|Needless Hunger - Voices from a Bangladesh Village (FF, 1982, 74 p.)|
|The making of hunger|
|3. Who owns the land|
Shaha Paikur lives with his four wives in a cement house in Dosutari, a village adjoining Katni. He is typical of the local merchants, for he is also a landlord and moneylender. He deals in jute, rice and mustard seed, and his warehouse is large enough to hold the produce of many local peasants as well as that of his own extensive landholdings. When he sells his jute, a caravan of 50 oxcarts carries it to town. Villagers often speculate about his riches, and some claim he buries gold in his courtyard.
Shaha Paikur's moneylending has earned him an unsavory reputation. "He began life with nothing but a sharp eye," recalls our neighbor Aktar Ali. "First he married an orphan girl who had some land, and then he worked himself up by moneylending, charging interest rates so high that borrowers could seldom pay him back. When we first came here, he took some of our land too. Now we have learned never to borrow from him; when in need, we borrow from our relatives.
"Shaha is clever, though. When a man falls on hard times, Shaha offers money. He acts so friendly, 'You have no rice? You have no clothes? Here, take this! You can pay me back at harvest time.'
"Men are weak. They know they shouldn't take his money, but they think: 'Let me eat today. Let the future bring what it may.' At harvest time Shaha is back, demanding payment in rice at half the market rate. When a man cannot repay, Shaha takes his land-he never lends money to a landless man.
"Our Koran tells us that moneylending is a great sin. In Allah's eyes, taking interest is as evil as murder. Let me tell you a story to prove it. Last year, when caterpillars attacked my rice crop, I tried all kinds of chemical sprays with no effect. Finally someone suggested the old method of writing a moneylender's name on pieces of paper and tying them to stakes at three corners of the field. You leave one corner open so the insects can escape. I wrote Shaha Paikur's name, tied it to the stakes, and in two days those caterpillars were gone! That is how much Allah despises the moneylender-even pests flee his name!"
Today the villagers are wary of Shaha Paikur's advances, and turn to him for money only in desperation. But Shaha has found other avenues to expand his fortune. He is now the biggest landlord in Dosutari, with holdings scattered in neighboring villages. At harvest time his agents ply the local markets and his warehouse fills. When the price is right an oxcart caravan takes his goods to town. He sells jute to the government and to bigger merchants, rice to the grain dealers in the nearest town, and mustard seed to a company which presses it for oil. With his profits he buys more land.
Although trade is not as morally repugnant as moneylending, many villagers resent Shaha Paikur as much for his merchant activities as for his usury. "I grow the jute in Shaha's warehouse," said one middle peasant. "Without me, where would he be? What do I get for my labor? Worn hands, aching muscles, and just enough to eat so that I can live to work another day. Meanwhile Shaha sits and eats, and counts his taka."