6 December 2019 I A meeting between community leaders, a shady Hundi agent accused of stealing remittance meant for recipients in Nepal and his alleged victims has unearthed an underbelly of informal money transfer industry dogging the Nepalese diaspora in Australia.
The Hundi system, it is understood, is producing a string of victims whose blood-sweat-and-tears money is gobbled up by unscrupulous Hundi agents. The southasia.com.au is not suggesting all Hundi agents are unethical as a vast majority of them are regular, well-liked members of the community.
Hundi in itself is not evil, as Wikipedia definition of the term tells us. Hundi agencies in Australia are not illegal either because they are all said to be registered with AUSTRAC. However, as it often happens when a Third World economy is involved, things get muddy the way “four or five big Hundi wholesalers in Australia” channel the money through a “third country” such as Hong Kong or Macau.
One of the 16 community members who participated in yesterday’s meeting held at the office of the Consular General of Nepal in Melbourne said that the accused agent has still not delievered $4,250 a customer had deposited into his bank account back in August.
He also owes $2,000 to another customer which is apparently the remaining funds of the total $12,000 that the victim had originally sent to the agent’s account.
Even a small agency like that has ended up producing eight confirmed victims, the attendee of the community meeting said requesting anonymity.
President of the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA) Australia, Keshav Kandel, regrets such incidents continue to take place here in Australia.
“We are not an authority that can take action in cases like this; we can only help victims and guide them to seek remedy per Australian law and system,” Mr Kandel, also Melbourne-based, said in a telephone interview.
He further added that his organisation tries its “best to sort out grievances” and mediate dialogues between perpetrators and victims. “However, if repeated warnings do not work then we will actively help victims seek legal redress,” he warned.
Former president of the Nepalese Association of Victoria (NAV), Dr Anupam Pokharel, has an entirely different outlook on these ubiquitous money transfer companies.
“A very few in the Nepalese community really has the moral ground to say anything against Hundi,” the Melbourne-based psychiatrist said, “Because we all have used their service at some point in life, if not more regularly. We all know that Hundi operates both ways. There may be some who take the pain of sending money through the banking channels, but there would certainly be no one transferring money from Nepal to Australia who would not use Hundi. You will be surprised how many get money from the other side to buy properties here in Australia.”
“Hundi agents are everywhere. They could be in the form any business. They could be big shots of Hundi business directly dealing with customers or they could be lone individuals working as second or sometimes even third subcontractor. They are in easy reach of anyone,” Dr Pokharel pointed out.
“A good majority of these agents could be otherwise “conscientious” and reliable people. I call them ‘ethical’ Hundi agents. They take the money at one end and deposit the money on time at the other, and that’s exactly what their customers want. Everyone enjoys better conversion rate, as well as the convenience and promptness as compared to sending through the banking channels. However, problem arises when some of these agents go rogue on vulnerable members of the community. International students from Nepal, for instance, are frequently preyed upon by such shady Hundi agents. It is very rare that an established member of the community encounters any problem while dealing through the Hundi process. I think established people know who the ‘ethical’ Hundi agents are. But I must mention that these agents probably do not take chances with the established people.” Dr Pokharel remarked.
When he has to, he would not send money without knowing every detail about the agent such their full name, home address and even family background if possible, Dr Pokharel said. But when someone is new in the country, sending money by Hundi could be a risky business, he pointed out, because international students do not have the resources, connections or the courage to confront dodgy agents who have gobbled up their funds.
Asked if he knew about Thursday’s community meeting with the Hundi agent accused of stealing or withholding customers’ money, Dr Pokharel said he had limited knowledge about it, however he was not surprised as such incidents were not new at all. It is often hard for community leaders to “take action” against such unscrupulous agents because they are cunning enough to maintain excellent relationships with all powerful people in the community, he reminded.
According to the community leader, there is a culture among victims too of hesitating to provide written statements in such matters. Initially, they understandably want “help” and want community leaders to help to create pressure on the concerned Hundi agents, but when their money is deposited in Nepal, following a lot of hard work on the part of the community leaders, they choose not to give any written statement on such matters which would prevent such Hundi agents from preying on someone else.
“Since these remittance businesses are claimed to be legal in Australia, I do not really know whether this whole Hundi business amounts to money-laundering from Australian perspective despite it being illegal in Nepal. However, the time has come to choose between “ethical money launderer and unethical money-launderer”, the former president of NAV said. “I understand Hundi is illegal in Nepal. But I do not think the government there will ever stop it. If Hundi is really hurting the Nepalese economy as is often claimed then, other than sporadic arrests by Nepal police, why is there is no real alternative given by the Government of Nepal? There is no mechanism offered for people who want to bring their legitimate money from Nepal to Australia too. To me, it appears to be a kind of financial prostitution on the part of the Nepalese government and community point of view, everyone is benefitting except the government, and in this process few vulnerable people do get caught up. If it is bad for Nepal then the Embassy should raise it with the Australian government and develop a mechanism to stop it. But we have not seen anything like that, have we? At least I have not heard anything to that effect,” Dr Pokharel said.
There is another Hundi agent in Victoria who has apparently misused even more money of his customers than the agent who had meeting with the victims yesterday, it is learnt. “He is accused of misappropriating tens of thousands of dollars from one customer alone, not just few thousand,” the source exclaimed.
It is understood all sub-agents of the Hundi business transfer their money to four or five major wholesalers who in turn send the collected funds to a third country. A source said at least two of these big wholesalers recently left the Hundi industry but the others are still very much active on a day to day basis.