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Spiralling debts and shame drive dozens of Indians to suicide in UAE

More than 700 Indian expatriates have killed themselves in the past six years, a suicide rate of more than two a week.

It begins, perhaps, with a minor financial misfortune, followed by a small loan to take care of it.

But then comes a larger loan to cover the small one. Soon, the debts have piled up to such an extent that they are insurmountable.

Ruthless moneylenders bang on the door, call constantly on the phone, threaten shame and embarrassment at your workplace. Families back home need their monthly remittance, and failure to provide it is a devastating blow to self worth.

In the end, life just seems not to be worth living. And many can see only one way out.

More than 700 Indian expatriates have killed themselves in the past six years, a suicide rate of more than two a week.

In the first eight months of this year, 59 committed suicide - and even that figure pales into insignificance compared with 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, when 176 Indian expatriates took their own lives.

In part, the figures reflect the UAE's huge expatriate-Indian community. Between 1.75 million and 2 million Indians live and work here. The majority, almost six out of 10, are manual labourers.

Most come looking for a better standard of living, often not for themselves but for their families back home.

For some, though, the hopes of a new life vanish under crippling debts. Often, the cause is poor financial planning and a vicious cycle of borrowing in which debts soar to levels that can never be repaid.

One man who has helped many such cases is KV Shamsudheen, a Sharjah businessman who set up the Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust to help low and middle-income groups manage their finances.

"The problem is, people are not living within their income," says Mr Shamsudheen, who is a familiar face thanks to hundreds of radio and TV appearances to promote financial literacy.

"A person getting Dh500 cannot live as a Dh1,000 income person. He has to control his expenditure within that limit."

While the UAE is regarded among Indians as one of the less expensive places for the quality of life it offers, the cost of living has been rising. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are among the world's 100 most expensive cities, ranked 83rd and 96th respectively by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Among middle-income groups, credit-card debt is a particular problem. Lured by special offers and seemingly low interest rates, many sign up for credit cards without realising what is involved in making monthly payments.

Struggling to meet these payments, some take out new loans or multiple credit cards. And when that route is exhausted, they turn to moneylenders.

The average monthly interest charged by moneylenders is 10 per cent, with passports, labour cards and, sometimes, signed blank cheques taken as collateral.

Humiliation and fear are crucial to keeping borrowers in line. The tactics include menacing phone calls, sending thugs to terrorise family members in India, and the threat of public shaming by showing up at the borrower's home and workplace.

Even so, families back home may know nothing of these problems. A combination of personal shame and a fear of causing needless worry means many expatriate Indians keep their ordeal a secret.

"What I am seeing, the people working here, they never reveal what they are doing to their family back home," says Mr Shamsudheen.

As a result, the families may not realise they need to cut back.

"When somebody is spending money who doesn't know the difficulties of earning money, they won't take care," he says.

"That is the reason I am telling the family back home that you ask the breadwinner what is the financial condition."

Remittances are usually spent within a few days, and Indian families fail to set aside a monthly sum for emergencies or retirement.

When things go wrong, the Indian government can do little to help. MK Lokesh, the Indian ambassador, says his embassy "has no role" if an individual borrows money and cannot pay it back.

"It is essentially between the bank and individual concerned," he says.

Financial help is available though the Indian Community Welfare Fund, established by the Ministry of Indian Affairs in 2011 in 43 countries that have significant Indian expatriate populations.

The fund - raised by fees paid by expatriates for consular services - can help pay for a range of services from initial legal assistance to the repatriation of labourers who have lost their jobs. It also helped to pay for a crematorium in Sharjah that opened recently.

But the ambassador rejects calls for it to be used for personal debts.

"It is generally for the welfare of the community," he says.

There has been no great statistical variation in the number of suicides in the UAE over the years. A detailed report on the possible reasons has never been carried out, but most are attributed to financial difficulties.  

Mr Lokesh says: "We should not go only by statistics in this case. It's a human problem, human tragedy, and we need to tackle it as such."

It is up to the individual to seek help, he says, and for friends and family to watch out for the warning signs of trouble.

Isaac Cherian, a volunteer with the Pravasi Bandhu Welfare trust and a student counsellor at the Higher Colleges of Technology, agrees that friends and family need to be more alert.  

"From my experience nobody tries suicide to die," he says. "It's a call for help. And before the final act, I am sure that most of them would have conveyed the message to some people close to them."

Some people, he says, base their self worth on their role as a breadwinner. "When that collapses there is no answer to say that you need to carry on, you need to live," he says.

The consequences even of an attempted suicide are severe. It is a criminal offence, punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine of Dh5,000.

Many think twice about seeking medical help after trying to kill themselves because doctors who do not report suicide attempts to the police face prosecution.

Alarmed by the number of suicides blamed on financial difficulties, social organisations and private companies have formed their own awareness programmes.

One such initiative was launched by the UAE Exchange last July. Teams of employees in white T-shirts with the words Mission Zero Suicide printed on the back spent six months visiting more than 4,800 labour camps and nearly 400 companies to screen a video raising awareness of the issues surrounding suicide.

"One organisation or one association cannot solve this problem," says Promoth Manghat, the vice president of global operations at UAE Exchange.

"You cannot eliminate this, which is why awareness is critical. Organisations coming together is critical, and financial literacy is also equally important." he says.

Shaima Ahammed, an assistant professor of psychology at UAE University who volunteers at Pravasi Bandhu, says most Indians arrive in the UAE already burdened by social and family pressure to be successful and earn well.

Men in particular find it very difficult to open up about their troubles and are sensitive to hurt pride, she says.

"There is a question about proving their self worth, which is not really a matter of urgency back home. But when you come here, the question is, you prove it or you fail.

"And when you fail, there is no going back home because you go back home as a failure. So the easiest solution is committing suicide rather than saying, 'I am a failure'."

dunnikrishnan@thenational.ae

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