First they were stripped of their utensils, furniture, mobile phones, televisions, ration cards and heirloom gold jewelry. Then, some of them drank pesticide. One woman threw herself in a pond. Another jumped into a well with her children.
Sometimes, the debt collectors watched nearby.
More than 200 poor, debt-ridden residents of Andhra Pradesh killed themselves in late 2010, according to media reports compiled by the government of the south Indian state. The state blamed microfinance companies - which give small loans intended to lift up the very poor - for fueling a frenzy of overindebtedness and then pressuring borrowers so relentlessly that some took their own lives.
The companies, including market leader SKS Microfinance, denied it.
However, internal documents obtained by The Associated Press, as well as interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees, independent researchers and videotaped testimony from the families of the dead, show top SKS officials had information implicating company employees in some of the suicides.
An independent investigation commissioned by the company linked SKS employees to at least seven of the deaths. A second investigation commissioned by an industry umbrella group that probed the role of many microfinance companies did not draw conclusions but pointed to SKS involvement in two more cases that ended in suicide. Neither study has been made public.
Both reports said SKS employees had verbally harassed over-indebted borrowers, forced them to pawn valuable items, incited other borrowers to humiliate them and orchestrated sit-ins outside their homes to publicly shame them. In some cases, the SKS staff physically harassed defaulters, according to the report commissioned by the company. Only in death would the debts be forgiven.
The videos and reports tell stark stories:
One woman drank pesticide and died a day after an SKS loan agent told her to prostitute her daughters to pay off her debt. She had been given 150,000 rupees ($3,000) in loans but only made 600 rupees ($12) a week.
Another SKS debt collector told a delinquent borrower to drown herself in a pond if she wanted her loan waived. The next day, she did. She left behind four children.
One agent blocked a woman from bringing her young son, weak with diarrhea, to the hospital, demanding payment first. Other borrowers, who could not get any new loans until she paid, told her that if she wanted to die, they would bring her pesticide. An SKS staff member was there when she drank the poison. She survived.
An 18-year-old girl, pressured until she handed over 150 rupees ($3) - meant for a school examination fee - also drank pesticide. She left a suicide note: “Work hard and earn money. Do not take loans.''
In all these cases, the report commissioned by SKS concluded that the company's staff was either directly or indirectly responsible.
Caught in the despair of poverty, tens of thousands of impoverished Indians kill themselves every year, often because of insurmountable debt. The supportive structure of the microfinance companies was supposed to change that.
But Davuluri Venkateswarlu, director of Glocal Research in Hyderabad, which conducted the industrywide investigation, said in an interview that he told SKS executives there was “clear involvement of SKS personnel'' in some suicides.
SKS continues to deny all responsibility for the deaths and says it never commissioned an independent inquiry. SKS spokesman J.S. Sai, who flew to Mumbai from the company's Hyderabad headquarters to discuss the AP findings, said the company stands by its September 2011 affidavit before India's Supreme Court. In that affidavit, chief executive M.R. Rao says SKS “is neither the cause of nor responsible for any suicides in the state of Andhra Pradesh.''
The deaths came after a period of hypergrowth leading up to the company's hugely successful August 2010 initial public offering.
Originally developed as a nonprofit effort to lift society's most downtrodden, microfinance has increasingly become a for-profit enterprise that serves investors as well as the poor. As India's market leader, SKS has pioneered a business model that many others hoped to emulate.
But the story of what went wrong at SKS has led current and former employees and even some major shareholders to question that strategy and raises fundamental questions for the multibillion-dollar global microfinance industry.
Meanwhile, whistleblowers at SKS say that they have been targeted for retaliation and that the company has failed to correct structural flaws that contributed to the suicides.
“At the end of it,'' said Alok Prasad, chief executive of the Microfinance Institutions Network, the industry group that commissioned the Glocal report, “you come down to a handful of cases where some things went wrong. Is that indicative of the model being bad or very rapid expansion leading to a loss of control?''
Born in desperation
Microfinance was born in desperation. Amid the 1970s famine in Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus began giving small loans to poor women with his own money. Despite the predictions of bankers, the women paid him back.
The core idea of Yunus' Grameen Bank was the borrower group. Five women from a village determine how large a loan each member gets and act as guarantors. If even one member is delinquent, no new loans are issued. Group members apply pressure - and support - that has kept repayment rates near 100 per cent.
Yunus' innovation won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.
In 1997, Yunus acolyte Vikram Akula founded his own microcredit organization, Swayam Krishi Sangam, Sanskrit for “self-help society.'' In 2005, SKS started operating as a for-profit company and Akula began chasing private investment to achieve the massive scale required to dent global poverty.
In August 2010, SKS Microfinance - then India's largest microlender - went public. Exuberant investors oversubscribed the $350 million offering nearly 14 times. The stock surged more than 10 percent its first day. The company handed out 21,000 watches to employees in celebration.
Then media reports began to surface that over-indebted borrowers were killing themselves.
In October 2010, a mob of 150 people surrounded SKS's Hyderabad headquarters, protesting the suicide of a borrower's husband. They threatened to drag the corpse inside and demanded $20,000.
It was one of dozens of deaths the government of Andhra Pradesh blamed on aggressive tactics by microfinance companies. Police jailed microfinance employees, including dozens from SKS. Among the charges was abetment to suicide, essentially driving people to kill themselves, a crime under Indian law. Authorities investigated 76 cases in which employees from SKS and other microfinance companies were blamed for driving borrowers to take their own lives. The state passed a law designed to clamp down on abuses with new restrictions on loan disbursement and collection and onerous registration requirements on the companies. Microlending in India's largest microcredit market was effectively shut down.
Microfinance officials fought the new law and denied the charges, accusing the state government of trying to gain traction with voters and punish companies for capturing valuable market share from state-run lending groups.
Established microlenders such as SKS said loan sharks operating under the guise of microfinance were behind the excesses. SKS and other companies asked a court to stop the arrest of their employees. The court issued a stay on new arrests. Today, no one is in jail.
In a November 2010 letter to India's finance minister, Akula defended his company and included supportive articles from The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
At the same time, the industry group Microfinance Institutions Network hired Glocal to investigate 44 deaths among debtors of microfinance companies, including SKS.
Venkateswarlu, the Glocal director, presented the findings to executives at three lenders. In January 2011, he delivered startling news to Akula and Rao: SKS employees had clear involvement in the suicides of four borrowers, meaning that their actions appeared strongly linked to the subsequent deaths, according to their investigation.
The AP obtained a four-page section of the Glocal report that deals with the SKS case studies. It related the financial history of borrowers, the loans obtained, the nature of pressure or harassment for repayment and the microfinance company involved. Venkateswarlu verified that it was the material he presented to Akula and Rao.
“They said they'd look into the issue and take some appropriate action,'' Venkateswarlu said.
SKS sent internal audit teams to the field. Their reports exonerated the company.
Unable to reconcile the two sets of findings, SKS hired Guardian's Human & Civil Rights Forum and Third Eye, a private investigative agency, to do a more thorough, independent inquiry, according to Ramesh Vautrey, head of administration at SKS, who oversaw the investigation, and Rajender Khanna, the president of Guardian's.
A Jan. 17, 2011, letter from SKS, signed and stamped by Vautrey, asked Khanna to “carry out a fact finding enquiry on the causes of suicide and complicity of our field staffs without any prejudice,'' according to a copy of the letter obtained by AP. The AP was shown invoice numbers for SKS payments to Third Eye and emails indicating the findings were sent to top management.
P.H. Ravikumar, who became interim chairman of the SKS board last November, said neither management nor the board authorized an independent inquiry into borrower deaths.
“Our enquiries from 2009 to 2011 have revealed that neither SKS nor its employees have been the cause for any of the suicides in the state of Andhra Pradesh,'' the company said in a statement. The company also said SKS employees have been acquitted in two borrower suicide cases in Andhra Pradesh and that only one criminal case remains outstanding.
Khanna sent teams to speak with families of the dead, village leaders, neighbors and loan agents, videotaping the interviews. Their report said SKS employees bore direct or indirect responsibility for at least seven suicides, including two that overlapped with the Glocal findings.
The interview videos were shown to the AP by Uma Maheshwari, who said she was present during one set of recordings and visited several of the families personally. She left SKS in July.
In one video, the daughter of borrower Dhake Lakshmi Rajyam cries, gasping as she talks to an investigator in Tadepalligudem, Andhra Pradesh.
Rajyam was unable to pay off $2,400 owed to eight different companies. Employees of microfinance companies, including SKS, urged other borrowers to seize the family's chairs, utensils and wardrobe and pawn them to make loan payments, her family told investigators. Unable to bear the insults and pressure of the crowd of borrowers who sat outside her home for hours to shame her, Rajyam drank pesticide on Sept. 16, 2010, and died, the family says.
“We have lost my mother,'' her daughter says. “Nobody will support us.''
The investigator's conclusions lay the blame on SKS employees, saying they failed to comply with company policies “and even basic moral rights.''
Vautrey said he sent the case studies to three top managers, including Rao. Emails obtained by AP indicate that summary reports were emailed to the managers.
Rao did not respond to multiple requests from AP seeking comment.
Vautrey went to Akula's office one night and told him what they were doing was bad karma.
“I don't want to be part of a team abetting suicides,'' Vautrey said in an interview. “It is systemic failure. We have no right to kill anybody for our own business. Let's close down our business if we can't do it right.''
Shift in values and incentives
A profound shift in values and incentives at SKS began in 2008.
In October, Boston-based Sandstone Capital, now SKS' largest investor, made a major investment. It joined U.S. private equity firm Sequoia Capital, which funded Google and Apple and is SKS' largest shareholder, on the board of directors.
Akula, who had been chief executive in the company's early days, stepped down in December 2008 but stayed on as chairman. The company brought in new top executives from the worlds of finance and insurance.
SKS also began transferring more loans off its books, selling highly rated pools of loans to banks, which then assumed most of the associated risk of borrower default. That freed SKS to push out more and bigger loans.
In December 2009, SKS launched a massive sales drive. The “Incentives Galore'' program ran through February 2010 - just one month before the company filed its IPO prospectus.
Agents won prizes worth up to 10 times their average monthly salary for signing huge numbers of new borrowers. Vautrey said he coordinated the shipment of 8,800 televisions, refrigerators, gold coins, mixers, washing machines and DVDs as rewards for more than 3,000 districts nationwide.
One loan officer signed up 273 groups in a month. Under training protocols, the ideal number of groups formed per month is 12, the maximum is 36, according to field agents and reports written by Akula.
“The focus is only on targets,'' Ramulu Sirgapur, who spent a decade at SKS before he left in December, told AP. “Even if we've given feedback, there might be recovery or repayment issues. That's OK. Just concentrate on growth.''
The result: Management had a great set of numbers to show investors as it shopped the IPO. In a month, SKS could add 400,000 borrowers and 100 branches, and train more than 1,000 new loan officers. SKS had 6.8 million borrowers and had disbursed $3.2 billion in loans. India was pimpled with SKS branches, which bloomed in nearly 100,000 villages.
SKS said it was the fastest growing microfinance company in the world.
But basic principles of lending were overlooked, according to interviews with current and former employees, as well as correspondence and internal PowerPoint presentations by Akula.
Six current and former SKS staffers with experience in the field told the AP they no longer had time to check a borrower's assets or follow up and make sure a loan was put to productive use. They said that they were pressured to push more debt onto people than they could handle and that the number of days devoted to borrower training was cut in half.
“You have a (borrower group), and a loan officer goes out and trains them, educates them, then they give the loan. That's the SKS I'd seen in 1999. That was the whole model on which microfinance is supposed to work. In the quest for growth, a lot of these things got neglected,'' said Ankur Sarin, director of the SKS trusts, which are the fourth largest shareholder in the company and tasked with looking out for borrower interests.
As the relationships between heavily indebted borrowers and loan agents broke down, it became harder to collect.
Frustrated agents began working together and going door to door to collect, rather than taking payments only in public - a company rule designed to limit coercion. They began using other borrowers to pressure defaulters into repaying.
“The growth was very rapid. That growth led to some suboptimal outcomes,'' said Ashish Lakhanpal, managing director of Kismet Capital, one of SKS's largest shareholders, who was on the SKS board until October 2010. “Were there lapses? Absolutely.''
While the board was concerned about fast credit growth, the company never believed it was harming borrowers, Lakhanpal said.
“Mistakes were made, but I find it difficult to believe there was anything people did at a managerial level to encourage field officers to do that,'' he said.
In spring 2011, Akula began circulating a plan to spend $10 million to train financial counselors who would make sure clients weren't getting into too much debt and used their loans productively, according to Sarin, Vautrey and others with firsthand knowledge of the proposal.
The plan was never adopted.
Publicly, Akula continued to deny that SKS bore any responsibility for suicides. “Whatever happened was due to external factors and was not reflective of any fundamental flaw in our model,'' he told India's Business Today.
Privately, Akula prepared a 55-page presentation for the board that detailed the seven suicides that SKS' outside investigation had blamed on the company. The presentation showed how the pre-IPO push for growth led to a systemic breakdown, and again urged core reforms to restore training and lending discipline.
Board members received copies of Akula's presentation at a July 26, 2011, meeting, said a former employee who helped prepare the material and spoke anonymously for fear of retribution.
The minutes of the meeting, however, make no mention of the report.
“As per my notes, this was not part of the board proceedings,'' company secretary Sudershan Pallap wrote in a Sept. 26 email to Akula, who had complained of the omission.
Ravikumar, who would become interim chairman when Akula resigned, said the board was never informed that SKS employees were implicated in any suicides, and denied Akula presented any such findings to the board.
“There was no presentation from Vikram Akula at that board meeting. This will be reflected in the minutes, as signed by Vikram Akula,'' he said.
Ravikumar said the board reviewed reports from the Microfinance Institutions Network, but none of them implicated SKS employees.
Akula continued to complain to the board that his presentation had been ignored. He summarized his concerns about the company's direction in emails, obtained by the AP, to seven board members, including Sequoia's Sumir Chadha, Sandstone's Paresh Patel and three independent directors: Ravikumar, Harvard's Tarun Khanna, and Pramod Bhasin, the former chief executive of Genpact.
Chadha, Patel and Khanna did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Ravikumar declined to comment on what he said was personal correspondence.
Bhasin said reports claiming SKS bore responsibility for borrower suicides were “unsubstantiated.''
“Any issues raised to the Board at various times were fully investigated by external parties and found to be unsubstantiated or without evidence or actions were taken on them where appropriate,'' he wrote in an email.
Rancor within the company was intensifying. Board members felt Akula was suffering from a bad case of “founder's syndrome,'' that he couldn't stand to share power at a company that had become too big for him to run.
Finally, on Nov. 23, 2011, Akula resigned.
Vautrey said he was targeted, and SKS began termination proceedings against him on Feb. 6. Three members of his staff have been fired and have filed wrongful termination complaints with the state.
On Feb. 6, SKS also sold 2.43 billion rupees ($49 million) in securitized loans. The stock price surged 10 percent. Top executives have been on the road, hoping to raise 5 billion rupees ($100 million) from international investors.
Sai, the company spokesman, said SKS has hired an ombudsman, is spending $3 million to improve its customer grievance program and has revamped training to ensure that employees comply with current regulations and do not lend to over-indebted borrowers. He said the company would like to reorganize incentives to maintain rapid growth while ensuring loan quality. Those changes have yet to be implemented, he said.