Leisure, Lifestyle & Wellness
Reorganisation in Beirut: Meeting merchants and discussing their problems

Delay in shipments was the main grouse of merchants in the Middle East. The 50th part of a series describing the unknown triumphs and travails of doing international business

The mail to and from India generally took 15 days arrive, when it was being delivered by the postman; but because of the post box arrangement made, we began to get tonnes of mail within seven days, though some arrived after 10 days from posting in India. It appeared that my reporting was satisfactory, as some of the exporters who had the opportunity to speak to our chairman or secretary had appreciated the good work done and the efforts being put to improve services.
In course of my afternoon visits, I was able to meet some leading merchants, most of whom were acting as agents for supplies to Saudi Arabia. They included Globetraders (owned by MS Dewan), Paul Weil & Fils, Jamil Bajk and Amin O Rifai, to name a few. It was through the local agents, I was able to gather more information on the pricing of products by our competitors, and Samir from Paul Weil would happily supply me samples of pipe fittings from Taiwan which were superior in quality. Indian galvanized pipes were good, but he always mentioned that unlike Japan, which had no particular restriction on the quantity of half inch pipes, Indian manufacturers and their agents did not give more than 10% of the total value for this mostly used size in the construction industry.  He did mention that India was unbeatable in cast iron products and diesel engines, but for delayed shipments, we could achieve more!
As for imports into Lebanon, he always lamented on the poor shipping facilities and delays in commission remittance. As I regularly met VP Singh, our commercial attaché at the embassy, he had similar stories to tell and he felt that Indian exporters did not take the trouble to approach the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) for permission to remit commission immediately upon booking the order. Besides, as there was no restriction for remittance of commission up to 5% of the fob value, he also felt that it was fundamentally the careless attitude of the exporter that caused delays.
Some of the Indian exporters who spent several days in Lebanon pointed out that their main problem was getting a visa to go to Saudi Arabia, though they were not much keen in going to that country, not only because of language, but also for problems created in the past by others in delayed shipments, etc.  
There was mail coming from my head office asking me to plan a visit to this market because of its size and importance. Armed with a letter of introduction and my own application, I submitted my documents for a visa. After a chat with the counsellor, I was given a visit visa for fifteen days, but after I paid some SR100 (riyals) as Religious Tax to SAMA (Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency), because I was travelling during Haj time. I think at that time the Indian ambassador, who had just joined was Mr Abdullah, a former IG of Police from Madras, and Mr Fazul ur Rahman Bijli was the commercial secretary. I suppose it was good luck that all of us became good friends and were able to depend on each other for advice and support.
After visiting Jeddah for a few days, when I met leading importers like Ghulam Masood,Unitar (United Arab Agency) manager Karim, Mohammed Abdullah from National Commercial Bank, Bashaikh, Bamoudi and others. I got an idea of the market, its expectations and the problems they faced, which again, revolved around shipment delays, part shipments and poor packaging. Al Rajahi, though a large family-owned company with varied interests, was one of the few which were happy with the quality of diesel engines, but not happy with shipments!
I moved on to spend a few days in Riyadh before reaching Dammam, the second largest port, much closer to India. I realized the potential of this market, but the main problems were already known in terms of quality, full quantity, price and regularity of shipments. After a full working day in Bahrain, I moved on to Dubai on the last leg of my first overseas tour covering my beat. This market was full of Indian merchants and I was welcomed by Rohit Patel of Patel Trading Co, who were the sole importers of Sigil Diesel engines and a wide range of other engineering goods like MS pipes, fittings and pump sets, to name a few.
The sleepy village of Dubai was becoming a modern town as construction activity was taking place in several areas. I felt and agreed with Rohit that it may be good idea to have at least a sub-office of the council here, as the market was developing.
The visitors from India were now increasing, thanks probably due to the great number of enquiries that were being generated. Some of those with whom I had actually gone to negotiate business had confirmed the details to our head office, from where I began to get letters of appreciation for the good work done.
I had a chance to meet Munir Haddad, from Dresden Bank who was the owner of Commestra building from whom we had rented our office. I met him in Suleiman's house, a partner of Parekh, along with Meena Ghandour who travelled to Saudi Arabia and sold steel and allied products.  Rajagopalan, who had spent some time in Ethiopia and was associated with the Military Academy of the Haile Saleisse's government, was now with Maliban Glass Works, making bottles for the soft drink manufacturers of the Middle East, became friendly and had lots information and advice to give to make my work even more enjoyable than it was before.
Mooted by Casewa of STC, few of us joined to form a joint venture committee with a view to meet regularly and think of areas where India could profitably enter into the area of joint ventures, instead of being shop keepers in opening and operating shops of Indian handicrafts.
Although we had spent a few months in Beirut, we had not seen any of the historical sites or places of interest that a visitor would like. I had received a lot of information on Baalbek, the historical site and about the Grotto and Jeita caves in the mountains. Because of the distance, I had not travelled alone to the Casino du Liban on my own, except, when a couple of exporters made a special request that I accompany them. While they went and saw the floor show, I spent more time watching the games being played in various halls, like the slot machines and roulette. I neither had the money nor the knowledge to play in such a large and frenzied atmosphere.
As I settled down in the first few months of operation and the year was coming to a close, I was determined to establish my name in getting the job done in the area, and breaking through to increase our exports.

(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].)


The sack-race to Raisina Hill

How could some sanity be brought into the process of selection of the person for the highest office of the land? Unfortunately, there are no substitutes for political maturity and ethics

Sack races are usually a children’s sporting event. It tests ability to run with one’s feet inside a sack. This prevents full movement of the legs and reduces the strides. The uncanny parallel that this metaphor draws to the presidential election is that the next president would be similarly hamstrung by the quarters from where the support is derived to win the race. Three-legged races are also popular sports in schools. In this, children are paired for the race. The children in the pairs, positioned next to each other have one leg of the one tied to the nearest leg of their partner. This metaphor too could find application to the current presidential election scenario. When a party sponsors a candidate, the party and the candidate become a pair in the three-legged race. Media coverage and the actions of the dramatis personae leaves one wondering whether the election to the highest constitutional office in the world’s largest democracy is a farce, facade or pantomime. It has elements of all three and more.

In the past, this election, except for one, was always a tame affair, a foregone conclusion, and no one was particularly bothered by the innocuous incumbent in the palace of the former viceroys who ruled India on behalf of the British monarchy. The position was, and perhaps still is, an ornamental one, like the British model from which it was descended. Why then has it now become so contentious? The questioned could be answered best by looking at why the British monarchy has survived so long without being embroiled in political party polemics. The maturity of the British monarchy and political parties of the United Kingdom could be a reason why the monarchy has remained apolitical there and political parties have not dragged it into controversies. This is not to say that the monarchy, an anachronism in modern governance, has not had its share of unsavoury public disputations.  

Viewed in this light, the lack of political maturity could be a cause for the tragicomedy being played out. Perhaps, it is an indication of the fractured polity of the nation. The forces at play are many and more convoluted than ever. Looking at the events thus far, one cannot but be amazed how Indian democracy functions. The two major political groupings, the UPA and the NDA, are certainly alliances of a sort. Whether they have aspects of unity, progressiveness, nationhood or democratic ideals is questionable. A third, equally powerful force in this political chess game is the regional grouping. This third, have the power to pull the central coalitions in different directions. Another factor, one that could be fundamental to the underlying agendas of both the central majors and the regional satraps, is corruption and the need for alliances to counter likely consequences. Of course, the “satraps of Raisina Hill” (with apologies to David Nyhan) are not quiet.

X-raying the forces at work

The Congress and Pranab have decided to adopt the political and adult version of the children’s three-legged race. Whether the latter would remain with his leg tied to the party, he served loyally for half-a-century is a moot point. The internal and inherent contradictions within the NDA have paralysed it, albeit temporarily. Although India has a parliamentary system with the president’s powers being limited, there is scope, as the parties perceive, for the president to tilt one way or the other to create competitive advantage or disadvantage.

This then is the compulsion for having “our man” positioned in Raisina Hill in time for the 2014 election. Does the premise denigrate the office and person? It does. That the 2014 election would render a fractured verdict is not in doubt. The tenant at Raisina would have the discretion of calling upon either the leader of the largest party or (and this is important) the largest combination of parties to form the government. Hardly any discretion is involved in the former. It is simple arithmetic. The latter gives scope for manoeuvring and manipulation.

What is in it for the regional players? There is still time for 2014. Some of them would like to be on the right side of the current power equation. These have sufficient skeletons in their cupboards and if the Centre unleashes ‘investigative’ agencies at their beck and call, things could become pretty uncomfortable for them. What else could account for Mulayam’s volte-face? Of course, he has exhibited in the past, a genetic disposition towards such behaviour. Knowing this, how Mamata fell for his machinations remains a mystery. Mulayam’s explanation for his u-turn is as pathetic as it can get.

Regional players have problems galore, both politically and economically. The Left cannot be seen to be on the side with BJP. So too Mulayam, whose oft-stated intent is to keep BJP out, cannot side with them against the Congress. Down south, AIDMK and DMK cannot be on the same side. Nitesh in Bihar cannot go alongside Modi in Gujarat. Mamata needs central funds, but cannot stomach the Left. NCP and Shiv Sena are daggers drawn.

“Politics is the art of the possible”, is a well-worn cliché. When the possible permutations and combinations are infinite, the choice becomes difficult like in any chess game, so too on political chessboard.

The losers

In this battle of political wits, the loser of course is the hapless aam aadmi. The nation too is a loser. As unscrupulous political one-up-manship takes centre stage, the country becomes the laughing stock of the world. The repercussions of this on the economic well-being are difficult to fathom. The foreign investor would not know which way to turn. Domestic industry would not know which horse to back. Their cost could be high. Our hungry millions could become and remain hungrier. Political parties and politicians on the losing side would have their ‘businesses’ in deep waters.

The antidote

How could some sanity be brought into the process of selection of the person for the highest office of the land? Would constitutional changes help? One could change to a system wherein a combination of popular vote and an electoral college is mandated for presidential elections. One could stipulate that no one who has been a political party member for a decade prior to the date of election is eligible. There could be numerous ways to prevent the ugly gamesmanship. Ultimately, there are no substitutes for political maturity and ethics.

Two quotations come to mind as a proper end this piece of writing. One from David Nyhan says, “The thing I'll miss most is the chance to shine a little flashlight on a dark corner, where a wrong was done to a powerless peon, where a scarred politician maybe deserved a better fate, where the process went awry, or the mob needed to be calmed down and herded in another direction”. This article exhorts all people to shine a little flash light on a dark corner of our nation. The other quote, is from the pugnacious Englishman, Churchill who, opposing Indian independence, said, “The country would pass into the hands of rogues, rascals and freebooters. Not a glass water will escape taxation; and the blood of these innocent millions will be on (pointing to Atlee, then PM in the UK) your head, Mr Atlee”. Looking at the expose of convicted murderer gangsters in UP jails holding fort in public while politicians and police officers bury their heads, ostrich like, one wonders whether Churchill was indeed clairvoyant.



Nagesh Kini

5 years ago

The 2012 Presidential poll is worse than a sack-cum-three legged race between the candidate of an Utterly Policyless Alliance competing with another from a Not able to Decide Alliance both named at the very last stage just because both had no clues or other choices.
Other than the earliest ones all the other occupants of the Rasthrapati Bhavan did not deserve to be there in the first place - one going to the extent of saying that he was prepared to sweep the floor. The present incumbent took the whole jing bang of her extended family on world tour junkets just to fill the empty plane seats and thought she could get away with blue murder by usurping a reserved Army A1 piece of land till RTI did her it and force her to abort before take off.
Do hope Pranobda turns out to be better after walking every morning on the RB lawns!


5 years ago

When 1.2 billion Indians can not have an Indian as the chairman of the ruling alliance, India is doomed to fail.

Kerala government plans to float Pravasi Development Bonds

Kerala government is planning to float Pravasi Development Bonds for attract investments from non-resident Indians for the state's development projects

Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala government plans to float Pravasi Development Bonds with a view to attract investments from non-resident Indians for the state's growth, minister for Rural Development and Non Resident Kerala Affairs (NORKA) KC Joseph told the assembly on Wednesday, reports PTI.

The objective was to give opportunity to pravasis to make safe investments in the state's development projects, Joseph said while replying to a calling attention by P Ubaidulla (IUML) seeking steps to improve state finances by utilising foreign exchange earned by non-resident Keralities.

Steps had already been started to set up a Business Centre under the NORKA, he said, adding, a Pravasi Law Cell would also be constituted to help the expatriates who face legal problems in foreign land.

A total of Rs43,288 crore was sent to the state by non-resident Keralities during 2008. As per an Emigration Monitoring study conducted by Centre for Development Studies in 2008, there were 22 lakh Keralites working in different foreign countries and more than nine lakh were working in other parts of the country.

Kerala government was examining a proposal to set up a Bank for receivinig deposits and advancing loans to non-resident Keralities, he said, adding, RBI sanction was necessary for it.

Welcoming Centre's decision to hold 2012 Pravasi Bhartiya Divas Sammelan in Kochi, Joseph said the meet would help to attract more investments to Kerala and also to address the grievances faced by NRK's.

Expressing concern over the frequent hike in flight charges, especially to gulf sector, by airline companies, he said Chief Minister Oommen Chandy would take up the issue with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh next month.

State government also plans to revive the proposal to start 'Kerala Airways' mooted during the previous UDF government time. The government was also going ahead with the plan to start Ship Service from Kerala to Gulf sector, he said.


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