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People of Bharat: Roshni

At first Roshni appears to be shy and reticent but as the interview progresses, she opens up about herself. I met her one afternoon at the company she currently works for. Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic there was hardly anyone at the workplace with most of them choosing to work from home. Roshni comes in a couple of times a week — to sort out paperwork and organize the remaining work. Comfortably seated in one of the meeting rooms, we start talking.

I learn that Roshni is a young woman of 25 who has shouldered responsibilities far beyond her age. Dressed in jeans and a short kurta (long sleeved shirt) she comes across as a confident, young woman. Her family hails from a small village near Shimoga in Karnataka where she lived until the age of 12. Her father worked as a truck driver and her mother worked as a farm laborer on hire. Roshni is the youngest of the three, and has an older sister and brother. Childhood memories are etched with the financial anxieties for Roshni. ‘Those days were hard. There was never enough money. My sister had to drop out of school after her 10th standard in order to support the family. My brother too discontinued his education and started accompanying my father as a truck driver’s assistant. I was the only one to complete my graduation,’ she says.

Roshni was 12 when her family moved to Bengaluru in search of better financial opportunities. Her siblings had dropped out of school and had started working to support the family. As far as Roshni can remember, her family has always been in debt — struggling to clear several of them till this date. She recalls some bright days as well: ‘I studied in an all- girls’ school for my 11th and 12th standard. And I remember those days as being the most carefree and happy days of my life,’ she says. Her eyes light up when she recalls her month-long trip to Delhi. She was selected to perform at the Republic Day event and her group won the first prize in a dance competition. ‘I will always cherish that memory,’ she adds. Soon after that she went on to complete her B.Com with reasonably good marks.

When Roshni finished her graduation nobody in the family had a job. Her sister had recently married, with her family accumulating a debt of Rs. 4 lakh after the wedding. Soon after, both her brother and father lost their jobs. Straight out of college Roshni stepped up to shoulder the financial burdens of her family. In 2017, with the help of a friend she secured a job as an accountant at an interior decorating firm. The salary was Rs. 10,000 which was not enough to support the household expenses and Roshni applied for her first loan of Rs. 1 lakh from a non-bank financial institution giving personal loans at 23% interest per annum. The family managed to survive only by adding one more debt to their ledgers.

They say bad things happen in threes. Within a year of the wedding, her sister’s husband passed away. Distraught with shock and grief her pregnant sister suffered a miscarriage leading to hospitalisation and a host of medical complications. Roshni did only what she knew — took another loan of Rs. 70,000 towards medical expenses for her sister. Strapped with two Equated Monthly Installments (EMIs) Roshni applied for a credit card. With time she discovered she needed to repay the credit card debt. The harassment from the credit card company prompted Roshni to borrow money from her employer, family and friends. During this time, she stopped paying other EMI’s and the financial pressures mounted. The most severe blow was when the company Roshni was working for, started incurring losses and could no longer pay her full salary. The company started delaying her salary and after aggressive confrontations with the management for her salary, she quit her job in July 2019.

The path to finding work was not easy. ‘Yakaap badukabeku anusthaithu madam (The worst phase of my life started after I quit my job. I felt life was not worth living)’ she says. ‘From July to November I attended interviews every single day. Nothing worked out. I used to walk long distances for the interviews; several times I would sit for a whole day waiting for the interview to take place and even after that I did not land the job.’ When Roshni was about to give up, she managed to land a job as a process executive at her current place of employment for Rs. 16,000 a month.

Things immediately started looking up since Roshni landed a job. She is now happily settled into her job and has started paying off their debt. Roshni gives Rs. 15,000 of her earnings to her mother to make payments towards their debts and retains Rs.1000 for commuting expenses. The household spends Rs. 12,000 on rent and Rs. 25,000 is paid to various creditors. Roshni does not know the exact amount of loan or details of the family’s creditors. She only understands that the total amount to be repaid is Rs. 5 lakhs. ‘What about saving towards your marriage or other goals?’ I ask her. She tells me her brother decided to become a cab driver and recently bought his own car. This has added to yet another loan. She does not wish to get married till her family is debt-free. Roshni owns a smartphone and uses it to make money transfers via NEFT (National Electronics Funds Transfer), IMPS (Immediate Payment Service) and payments via Google Pay.

When the lockdown was announced in Bengaluru, Roshni became anxious about her job. ‘Nanna kelasa mathe hogbidutheno antha nange thumane bhaya aaythu’ (I was terrified about losing my job again) she said, but she soon received assurance from her employer that her job was safe. She also received full salary for the period of the 60-day lockdown. The continued salary came as a relief since her father and brother were unable to work during the lockdown. The lockdown brought another sort of relief too. Her family was able to find a match for her widowed sister and a quiet wedding ensued with minimal expenses.

Roshni feels blessed to have a good family. ‘There is love and respect amongst us and my parents always make sure they consult us before any decision is taken’. Although there is pressure on her to get married she is determined to stay single till she can ease her parent’s situation. ‘My parents come first. They have had an extremely difficult life and I want them to relish some happiness. I can think of my dreams only after I have made my parents comfortable,’ she adds. Roshni wants to own a car someday since she is fond of travelling. ‘We manage to take small trips with family and friends within Karnataka, but it is my dream to visit Paris someday,’ she shares. She also wants to buy some land for her parents who have never even dreamed of owning a house.

I ask Roshni to list three of her financial challenges. ‘Nanna mooru dodda samasyegalu…. Saala, saala, saala (Debt, debt, debt),’ she emphasises. Roshni hopes to clear her family’s debts and then start building a corpus of savings through chit funds.

Roshni’s story is a reflection of the overriding effects of debt that beset millions of families in India and — the role young, educated women are playing in the financial decisions of their households.

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