DUBAI// Indian families struggling financially have been urged not to fall prey to ruthless loan sharks known as the blade mafia.
The illegal moneylending gangs demand signed blank cheques and hold passports as security for loans. They earned the name "blade" because of their cut-throat interest rates and sometimes violent recovery methods.
Welfare groups, social workers and community organisations are issuing warnings about the threat on regional radio stations and at social gatherings.
"We get several calls every day from people who have borrowed money and given documents," said AMM Nooruddin, former general secretary of the Ras Al Khaimah Indian Association.
"We are asking people not to give their passports. We ask them not to give signed, blank cheques or signed blank sheets in exchange for loans."
The warnings come after a spate of suicides in the Indian community, culminating in the deaths two weeks ago of a family of three.
The bodies of Anil Kumar, 44, his wife Sreeja, 31, and their daughter Anushree, 8, were found hanged in their home in Ras Al Khaimah. Mrs Kumar was six months pregnant.
Police believe financial problems were at the root of the tragedy. Mr Kumar's passport was found in their apartment, but those of his wife and daughter are thought to be in the hands of moneylenders. The police investigation is continuing.
The Kerala Samajam, a welfare organisation, is also trying to establish the exact nature of the family's financial problems, and to trace the passports. The Kumars had sold their property in India and were running a trailer business in RAK.
So far this year 67 Indian expatriates, almost two a week, have taken their own lives, more than 50 of them in Dubai and the Northern Emirates.
The Indian consul general, Sanjay Verma, said a study of the 110 suicide cases last year indicated that most involved middle-class men in white-collar jobs.
He blamed psychological, financial and other factors. "If there was engagement with the community, they [the Kumar family] could have changed their minds," he said.
The Kerala Samajam set up a hotline last week after the tragedy. The welfare organisation will collect data on the callers and their problems and forward them to the Indian consulate.
"We want to find out what problems they are facing," said AK Sethunath, the organisation's president.
The Indian Association held a public meeting on the issue in RAK during the Indian festival of Onam last weekend. More such meetings are planned for the end of the month.
The Indian consulate announced yesterday that expatriates who ask for passport services will have flyers inserted in their passports giving the helpline number of the Indian Workers Resource Centre (800-INDIA), the consulate and embassy contact numbers.
The consulate has also urged residents to look out for each other. On its Facebook page, it says: "We take this opportunity to advise the Indian community to be alert to any signs of depression, low esteem, excessively pessimistic behaviour in friends and acquaintances, and consider these as a message seeking support and assurances."
Mr Nooruddin said the RAK Indian Association had helped several debtors by brokering a settlement with the moneylenders. "We ask them for all their [lender's] details and get in touch with them," he said.
Welfare groups say moneylenders and their victims belong to all income groups. "Even in labour camps, there will be people who will be lending," said KV Shamshudeen, chairman of the Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust, a social organisation.
"There are rich and middle-class lenders and borrowers. It usually spreads by word of mouth."
Since the recent suicides, Mr Shamshudeen has been urging listeners on his weekly radio show to avoid loans and live within their means. He is also raising awareness about moneylending gangs.
"Extravagance is the root cause for such problems. People should think about their ability to repay before taking a loan, and must realise the danger of taking from illegal lenders," he said.
* The Kerala Samajam hotline is 050 960 7172