We must be aware that suicide in India is already shockingly common among farmers. But many, if not most victims in AP were small traders, not subsistence farmers, so we’re dealing with a new phenomenon here.

It is no surprise that highly-indebted microfinance borrowers can be driven into debt spirals towards MFIs under conditions of heavy marketing, misinformation, social pressure to join self-help groups, and the vagaries of economic life at the bottom of the social order. If one thing goes wrong (an illness, a crop loss), an apparently sensibly invested loan suddenly turns into an insurmountable debt burden (see these media reports for illustrations of microfinance-funded debt traps). In reality, “India Shining” is home to some of the poorest people in the world. As we saw last week, some microfinanciers are apparently out of touch with this reality. Atul Takle of SKS went on the record telling the Associated Press, “I personally don’t think a person would take her life for 225 rupees ($5.08) a week.” But four out of five people in India live on less than 20 Rupees a day (2007; latest figure I could find).

This (self-drafted, non-exhaustive) list outlines individual causes for the poor taking on unsustainable debt. It shows that there are mulitple reasons for the poor falling into microfinance debt traps, and that most are outside of their control. Read the rest of this entry »

Maybe it’s too early to seek real explanations for the microfinance tragedy in AP. The dust hasn’t settled yet, but I’m struggling to come to grips with the big “why?”. (For a summary of events until Tuesday, see here.) My usual blog sources of all colours for all things development are silent, so far. But the Indian media are buzzing with coverage and an occasional piece of analysis. From what I can tell from these reports, the crisis was caused by a failure to regulate and a set of ultra-perverse incentives for microfinanciers and their employees.

What happened? In the past 6 weeks or so, some 30 to 60 microcredit borrowers in Andhra Pradesh (according to different sources) committed suicide over their loans. Individual stories had surfaced increasingly throughout early and mid-October about borrowers suffering under heavy debt burdens and massive pressure from agents; with measures apparently even including child abduction as punishment for loan default and agents urging borrowers to take their lives to reap credit life insurance. Protests ensued, and last week, the AP government issued an ordinance imposing rules of conduct and compulsory registration on MFIs (microfinance institutions). A consortium of MFIs (MFIN) claimed this had halted their business completely, and this week the MFIs submitted a petition at the AP High Court asking to quash the government’s ordinance.

This Indian news video concisely tells the horrific story.

The High Court today officially permitted MFIs to continue their business activities, while upholding the terms of the ordinance that MFIs may not engage in coercive practices and must proceed with registration. Meanwhile, employees of SKS Microfinance and Spandana have been arrested for harassing borrowers. SKS shares have dropped by over one fifth, indicating that investors are worried about profitability (rightly so). An Indian apex organisation has proposed for all its members to cut interest rates – more about that below. Read the rest of this entry »

This is more shocking news from Andhra Pradesh. Obligatory life insurance sold with microfinance loans may be incentivising overindebted borrowers to commit suicide. Worse yet, it appears that loan officers have been pushing debtors to commit suicide as a way out of debt.

Here’s the gist of a Times of India article by Jinka Nagaraju published earler today:

A government study has found that some MFI agents themselves are encouraging the debtors to commit suicide so that their loans are repaid. This happens because the borrowers are covered by insurance.

Till now, there have been at least 45 suicides reported in the state in the last one-and-a-half months allegedly due to the coercive practices employed by the MFIs in recovering the loans. …

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Just right now, a severe microfinance crisis appears to be brewing in Southern India. A large number of suicides has led to a legal clampdown and a corporate backlash. With a complaint launched by microfinance institutions (MFIs) at the Andhra Pradesh High Court in Hyderabad against the Andhra government, the recent conflict over MFI practices and borrowers’ debt levels – debt which may be responsible for the deaths of over thirty people – has come to a head. How this case develops is bound to shed light onto what actually matters in microfinance in India today. Bluntly: is it power, profits or people?

Flashback: In August and September, nineteen microfinance borrowers in Andhra Pradesh (A.P.) took their lives because of overindebtedness blamed on microfinance – some reports say more than 30 (or even 57; see updates below). Then, in early October, the debt-driven suicide of a fruit-seller named Prabhakar in Kurnool, southern A.P., triggered public outcry and attacks on several MFI offices.

On October 14th, the A.P. state government “brought an ordinance making it compulsory for MFIs to register themselves, declare the effective rate of interest they charge, ensure that no security is sought for loans and no coercion is used for recovery. Non-compliance will be punished with a three-year prison term and a fine of Rs 1 lakh.” In response, yesterday a consortium of MFIs operating in A.P., MFIN, filed a petition at the Andhra Pradesh High Court seeking an order to squash the ordinance issued by the government (NDTV, AP). Meanwhile, another overindebted microborrower, K. Narayana, who was harassed by the agents of four MFIs, took his life by drinking poison.


Video: “The microfinance institutions hit back,” questioning A.P. government’s power of jurisdiction.

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The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
June 2017
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