Bania - Economy

The Banias' relationship with members of other castes is tinged with envy. As moneylenders they provide an essential function, especially for cultivators; but they are seen as ruthless usurers. The cultivators, usually illiterate, rarely get fair treatment from the Banias. They do not understand figures or the result of paying compound interest at 25 or 50 percent. They must have money at planting time and to live on while their crops are growing. The result is that frequently the land, if salable, passes to the Bania, and the borrower declines from landowner to tenant or tenant to day laborer. There are many proverbs, in most Indian languages, warning against the Banias and their cunning. Nevertheless without them the traditional farming economy would be impossible. The Banias are willing to lend on security that is unacceptable to banks, and frequently on none at all. They are willing to wait indefinitely for the repayment of principal, especially if the interest is paid. This means that debts can be postponed in a bad year and repayment accelerated in a good one.

The introduction of cash as the basis of all transactions and the changes in the laws governing the proprietary and transferable rights in land have added tremendously to the Banias' prosperity and to their clients' perception of their rapacity. But in their defense it must be said that although the interest they charge is exorbitant by modern banking Standards, it is merely a carryover from earlier peasant agrarian conditions when the entire transaction was made in grain. A 25-50 percent rate of return in grain does not yield more than a reasonable profit to the lender. But when in recent times cash has been substituted for grain, interest may far outstrip any income that the investment has generated for the borrower. Furthermore, whereas in earlier times a loan of seed was essentially for planting, most of the loans today are consumer loans taken for expenses like dowries and marriage expenses.

Like any commercial class, the Banias had to have a high standard of probity. It was not unusual for people to place their money in a rich Bania's hands for safekeeping. Bankruptcy was considered disgraceful and punished. The duty of paying ancestral debts is taken seriously, since Banias believe that their condition in the next life depends on the discharge of all claims in this one. The Banias are well known for keeping caste funds to which all of them contribute to enable any impoverished member to start afresh. Today the Marwaris are extremely generous in their subscriptions for the maintenance of educational institutions and temples.

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