At Swadhaar, the 12th-17th of each month is the loan repayment collections week, which is the most hectic week of the month. Within five or six days, the loan officers have to collect the monthly installments from all of their customers. Many of the group loan clients choose to come to the office, but collections of the individual business loans is mostly a doorstep service. I was in the Chembur branch office to see the first day of collections first-hand with a loan officer named Deepak, who works on the individual business loans side.
The difficulty level of Deepak’s job is in a category of its own. Although we lucked out that it didn’t rain, we were still fairly wet—from sweat. Deepak’s client zone is a slum of mainly people from Rajasthan (a northern state of India), a large portion of whom are involved in sandal-making out of their homes.
Nearly half of the clients live (and work) on an upper floor, meaning that Deepak has to climb a rickety ladder-steep staircase to reach them each time. Largely because of the downturn in business for sandal-makers during the monsoon months of June and July, many of Deepak’s clients choose to spend this time back in their villages in Rajasthan for weddings and family. Unfortunately for Deepak, this means that several of his ladder-climbings get him only exercise instead of both exercise and a repayment.
As these are individual business loans, several of the clients that I spoke to said they use the loans for purchasing more raw materials or buying machines to help in making sandals (or bracelets, etc.) Deepak had a friendly relationship with many of his clients, some of who offered tea and chatted about their families in the brief time that he filled out their receipts and had them sign the records. For some of the busier clients, the sandal-making continued through the installment collection.
The client zone is dense, and Deepak moves from client to client quickly. He often has to wind through the same alleys in the slum maze two or three times to find his clients in their residence/business. Of the roughly 200 monthly installments he has to collect this week, and he scheduled about 40 for the day, 10 of whom he couldn’t collect from mostly because they had gone to their village without leaving behind a payment with someone. One client had been avoiding Deepak for five months upon a business downturn; after an unpleasant conversation with his dad and himself by cell phone, the client agreed to a meeting at the branch office, the likelihood of which is uncertain.
Although he did not intend to end up in a financial line of work, Deepak likes his job at Swadhaar, which he said not only pays better than his previous job at a bank, but also provides him with a better learning experience both through Swadhaar training and through being on the field everyday and learning about markets. But the job has its rough sides. At one point, a few slum-dogs started approaching and growling at us. Deepak immediately grabbed my hand and barked back while we ran to jump to a higher platform. Five months ago, at that spot, one of the dogs had bitten him, and he’d had to get rabies injections. When I asked him about the difficulty of his work, however, he smiles and said that it’s easy if you put a good effort into it.
As we took our lunch-brake on the steps of a nearby mandir (Hindu temple) that is closed in the afternoons, Deepak asked if I noticed an unusual occurrence at the last client’s shop. Apparently, the client had put his hand on Deepak’s as a signal to quickly put away the forms and money—the local moneylender’s collector had come, so Deepak had waited for him to pass before continuing the collection. He explained that even though the moneylenders have to legally register to lend money at a maximum of 2%, they illegally charge 10% flat interest—much higher than Swadhaar’s 36% reducing interest rate—and they are dangerous with collections. A few clients in Deepak’s zone have been forced to sign away their homes upon their delinquency. He says it’s good that microfinance is helping the poor to depend less on those guys.