By Rajeev Sharma
Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus has been ordered to step down as head of the microfinance Grameen Bank he founded, following a long-running dispute with the government. The 70-year-old was ordered out by Bangladesh’s central bank saying that he violated the country’s retirement laws by staying on past the mandatory retirement age of 60. His removal has been disputed by the Grameen Bank saying that it was taking legal steps so that Professor Yunus remains at the helm. Yunus has been locked in a dispute with the government since November last year when a Norwegian documentary claimed he had misused aid funds from the Norwegian government and diverted $100 million from Grameen Bank to an NGO Grameen Kalyan which was not related to microcredit.
The euphoria generated by the media after Yunus won the Nobel Prize got dissipated following reports appearing in a section of press highlighting high interest rates charged by the Grameen Bank, tough payment schedules and inhuman recovery methods leading to miseries including suicides committed by the poor loan defaulters.
The international community has long been made to believe that Yunus was lending money to rural poor people in Bangladesh, especially women, at a very comfortable and low interest. In fact, Grameen Bank has been receiving grants and loans from various international agencies on a regular basis for this purpose. The highest amount of annual interest on any foreign loan that Grameen Bank receives is 3 percent. Moreover, a major segment of the foreign loans or grants received by it are absolutely free of interest. But, Yunus is lending money to poor people at a rate ranging between 40-70 percent per year. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has already termed Yunus as ‘bloodsucker of the poor’.
This bloodsucking show was revealed when the ’Weekly Blitz’, published a series of investigative reports on Yunus. A reporter Zahid Al Amin of the weekly visited the village Jobra near Chittagong. Jobra is claimed to be the model of ‘success story’ of Yunus and his Grameen Bank. He interacted with the villagers and collected information as well photographs, to verify the truth in what Yunus and his Grameen Bank were claiming as their success.
Yunus displayed a documentary on a woman’s fortune at the Nobel Prize awarding ceremony in Oslo, Norway, on October 13, 2006, putting up the success story of Grameen Bank. The documentary mainly focused on the first borrower of Grameen Bank, Sufia, showing her as owning a two storey building after rising from a miserable condition.
Though Yunus and Grameen Bank claimed to have helped Sufia in erecting her own building, in reality, she used to live in an almost broken hut, where her family members are living even now. The house, which is shown by Yunus and Grameen Bank as Sufia’s in the documentary is actually owned by one Jabel Hussain who lives in Dubai. The owner Jabel Hussain has, from Dubai, instructed his relatives in Bangladesh to sue Yunus and Grameen bank if his two storey house is again shown as Sufia’s in future. There had never been any response or comment or statement from Yunus and his Grameen Bank though the widely read ‘Weekly Blitz’ published series of reports about Sufia and ownership of the two storey house.
Nurunnahar, the youngest daughter of Sufia, told the media in 2010 that though Yunus earned name and fame worldwide, her mother being the first borrower of his micro-credit scheme could not change her life and had to lead a miserable life. She said her mother took loan to start a cane business but found her trapped in a vicious circle of loan and interest. Later, she was compelled to take loan from different sources to repay Grameen Bank. Investigative and award-winning Danish documentary film maker Tom Heinemann’s documentary titled “Caught in Micro debt’ released in last November also dug out the harsh reality Sufia met. Sufia’s daughters Halima and Nurunnahar said that they were left absolutely pauper and have to beg for survival. On investigation, it was found that when Sufia died due to extreme poverty the local people had to collect donations for her burial.
The story of Sufia reads like this. Yunus gave TK. 20 to Sufia Begum of Jobra village years back as loan with the condition of returning in time with interest. Sufia returned that money and got second loan of Tk. 500 from Yunus. She was so excited that she spread the news in the entire village. This was the beginning of Grammen Bank concept. But, most of the borrowers, who took money from Yunus, gradually turned from poor to poorest as they were compelled to pay regular interests at high rate. In Jobra village alone, a large number of villagers have already been turned into paupers by Yunus and his Grameen Bank.
Yunus and his Grameen Bank projected Jobra village and Sufia as example of their excellent success stories to the international audience. Through such campaign, Yunus has attained tremendous attention of the international community. He has gained fame in the world as ‘pioneer’ of micro credit, for which he got Nobel Peace prize in 2006. The name of Sufia, the first borrower of loan from Yunus’s Grameen Bank, has already crossed international boundaries of many countries, as Grameen Bank proudly pronounced her name as one of the brilliant success stories of their so called micro-credit loans. It is beyond knowledge of many that, almost one decade back, Sufia died due to extreme poverty and lack of any minimum medical treatment.
The weekly Blitz also reported that Yunus took former US first lady (now Secretary of State), Hillary Clinton at Grameen Bank’s project situated at Rishi Palli at Moshihati in Bangladesh, where Yunus initiated a project named ‘Hillary Adarsha’ (Hillary Model) and started distributing loans to the locals. Although Hillary Clinton was deeply impressed and given assurance of providing soft-term loan to the poor villagers, in reality, the villagers were made to pay 30-40 per cent interest. After the visit of Hillary Clinton, the entire village turned into a land of horror. Extreme poverty due to high interest charged by the Grameen Bank pushed them towards starvation, poverty and compelling many of them to commit suicide. Child marriage is very common in that village. A large number of females from the village ended up in local and neighboring brothels, as they were virtually sold by parents due to poverty. Now, Hillary Model village has turned into a big joke to the locals. But Yunus has been successful in tactfully suppressing this fact from the attention of Hillary Clinton.
Uday Kumar Barua, a resident of Jobra village told ‘Weekly 2000’ that, even a single person in the Jobra village has not benefited by Yunus. Most of the borrowers turned completely pauper and they even had to sell their homes for paying the loan interest and left the village. Many of them even ended up as beggars. Even after being sacked from his position in the Grameen Bank, Yunus continues to keep virtual ownership of Grameen Bank and the entire fifty five sister enterprises established under this umbrella, such as Grameen Phone and Grameen Kalyan.
Following forced removal from the position of Deputy Managing Director of Grameen Bank, Dipal Chandra Barua, who was associated with the organization since its inception told the press that Yunus does not want anyone to rise to the top position of the bank, as he loves to maintain this organization as a mere one-man-show. On the other hand, Prof Shahduzzaman of International Relations, Dhaka University, said that the western countries established Yunus as an ethical pillar of capitalism, adding that the world capitalism, especially the US, gave capitalism a human face through Yunus’s Grameen Bank (GB) model.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])