Saleha Begum passed away on 19 June 2021. Two years later, on 10 August, her husband Foyez Ullah received two separate notices from a local branch of Janata Bank, asking both to pay a debt of Tk1,50,000 each.
Foyez Ullah, a resident of Mandaritola village under the Barabkunda union of Sitakunda, Chattogram, had no understanding of the situation, as neither he nor his late wife had ever applied for, let alone taken any loans.
Upon receiving the notices, Foyez hurried to Janata Bank's Barabkunda branch, where officials informed him that his wife had defaulted on three loans amounting to Tk4.2 lakh, all of which were acquired in 2021.
Two of these loans were for agriculture and livestock rearing, while the third was related to a Covid stimulus package.
Foyez discovered that two accounts had been opened in his wife's name, with transactions recorded until 15 September 2022, some 15 months after her death. Cash had been deposited as loan instalments into these accounts.
A farmer by profession, Foyez had also defaulted on three similar loan packages worth Tk4.20 lakh, the same amount his wife had borrowed, according to the bank documents.
It wasn't just Foyez who was affected.
At least 33 individuals from the same village received similar notices, demanding repayment for defaulted loans. All of them belonged to marginalised groups – farmers, day labourers, or housewives of day labourers – and had never applied for loans from the bank.
There was a common thread among these cases – a villager named Ahmedur Rahman appeared as the guarantor for all these borrowers, including Foyez, as indicated in the loan documents.
Talking to The Business Standard, 14 of the villagers who received the notices complained that Ahmedur Rahman had taken them to the bank to help them secure a Covid grant of Tk1,000 each. To receive it, they had to open accounts.
Foyez, however, said Ahmedur Rahman had requested him and his wife to become guarantors for a loan, and the couple had merely signed some papers.
Another couple, Imam Hossain and Nasrin Akhter, also discovered that they have six such loans in their name. Moreover, cash deposits were made to their bank accounts as loan instalments but they know nothing about it.
Imam told TBS, "Ahmedur Rahman brought us to the bank for receiving a Covid grant of Tk1,000. The bank officials and Rahman told us to open bank accounts for receiving the grant of Tk1000."
Karim Uddin, a 35-year-old day labourer, said after receiving the notice he was at a loss. However, he, his wife and mother are a little bit lucky as there is only a loan against each of them.
According to the papers, the bank issued the loans to Karim Uddin and his mother in June 2021, and his wife a month later.
"When I asked the bank officials why we needed to open a bank account to receive government grants, they said it was for transparency," said Karim.
Rehana Begum, another notice recipient, said, "They also had to put signatures on blank cheques as the officials said the government would deposit Tk1,000 to the accounts for us. We are now in fear of getting into legal trouble."
According to the notices served to the Mandaritola villagers, all the loans were disbursed between March and November 2021.
In these notices signed by the manager of that branch, Mitton Ghosh, it was warned that legal actions will be taken if the borrowers fail to pay the entire amount of the loan with interest within the next 15 days.
Even though the bank contacted the borrower several times in person and on the phone, the person did not pay the loan amount, according to the notice. "If the loan is not paid within the next 15 working days, legal action will be taken against him."
Persons behind all this
During the Covid pandemic, when many villagers lost their jobs or income source, Ahmedur Rahman brought them to the bank under the pretext of helping them secure Covid grants.
Rahman, a fellow resident of the same village who owned a shop at Barabkunda Bazar, introduced all these individuals to the bank officials, as stated by the current Bank manager, Mitton Ghosh.
The manager at that time, Imtiazul Alam, who is now stationed at the Laldighi branch, along with senior officer Mohammad Abdullah, played a role in facilitating the loan issuance, as reported by Mitton Ghosh.
On Tuesday, asked about the process of the loan disbursement and issuance, Imtiazul Alam, said, "We were not benefited from Ahmedur Rahman. He used to send his relatives to the bank. Based on his words, we issued loans against their names. Now we understand that he deceived them in the name of grants."
Questioned if rules were violated while disbursing the loans, Imtiazul Alam admitted that there were "some gaps in the process".
He further said, "As these loan interests were around 4%, Rahman might have gained. We believed him as he had a good amount of FDR at the bank. He assured us he will settle all the defaulted loans on Thursday."
Mitton Ghosh, the current manager, yesterday said nothing was settled yet.
Senior officer Mohammad Abdullah only said Ahmedur Rahman is the guarantor for all these loans and he knows everything.
Meanwhile, upon receiving notices, the villagers have been gathering at Rahman's house every day to inquire about the loans. But the man is refusing to take any responsibility and puts the blame on the bank.
"I did not take any money from the borrowers. I have signed the papers as a grantor as the bank requested me because these people were from my village. The bank is responsible for it. The villagers took the loans and did not pay the instalments. Now they are lying," added Rahman.
Getting no remedy from Rahman, the villagers went to the police and local representatives who have been trying to settle the matter.
Talking to TBS, local Union Parishad member Jalal Ullah said, "When I received some complaints from farmers, I asked the manager why they disbursed loans without any verification, but the bank was unable to provide proper answers," he added.
"Only bank officials know how the loans were issued. Sometimes, the bank verifies the address of their customers with us to see if they live in our area or not."
Union Parishad Chairman Sadakatullah Miazai thinks there was a nexus between bank officials and Ahmedur Rahman. "We have received at least 50 such complaints in my area."
Police also said they have found 50-55 people fell victim to dubious loans under this branch.
"We have received several complaints and initiated an investigation. All of them told us they did not take any loans from the bank. In our primary investigation, we also found their claim true," Tofail Ahmed, Officer-in-charge of Sitakunda Police Station told TBS.
What the bank says now
Mitton Ghosh, manager of Janata Bank Barabkunda branch, told TBS, "We have all the necessary documents including the recommendations of the local union parishad members. And the borrowers themselves withdrew money from their accounts."
Ahmedur Rahman, a regular customer of the bank, has introduced a number of borrowers to the bank, he said.
"The borrowers might have invested the money with Ahmedur Rahman after taking the loan but now they are blaming the bank when they were served notices," he added.
"I was not in charge when the loans were disbursed. Though all the documents are in place, there might be some lapses in monitoring loans."
Nurul Alam, deputy general manager of Janata Bank for Chattogram region, could not be reached despite numerous attempts for a week. On Tuesday he picked up the phone but hung up after learning the reporter's identity.
He apparently blocked this reporter's phone number following another round of attempts to reach him through calls, SMS messages and WhatsApp messages.