A 61-year old Indian social worker, an employee of the Ministry of Health in Sharjah, has been found dead under mysterious circumstances, in Masafi near Fujairah.
Sugathan V was secretary of the Sharjah branch of Sevanam, a community organisation run under a trust called the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), based in the south Indian state of Kerala.
Sugathan’s friends and relatives are baffled by his death, which they believe is suicide.
There has been no official statement yet by the Fujairah or Sharjah police on the cause of death, but if it is indeed suicide, as is feared by Sugathan’s kin, there will be more than just a hint of irony.
Sugathan’s work with Sevanam centred around helping people in debt and he especially worked hard to ensure people in severe debt did not commit suicide.
Sugathan also campaigned stridently against ‘unofficial’ money lenders in the UAE and high interest rates charged by them.
Speaking to Emirates 24|7, close friends said Sugathan himself had experienced dealing with money lenders in Ajman and was said to be facing financial difficulties.
A close friend told this website: “He was on leave for two days. He reportedly purchased a rope from a supermarket and a bill for the same was found in his pocket.
“He drove his vehicle all the way to Masafi and was found hanging from the cladding of a building under construction.
“The vehicle was found parked outside,” said the friend.
“He called the family from Masafi and told his children to take care of their mother.
“Later his mobile phone was switched off. His relatives desperately tried to locate him and filed a police complaint.
“The body was spotted by construction workers who came to the building site at morning.”
Sugathan’s Facebook page still carries birthday greetings from his 300-plus friends.
His social work made him a popular figure in the community.
He is survived by a daughter, son and wife.
The SNDP trust is one of the richest community associations in Kerala and has 10,000 members in the UAE alone.
It represents the Ezhava community, the largest Hindu group in the state.
Sugathan was honoured by the association in October2011.
The money-lender threat
Seventeen Indian associations recently launched a campaign against Indians commiting suicide due to debt and their main contention is that ‘unofficial’ money lenders were at the heart of these debt deaths.
“The associations should help victims of money lenders,” said a community member preferring anonymity.
“They (money lenders) hold back passports and threaten to harm relatives back home to get their payments,” he added.
“A thorough investigation should be carried out to determine who caused his suicide. It is not fair to just brush aside the case as yet another desperate Indian,” another Sevanam member said.
15 Indian groups vow to fight community’s growing suicides
After several suicides by Indian expatriates in the northern emirates, fifteen Indian community associations in Ras Al Khaimah have jointly started a campaign to give legal and psychological counselling to prevent more financially distressed community members from taking their lives.
The group, called ‘Karunya’ (‘Kindness’), have also vowed to keep moneylenders away from their organisations.
A preliminary meeting of the group was held at Ras Al Khaimah on February 28. The group will soon organise a ‘sneha sanghamam’ (‘meeting of affection’) to raise awareness against suicides.
An illegal money lending network, partly run by Indian community members and businessmen, is active in the emirates. They charge very high interest rates and often intimdiate financially distressed community members.
Speaking to Emirates 24|7, Sethu Nath, president of Kerala Samajam and co-ordinator of the campaign, said: “In the last three to four months, more than 10 Indians have committed suicide in Ras Al Khaimah alone. Similar stories have been reported from other emirates and other Gulf countries. After three members of an Indian family committed suicide due to severe financial stress, we set up a helpline number in association with the Indian consulate in Dubai,” he said.
“We have been getting distress calls from distressed community members not only from Ras Al Khaimah, but also from other emirates like Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman. We have just attended the funeral of an Indian man who committed suicide in Ras Al Khaimah due to financial distress,” he said, adding that other Indians who committed suicide recently include a taxi driver who hanged himself from his flat’s ceiling to avoid harassment by money lenders and a Tamilian who jumped to his death from the top of a building.
Chethana Samskarika Vedi, one of the member groups, has said it will not admit any money lender as its member and other organisations are also contemplating the same. Chethana officials said member organisations should name and shame moneylenders who harass financially distressed families and individuals and expel them from the forums. Most of the people who committed suicide are from Kerala but the figure includes people from other parts of India too. Kerala has a higher suicide rate among Indian states.
“The main reason why people take their own lives is the severe harassment by debt collectors here and back home and the lack of help in handling legal issues. We are getting calls from jails where community members are held for non-payment of even small amounts,” he said.
“We are also getting distress calls from families in credit card trouble and those who want to escape from money lenders who take blank cheques here and back home, passports and finger prints as security for giving loans. In most cases, people who have been harassed by debt collectors resort to loans on unfavorable terms and conditions including high interest rates from a network of money lenders run by members of the Indian community,” he said. In some cases, the husband is in jail and the wife cannot cope up with the pressures of living alone with children, organisation officials added.
A woman from Abu Dhabi who called the helpline number has got a new job but cannot take it up as her husband is in prison in a Dh 150000 cheque case. She cannot take up the job and try to repay the loan because there is a police case against her husband. “Some distressed families have sold their property back home to settle their financial obligations because the recovery agents are threatening them even for small amounts. In one case of Dh 5000, a little help from the community can save a family or a distress caller,” said another community association member.
“If a bank loan or credit card defaulter does not take phone calls from collection agents, they will immediately call his or her family members back home and threaten them with dire consequences. Such pressure tactics often make people think of extreme action like suicide,” said Sethu Nath.
“We are trying to stop new recruitments from India by agents giving false promises and we are helping jobless people in the emirate and UAE to find new jobs. We have arranged a job for a family recently which will enable them to repay their loans. Some families tend to spend lavishly and end up in credit traps but most are victims of circumstances. Some business disputes among partners can also be easily settled with proper guidance,” he added.
The fifteen organisations representing the South Indian community include Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMCC), Kerala Samajam, Ras Al Khaimah, Chethana Samskarika Vedi, Nair Service Society, Sevanam, Trichur Association, Congress groups, Youth India, Indian Islahi Centre, Viswakarma Sabha, Yuva Kala Samithi, ICC and Indian Association, Ras Al Khaimah.
Association representatives have also appealed to the Indian consulate and embassy to give small loans and advances to distressed families from the Dh 8 million Community Welfare Fund, currently lying idle with the Indian mission in Dubai.
In most credit card and bank loan cases, the Indian consulate is unable to do anything as its funds cannot be utilised for such purposes.