Leisure, Lifestyle & Wellness
A new beginning in Beirut: Getting on with official business

Soon after settling down in Beirut, the writer got busy with an international trade fair in Zagreb. The 49th part of a series describing the unknown triumphs and travails of doing international business

The next couple of days were simply spent in reading the files and making my own notes of how we had been functioning in the office. During the first week we had a couple of visitors who were actually stopping over to look up the Casino de Luban and the Moula Rouge, rather than getting into serious business in the country itself.
The problem was not difficult to surmise; as even before I came I had done a little bit of home work and found that there were hardly any vessels that plied regularly between Indian ports and Beirut. Statistically, our export of engineering goods to Lebanon was small because of shipping difficulties and, more importantly, the merchants preferred European and Western goods in general. As for electronic goods, the only source they relied was Japan.
We were still making some headway in small items like diesel engines, hand tools, some building materials; most of these came on shipments to Aqaba, the Jordanian port from where they would be transhipped by trucks crossing Syria before reaching Beirut.
The first important thing that I did was to build up a strong and comprehensive library covering the widest range of products available, with all sorts of catalogues and leaflets. I needed the data of exporters and their experience in the Middle East. A format was designed and sent to the headquarters so that this could be circulated to all members and that they should respond directly to me. Our office, though operative for so many years, did not even have a post box for getting the mail, and postal delivery was very inadequate. As a first step, I persuaded Mr Parekh and his partner Suleiman if we could use their box number, and I could collect the mail at least twice a week from main post office.
Not being a strict vegetarian, it was possible for me to carry on till my family arrived, which they were scheduled in the first week of September.
It was during the Independence Day celebrations held in the Ambassador’s mountain residence I was able to meet a large number of Indians and became friendly with Casewa (STC), Pratap Goregaonkar, Anand Swaroop (Pest control) and a host of other Indian merchants from the community.
A large percentage of Indian merchants were involved in the jewellery trade; others were in general arts, antiques; some others like MS Dewan and Patel were regular importers and agents for Indian goods, some of which were engineering in character.
Visiting the market was done in the afternoon, which was spread over a wide area. It started with builders’ hardware, hand tools, cast iron pipes, fittings and manhole covers in which India had made headway even in UK and USA, but some of the merchants told me that they would rather pay more and buy from OK foundries in Beirut because of quality and quick deliveries. The communication problem was the language; either they spoke Arabic or were reasonably fluent in French. With a little help from Rozine and reading a self-taught book, I began my study of Arabic with rudimentary knowledge of commercial conversation!
The response from the Indian exporters was overwhelming and we had hundreds of letters with all sort of details, catalogues, etc that I had asked for to set up a good information base. This kept me extremely busy and I was working alone, several days a week till late in the evenings.
In the last week of August, I received a telegraphic reminder about the trip that I was to make to attend the Zagreb International Trade Fair, on which day itself, the mail arrived giving full details, saying that our Foreign Officer at Dusseldorf could not make it because of sickness and I should go there instead. I tried to collect some info on this fair, while struggling with my Arabic.
My family arrived in the first week of September; fortunately, my wife had brought most essential items, and after introducing her to the neighbours, particularly Padmaben (Mr Parekh’s wife) and showing her the basic routes, I left on my trip to Zagreb after I had phoned the commercial counsellor if he needed anything from Beirut. I was surprised to hear that there were hardly any oriental/Asian vegetables and they were getting fed with cabbage and potatoes so I carried a variety of with me.
From Beograde (Belgrade) airport, I took a coach to the embassy and was met by NP Alexander, an extremely knowledgeable and cooperative officer, with whose guidance I arrived in the Central railway station to take a berth, for my onward journey to Zagreb, where I arrived next morning.  From there I went straight to the fair grounds and met one Mr Gandhi and Mr Bhansali, both of whom were tea merchants. I met others like Rishi (from the Indian Fair Authority), Rama Sen from Calcutta who was a textile chemist and many others. With Mr Gandhi's help, I was able to get a sleeping accommodation in a family home, as hotels were full. The landlady gave me hot water for a bath; I mean a shower, for only three days a week!
The work was hectic in the Fair; I kept visiting various Yugoslavian companies, most of which were government-owned, and became friendly with Vasilka Bugonovic and her husband, both of whom worked in different organizations, but from whom I received a great number of enquiries.  Every night I would detail them and send them by airmail to my head office. It was here I was introduced to their national drink called Slivovitza, a kind of vodka; and it was Rama Sen who taught me the rudimentary principles of playing the roulette at the Zagreb Casino!
In those days, our daily allowance was seven English pounds a day (GPB 7) and we had to survive on this and save, if we could! But, as luck would have it, thanks to Rama Sen and my beginner’s luck, I generally made ten or twelve pounds a day, following which I would leave the casino, take a couple of friends and go out and eat.

We also befriended some of the fair visitors from India, who were lucky enough to have booked hotel rooms and we would take turns to go out and have a hot shower, as the weather was becoming bitter by the day and freezing by the evenings.
I returned back to Beirut and within the next twenty four hours a complete report was prepared and sent, courtesy of an Air India manager. Our Bombay office collected the same for onward despatch to the head office.
Though Rozine had done a good job of handling a few exporters who came to the office, we had literally tonnes of catalogues that were still being sorted out and indexed. I think, it took us three months more to say that our library had a good selection of catalogues, price idea and the range of products India could offer.
It was a satisfying experience. Meantime, my wife was able to arrange admission for our two sons to go to Silesian (Italian) school, which was at a walking distance from our residence; she took care to drop and collect them every day.

(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce and was associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts. From being the advisor to exporters, he took over the mantle of a trader, travelled far and wide, and switched over to setting up garment factories and then worked in the US. He can be contacted at [email protected].)


President Obama and the Latino vote

President Obama made it legal for children who came to America before they were 16 and completed high school or were in the military to work legally in America. The Republicans hit back saying that the president was just playing politics

Last year in the US more non-white children were born than white children for the first time in US history. Just one more sign that America is changing. The principal reason for the change was the rapid growth of Hispanics. In the future it is likely that Hispanics will play an even bigger role in the US elections as their numbers increase. Most Hispanics in the US are from Mexico. In some states such as Arizona and Nevada they might hold the key to the elections. And Hispanics as a group are particularly sympathetic to immigrants as not so long ago many of them or their parents came from out of the country.

America was formed as an immigrant country as people left the Old World (Europe) and came to the New World. America even today with all its problems remains the biggest draw for people around the world for migration. Though there is now what is known as the reverse brain drain i.e. people moving back from America to their native countries. Though this is just a trickle and not a flood only because of the prosperity of America but it is also because it is much easier to get a job in America than most other countries in the world, further the Americans are quiet welcoming to outsiders and it is easy to assimilate in America. The US also has some of the best universities in the world with a tailor-made route to get a job and a green card.

Partly because of the proximity to America, many people from South America have come as immigrants to America over the years; some legally others illegally. Hence the issue of immigration touches a raw nerve as far as Hispanics go.

The Democrats have been regarded generally as more sympathetic than the Republicans to Hispanic voters This is due to the fact that they seem to be willing to be more liberal in allowing immigrants to live and work in the country. However, President Obama’s Homeland Security Department in the last three and half years has deported 1.1 million illegal immigrants, almost twice as many as George Bush had done. This has not gone down well with the Hispanics. To be fair to the Democrats, they did introduce the Dream Act in Congress which would have allowed more immigrants on the road to becoming legal. But the Republicans with their usual intransience blocked the legislation in the Senate.

President Obama announcing an executive order bypassing Congress made it legal for children who came to America before they were 16 and completed high school or were in the military to work legally in America. This immediately helped 8 lakh immigrants who Obama said were American all but in name. This kills many birds with one stone. It enthused President’s Latino base. It showed the intransience of the Republicans in Congress. It made a stark contrast with Governor Romney who had spoken against the Dream Act during the primaries. It made the Republicans look out of touch. The Republicans hit back saying that it was political and that the president was just playing politics.

Governor Romney and President Obama did not do anything in the first three and a half years and was now suddenly it was being done. This clearly shows that it was political. Well I suppose blocking the Dream Act in Congress was political too and in politics in the ultimate analysis everything is unfortunately political.

Senate Marco Rubio from Florida who is one of the people being considered by Governor Romney to be the vice-presidential candidate was busy drafting the Republican version of the Dream Act and said the short-term fix made the long-term solution more difficult. But the Republican response was extremely tepid. They clearly did not want to say anything on the merits of the Obama announcement.

They just made what can be called procedural arguments. Governor Romney did not give a straight reply when asked whether he would reverse the Obama decision if he became the president.

President Obama’s master stroke had suddenly changed the game.

(Harsh Desai has done his BA in Political Science from St Xavier's College & Elphinstone College, Bombay and has done his Master's in Law from Columbia University in the city of New York. He is a practicing advocate at the Bombay High Court.)


Lawmakers allowed to default on phone bills!

Parliamentarians were incensed when Anna Hazare launched a public protest about their foot-dragging on the Lokpal Bill. But these modern-day maharajas continue to use telephone facilities without paying dues, an RTI reply has revealed

For common citizens defaulting on utility bills like telephone and electricity leads to only one consequence: their utilities are disconnected. However, being a Member of Parliament (MP) seems to have its perks-even to default a public utility.

According to a reply received by Right to Information (RTI) activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal, several MPs, past and present, owe over Rs7.31 crore to state-run Mahanagar Telephone Nigam (MTNL) and Bharat Sanchar Nigam (BSNL) towards telephone bills. That too when these MPs are allowed to make 1.5 lakh free calls every year. In the list of defaulters, there are six MPs from the current Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, while 399 are former MPs. Total dues of the current MPs amounts to Rs19.8 lakh, while the same for former MPs is Rs7.1 crore. These dues are from 1980 to October 2011.

Late ABA Ghani Khan Chaudhary (LS 495) tops the telephone defaulters' list with Rs34.43 lakh. He is followed by Janardhan Yadav (RS 040) with dues of Rs22.3 lakh and by Basava Raj Patil (LS 164) with Rs17.2 lakh. In case of sitting MPs, Ram Sunder Das (LS 079) tops the defaulter's with an outstanding of Rs9.5 lakh. He is followed by Bhakta Charan Das (LS 313) and M Krishna Swamy (LS 374) with dues of Rs3.32 lakh and Rs3.2 lakh, respectively.
At present according to the rules framed by the Parliament Secretariat i.e. the Housing and Telephone Rules of MPs Act, 1956, (as amended time to time), each Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MP is entitled to have five telephone connections, including two mobile connections, at different places and each MP is entitled to 1.5 lakh free calls every year on all these connections.

Calls made in excess in the 1.5 lakh free calls are carried forward to next year's quota. Similarly, unutilized calls also can be forwarded. Calls made within these limits are billed by BSNL or MTNL and the bills are paid by the respective secretariat of the Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha. Beyond the quota of the current and next year's calls, the concerned MP has to pay the bill.
According to the RTI reply, there is a public interest litigation (PIL) going on in the Delhi High Court. The Department has set up a special PIL cell and has appointed arbitrators. In order to implement the award, if the payment is not received, recovery suits are being filed by the field units of BSNL, where the liquidity is possible, the Liaison Officer (Phones) said in his reply.

According to Mr Agrawal, there should be rules for auto-deduction of all government-bills from salaries and pensions of present and former Parliamentarians."No-dues certificate should be necessary from contestants before filing nomination for any election. Services like of telephone, water and electricity should be disconnected for non-payment of any single bill, similar to what is done in case of common citizens. Strict-most recover-proceedings should be immediately initiated against defaulting parliamentarians (former and present) and or their legal heirs," he said.


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