A Death In Hazaribagh Brings Back The Curse Of The Recovery Agent

A woman's death during repossession of a tractor by M&M Financial has brought back the spectre of rogue recovery agent.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A botched repossession exercise by Mahindra &amp; Mahindra Financial Services' agents led to the death of a pregnant woman in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. (Source: BQ Prime)</p></div>
A botched repossession exercise by Mahindra & Mahindra Financial Services' agents led to the death of a pregnant woman in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. (Source: BQ Prime)

The rogue loan recovery agent is back in the public eye after a pregnant woman was allegedly killed in Jharkhand last week. In the middle of the controversy is vehicle financier Mahindra & Mahindra Financial Services Ltd., which faced regulatory action as the men were its representatives.

The Reserve Bank of India on Thursday asked the company to immediately stop all recovery and repossession activities through third-party arrangements, until further orders. The company is, however, allowed to conduct recovery and repossession through its own employees.

"This action is based on certain material supervisory concerns observed in the said NBFC, with regard to the management of its outsourcing activities," the RBI said.

While Mahindra & Mahindra Financial has claimed that the order will not have any material impact on its business, it did say that the number of vehicles it will repossess will go down sharply in the short term.

According to information disclosed to exchanges, Mahindra & Mahindra Financial typically repossesses 4,000-5,000 vehicles each month, which may fall by 3,000-4,000 temporarily due to the order.

What Happened To Mahindra Finance?

Over the years, especially during Covid-19, Mahindra & Mahindra Financial has seen volatility in its bad loans. Since the company largely finances vehicles used in rural areas, any volatility in the economy immediately reflects on its balance sheet.

Loans advanced to buy commercial vehicles and equipment, and taxis have only amplified the volatility.

As of June 30, the gross stage 3 assets, or loans overdue for 90 days or more, stood at 8.03%, higher than 7.66% as of March.

The volatile asset quality means the company has had to rely on recovery and repossession to maintain its financial position.

"We have taken some aggressive stand when it comes to repossessions and disposal of vehicles and that has resulted in a little higher provision on termination that we have done," Ramesh Iyer, managing director, told analysts in July.

In the financial year ended March, the company had repossessed 55,000 vehicles, compared with 38,000 in the previous fiscal, Iyer had told analysts in May.

In the April-June quarter, the company repossessed 12,626 vehicles, it said. The lender puts them up for sale to recover at least a portion of its dues.

It is unlikely the situation will continue for the rest of the year and the company would not be required to take tough repossession measures, Iyer had said. That was in July. It appears that the message did not go down to the company's employees.

The Jharkhand Fallout

The incident last week at a village near Hazaribagh, Jharkhand, is likely to haunt Mahindra & Mahindra Financial for some time.

Four people representing the lender arrived at a borrower's home for repossessing a tractor. In the ensuing ruckus, the borrower's family, including his daughter, tried to obstruct the tractor from moving ahead, a person with direct knowledge of the matter said.

The lender's representatives, however, drove on, running over the woman.

"The victim's family has mentioned in the first information report that an employee of the lender was also present at the scene. So far, in our investigation, we have not been able to find any clear evidence on this issue," Manoj Ratan Chothe, district superintendent of police, told BQ Prime. "We have already arrested one of the four persons involved; we are in the process of locating the other three."

Typically, lenders avail a formal court order before initiating repossession, the person quoted above said. This ensures that lenders can contact state administration before going to attach the asset to avoid situations like the one in Hazaribagh.

"If the agents had approached the police before going to the family, we would have extended some assistance," Chothe said. "The area where this incident took place is prone to law and order issues."

By all means, the recovery agents have indulged in a serious crime, the person quoted above said.

The RBI's supervision division has already taken its initial action. The regulator will conduct a deeper review of the lender's outsourcing policies, a second person with direct knowledge of the matter told BQ Prime.

Over the course of its investigation, the RBI will likely take up enforcement action against Mahindra & Mahindra Financial, the second person said. The regulator has taken serious cognisance of the issue and is unlikely to show any leniency, the person added.

On its part, the company has said that it will review the need for hiring third-party agents in the future.

"In light of the recent tragic incident, we have stopped third-party repossessions and will further examine whether and how third-party agents will be used in the future," Iyer said in a statement on Friday.

Mahindra & Mahindra Financial, however, has not announced an independent audit of its outsourcing policies, yet. That will clarify whether it had done the required due diligence on the third-party recovery agents, before hiring them.

According to Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves, the fault lies not with the "servant" but the "master" in such cases.

"It is Mahindra (& Mahindra Financial) which has instructed its recovery agents to use strong arm tactics when recovering loans," Gonsalves told BQ Prime. "While it is okay to arrest the agent for the crime committed, the master must also be questioned."

Recovery of items like tractors, which directly impact the livelihood of the borrower, cannot be allowed, Gonsalves said. This, according to him, has to be looked at from the point of view of a borrower's fundamental rights.