Two companies offered solar panels in instalments to brighten homes in the Haor region, but this gesture darkened the lives of many who find themselves entangled in legal woes, some even jailed or fined.
In the Haor region of Sunamganj's Shalla Upazila, the Grameen Shakti Foundation and the Rahimafrooz Bangladesh Ltd subsidiary Rural Services Foundation have been accused of harassing ordinary citizens through cases leading to arrest warrants, and wrongful imprisonment.
Public representatives expressed concerns about the issue during an Upazila law and order committee meeting.
The two companies started cases against hundreds of villagers, including those from Dumra and Anandpur in Shalla. These cases were based on allegations of not making instalment payments and making threats after buying solar panels.
Additionally, these companies initiated legal action against many villagers who neither purchased the panels nor did they miss instalment payments. In such instances, police arrested these individuals and detained them until they paid fines in court.
In response to these complaints, the two companies and their legal representatives have promised to rectify any mistakes that might have occurred. However, they have not addressed the issue of responsibility for the unjust harassment and imprisonment of individuals who were detained without valid reasons.
While cases have been filed against 415 individuals on behalf of the two companies, the victims claim that warrants have been issued against almost two times that number.
Al-Amin Chowdhury, the chairman of Shalla Upazila Parishad, told bdnews24.com that the two solar power companies are causing distress to the local people.
The Upazila administration has urged them to settle the issues and collect dues from genuine customers, he said.
“We have raised concern in the Upazila administration's law and order committee meeting and the district administration meeting. However, no action has been taken. Many people in the area have been wrongly accused. Innocent individuals are being imprisoned and forced to pay fines."
In some cases, warrants were issued against 200 to 250 customers, and more such cases are likely to follow, said Aminul Islam, the officer-in-charge of Shalla Police Station.
He suggested that there might be even more people accused in these cases since two companies filed them simultaneously.
When asked whether people are enduring harassment, he clarified that when an arrest warrant is issued, authorities take action to apprehend the accused.
Nonetheless, he mentioned that innocent people and victims can lodge complaints.
Md Abu Taleb, the Upazila executive officer, has acknowledged the suffering of innocent people due to legal notices and case warrants related to solar power from these organisations in the past.
On Oct 25, the offices of RSF and Grameen Shakti in Sunamganj’s Mallickpur were found locked. These offices are in a two-room building with a signboard on the gate.
When the reporter called the contact number listed, RSF official Akbar Hossain declined to comment.
Chowdhury Abdullahil Kafi, an official at Rahimafrooz Bangladesh Ltd's Dhaka office, said they have sent legal notices to 4,500 people who owe payments for our solar panels.
About 2,500 have paid their dues, he said.
“We've filed cases against around 300 people, with some warrants issued. But our actions are part of the legal process, and we're not harassing anyone."
Mahbubul Islam Patwari, head of administration at Grameen Shakti Foundation, said that such issues should not happen, and they did not receive complaints.
However, they would investigate and take action if any mistakes were found, he said.
In the Haor region, these two companies began selling solar panels to provide electricity to many remote villages in Shalla before the Power Development Board (PDB) or Bangladesh Rural Electrification Board services were introduced there.
They set up local offices and provided solar panels on instalment plans. This enabled many villagers to access electricity, most acquiring panels from Grameen Shakti and RSF.
Both companies have been selling solar panels, also known as solar home systems, in Shalla since 2006. The prices differ based on the panel's capacity. Customers make an initial payment when purchasing the panel and then pay the remaining amount in instalments over two to three years.
Many people in remote areas purchased solar panels and used them to illuminate their homes without requiring collateral or a national identity card. The instalment payment book provided to customers, as signed by the Grameen Shakti Shalla branch manager, contains customer details such as customer number, name, system capacity, address, and mobile number.
When customers could not pay instalments, the two companies started filing cases against them in the Sunamganj Senior Judicial Magistrate's Court.
Grameen Shakti intended to file cases against 115 individuals, while RSF planned to initiate cases against 300 people.
According to Grameen Shakti's complaint, the defendants were repeatedly asked to make instalments but did not respond or provide the money.
On Feb 23 of this year, these customers did not attend a company meeting as requested.
Furthermore, when contacted, they used inappropriate language to address the company representative, according to the complaint.
It said the villagers skipped another meeting on Jun 26, and together threatened the company representative in various ways.
Dumra village resident Montu Sarkar was recently released after being wrongly imprisoned in a Grameen Shakti case.
"I had no idea what Grameen Shakti was, and I never bought solar panels from any company. But on the night of Oct 4, the police arrested me."
It was later discovered that the arrest warrant was intended for someone named Monthu Sarkar.
When contacted, Monthu confirmed that he had already paid Tk 15,000 in instalments.
Tarun Kanti Das, a resident of Anandpur village and a college teacher, said many people in the area face harassment from the two companies. These cases are related to debts ranging from Tk 4,000 to Tk 16,000.
A few days ago, police mistakenly arrested his nephew Kripendra Chandra Das, 40, due to the similarity with the name of another person.
Kripendra was released after paying a fine of Tk 6,000, said Tarun.
However, when the company realised their mistake, it returned the money under community pressure.
Tarun suspects that a local group might be associated with these companies.
Anwar Hossain, the branch manager of Grameen Shakti and the plaintiff in the case, acknowledged their mistake and the subsequent return of the money.
Kripendra, a street tea vendor for over 20 years, vented frustration. "I've already spent a total of Tk 12000. My reputation has suffered. I seek justice for this."
"I have no funds; otherwise, I would have filed a harassment case against them," he added.
Sujan Chandra Das from the same village had a similar experience.
He was arrested on Oct 4 and later released after paying Tk 4,000 to Grameen Shakti.
Bikas Chakraborty from Anandpur village, like many others in Habibpur and Anandpur villages, still had his name on the arrest warrant despite making RSF instalment payments.
He said, “We are in trouble because the company's field workers haven't deposited the money they collected from customers.”
Ashish Roy, a Shalla Upazila-based businessman at Gungiargaon Bazar, said, "I bought a solar panel for Tk 32,000 a while back. After completing all my instalments, they even gifted me an umbrella. However, I've received a legal notice for the arrears of Tk 8,000.”
Akbar Hossain, in charge of RSF in Derai and Shalla, clarified that those with warrants can obtain bail from the court and reach out to the police station for resolution.
“We filed cases against a few people concurrently, but if all of them make the payments, the company will withdraw the cases," he said.
WHAT THE COMPANIES SAY
Anwar, the recovery officer representing Grameen Shakti in the case, explained, "There are 115 defendants in seven cases, and we expect payments from around 700 customers.”
He said they now have offices in Derai and Sunamganj, but their Shalla branch no longer has a physical office.
They are working on finding a solution to address the harassment of innocent people, said Anwar, adding that the company sold panels in the area from 2006 to 2015.
He also noted the existence of another company, and their cases will have many defendants.
RSF’s Akbar mentioned they have 1,167 customers in Shalla.
He said they issue legal notices to customers before taking legal action against those who do not pay or respond.
Biswajit Chowdhury Nantu, chairman of Shalla Sadar Union, raised concerns about customers who lost their instalment payment receipts during a flood and had to make payments again.
He called for an immediate end to this harassment.
Radhakant Sutradhar, the lawyer representing both companies, explained that some people were wrongly arrested because of name printing errors on warrants.
Their organisations have addressed this issue in writing, he said.
Radhakant said the companies have been asked to collaborate with the local Union Parishad chairman and members instead of resorting to legal actions or warrants to recover outstanding instalments.
[Writing in English by Arshi Fatiha Quazi; editing by Osham-ul-Sufian Talukder]