It was 5 o’ clock in the evening when the soothing sound of a conch shell was drowned by the irreconcilable wail of her mother, along with many women from the village, when they suddenly learnt how their life’s savings had been duped.
Recollections of that incident still sends a chill down her spine, says Chobi Hembram (29) hailing from a remote village of Shantiniketan in West Bengal. Most poor households of the village have been saving their hard-earned earnings in banned chit funds like Sharadha, with little knowledge of the Ponzi scheme.
The scam that duped millions of low-income naive depositors led to a series of suicides. Hembram recalls how her mother was blind to the sugar-coated assuring words of an agent and ended up losing Rs 2 lakh.
“It started when my neighbour cheerfully announced how she was investing in an LIC product and was reaping great rewards,” recalls Hembram. The agents, she says, visit the village more often to cajole them to buy an LIC policy with tall promises and very little explanations. Moreover hailing from an extreme remote village, not well connected to the city, gaining financial literacy is a far-fetched dream. “We can’t even afford to dream about primary literacy,” she complains. From LIC, it was a short route to frauds.
Hembram was the first woman from her village to break the barriers and storm out to land in the glitz of city life, despite all odds and threats. “I got threats when I tried to step outside our community. My mother stayed awake the entire night, awash in tears and pleaded with me to not take a step that is not a part of our norm... But I knew I had to build something of my own, as our finances were in doldrums—buried under the scam. We fear and we trust too easily.”
The villagers, she complains, fail to understand that insurance is not an investment vehicle. They continue to trust dubious agents. “We don’t even understand what is written on the receipt these agents give us.”
Commenting on the classic case of mis-selling and lack of knowledge, Uma S Chander, Certified Financial Planner and Founder, Handholding Financials, says, “Women need to understand savings, investment and insurance.”
Hembram has learnt about the role of insurance policies and that the agent’s commissions can vary with different policies. She gained knowledge on savings and investment while working as a domestic help in Kolkata.
Commenting on poor financial awareness among women, Hina Shah, Certified Financial Planner and Coach Luhem, says, “When it comes to financial awareness, it is missing among the urban population as well.”
Listing down a few points on awareness, Shah says, “When you are presented with an opportunity for investment or products, be vigilant about it, and ask questions about the suitability of the product, company’s history and additional review, and qualification of the seller.”
Hembram aims to apply a few lessons to empower her community, especially women, who live under fear of financial exploitation, and are never given a chance to raise a question.