Leisure, Lifestyle & Wellness
Life Exclusive
Sorting out supply delays with irate customers

The hanky-panky practice of getting the B/L issued without the goods actually on board had somehow come into practice, with disastrous consequences. However, issues get sorted out before the writer meets angry customers in Saudi Arabia. This is the eighth part of the series describing the unknown triumphs and travails of doing international business in Asia in the seventies

From the airport to my home on Zaabeel Road, Bur Dubai, it did not take more than fifteen minutes after I got my taxi. The driver wanted to take another passenger further down and I did not object, as otherwise he would have to wait for a longer period before he got his cab.

I reached home and literally hit the sack and woke very early next morning. It is said that the early bird catches the worm; here in Dubai, and if you happen to have your office on the Deira side, you catch a good, safe parking space! When I walked in, I found Shankar opening the office, with fifteen minutes to spare before the official opening at 8am.

As I sat down, Marge walked in; she was one of the most efficient, hard working responsible and intelligent secretary one can get—absolutely trustworthy, dependable and a quick learner. In my absence, she was in a position to prepare and negotiate documents, against LCs on shipments made. After a few minutes of customary greetings, she was gone, on the way to get my coffee.

Her note said it all; how upset and angry Abdullah was as his goods were also shut out, though he had documents in hand, all paid for; and when his office contacted all that the shipping company could convey was that the “goods are being loaded” on the vessel right now, and “in your case”, the goods should reach you in about 10 days, if not earlier. Our vessel is touching Dammam first before proceeding to Kuwait. Al Dahman was angry because his special large diameter pipe fittings that were due to arrive on the vessel, had docked, but without his cargo. There were at least seven more irate customers and Abdullah wanted me to personally come and explain the mess to him.

The local market was crazy and building merchants were willing to pay more money to get their hands on various goods, but, it was not only our goods, most others were also on similar vessels plying from Bombay port. The hanky-panky practice of getting B/L was rampant. In true sense, B/Ls were to be issued only when the goods are actually on board the vessel but this reckless practice had somehow come into practice, with disastrous consequences.

Marge had set the coffee on the table, and was clearing up my briefcase. She had already prepared the visa application form for Saudi Arabia, attached the photos and was just waiting to get my signature. She had already arranged for the official invitation letter from Abdullah! I had to wait at least for a couple of days more before I could actually take my flight to Riyadh to meet our customers.  

My visit visa to Saudi Arabia was generally for fifteen days; I would spend three days each in Dahran (Dammam covered) and Jeddah, and seven days in Riyadh, giving the allowance for Fridays and flight schedules. Extension of stay was cumbersome, though possible, through the sponsor. This time, hopefully, I was planning to cut it short, and spend not more than seven days.  But I didn’t want to leave until I had actual shipment status. Vijay had promised to take the trip to Bombay and send me ‘real’ status.

We continued to get conflicting statements on raw material availability and government plans on the OGL and how they propose to resolve the issues relating to orders placed, etc.

My flight was confirmed for the fourth day after my arrival, but as the uncertainty of actual shipment details was looming large, Marge was smart enough to have it postponed to the sixth day, as the fifth was a Friday; she wanted me to at least relax for a day before my trip.

Even though Friday was the weekly holiday, it was a normal practice for me to spend at least 3/4 hours in the morning and return home for lunch. I was in office, and was surprised when Lala Kedarnath walked in with a bunch of invoices and shipment details, with newspaper cuttings and reports of the problems in Bombay port and that it was returning back to normalcy. He confidently stated that some ships had already left with our cargo.

Sorting out all these details took quite some time. Due to lack of planning or more due to urgency of older orders, there were also many shipments that were actually on the sea, merely because, they too were victims of earlier despatches. This was in addition to the seven complaints that we had on hand.

In fact, on the day of departure, I spent the whole day in the office, and got dropped straight at the airport, from the office. I had no choice. And, during the day Lala ‘volunteered’ to accompany me, as he had come prepared with a visa, but, it was much easier to handle the irate client all by myself than taking the additional risk of having an elderly person on this mission.

I did receive, generally a cold welcome from most on arrival in their offices. But, some of the clients had received telegraphic or telex confirmations, directly from shipping companies, on our specific request that their goods were actual on board and that they would be able to deliver them in the next few days. So, in the end, it was not bad at all, and the mixed reception was better than a hostile one!

In spite of this fiasco on shipments, I managed to pick up a few orders, including Abdullah’s, our principal buyer, and returned home to Dubai with a great sigh of relief.

Meantime, our Chinese contacts did not make a big fuss about the contract when they were told that, under force maejure conditions, it was not possible to proceed with it; but, at the same time, the pig iron prices had started moving upwards, by a few dollars more per tonne, and the whole issue was forgotten before the month was out. Very much like our own government departments, our manhole suppliers of Diamond brand manholes did not know about our pig iron contract and their shipments to us came in without a hassle.

Under these circumstances, Amanda had decided to quit her company and shown interest to work with us in Dubai or in Hong Kong. We had, in fact, hinted to her that we would be happy to utilize her experience and knowledge of the market and suitably compensate her. 

We opened our office in Hong Kong within the next ten days.

(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].)

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Life Exclusive
Britannica rules the waves no more

Britannica has announced that the 2010 edition would be the last in the series. The reason: It cannot face digital competition from Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia. It is an acknowledgement of the realities of the digital age

The digital word has won a huge battle over the printed word. After 244 years, the presses that printed the Encyclopaedia Britannica have fallen silent.

Britannica was the ultimate reference book for two and a half centuries. If you, me and the man in the street wanted to know anything about anything, the Encyclopaedia Britannica was the first and last place to get authentic information written simply by experts in each field.

The company that produced Britannica has announced that the 2010 edition would be the last in the series. The reason: It cannot face digital competition from Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia. It is an acknowledgement of the realities of the digital age.

The New York Times quoted a top executive of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc, the Chicago-based US subsidiary of the British parent, as saying “It’s a rite of passage in this new era.”

The spokesman said in an interview to New York Times: “Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The website is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia.”

The 2010 print edition of Britannica has 32 volumes that weigh 129 pounds. It costs $1,395. The last print version includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.

Britannica will now focus primarily on its online encyclopaedias and educational curriculum for schools.

 The Times said Wikipedia has moved a long way toward “replacing the authority of experts with the wisdom of the crowds.” The site is now written and edited by thousands of contributors and is accepted as a largely accurate and comprehensive source, even by many scholars and academics.

Wikipedia also meets the 21st century requirement of providing instantly updated material. It has nearly four million articles in English, including some on pop culture that Britannica would not touch.

Britannica’s competitive strength comes from its prestigious sources, its carefully edited entries and the trust that was tied to the brand.

The company spokesman told the Times: “We have very different value propositions. Britannica is going to be smaller. We cannot deal with every single cartoon character; we cannot deal with every love life of every celebrity. But we need to have an alternative where facts really matter. Britannica won’t be as large as before, but it will always be factually correct.”

(R Vijayaraghavan has been a professional journalist for more than four decades, specialising in finance, business and politics. He conceived and helped to launch Business Line, the financial daily of The Hindu group. He can be contacted at [email protected].)


Public Interest Exclusive
On World Consumer Rights Day, activists say “Jago Sarkar Jago”

Consumer forums, which are the first step of grievance redressal, are under tremendous pressure. On one side they have lot of cases to deal, while on the other hand there inadequate resources. State governments should address these issues immediately

Inflated electricity bills, difficulty in getting an LPG connection, fleeced by insurance, agents, are few of the many issues faced by consumers in India. While the government seems to be little concerned, activists and consumer organisations continue the fight for consumer rights. Today, 15th March, is celebrated as World Consumer Rights Day. This year the theme is Our Money, Our Rights. Moneylife, which itself advocates financial literacy through Moneylife Foundation, brings you the overall issues concerning the consumer protection and what activists demand from the government and the regulators.

Pritee Shah, chief general manger, Consumer Education and Research Centre  (CERC) and Editor of Insight , a consumer magazine, says, “We are fighting for a separate legislation to protect consumers of financial products and services. Many a times these products/service have fine prints, which are either not understandable or confusing, thus giving companies a free hand to escape liability. A separate law will take care of such things. Misleading financial advertisement is a least supervised area. There are ads endorsed by celebrities to buy insurance policies in ten minutes. This is pure misleading.”

She adds, “To address the overall issues of consumer protection, a National Consumer Protection Policy is required.”

Experts demand that class action should be used to wake up the sleeping regulators.   
“We want to address the “class action” that affects a large number of consumers and bring about proper systems that would ensure that these are tackled. There are enough laws but enforcement is a big problem. Unless we have effective action, the confidence of the consumer is lost,” says Somasekhar VK, founder patron of Coordinated Action of Consumer & Voluntary Organizations of Karnataka and managing trustee, Grahak Shakti.

Talking specifically on consumer rights in the financial sector, he says, “In the financial sector, banking, financial services and investor protection are pedestrian and consumers have major problems. At present the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) as a monolith regulator is unable to do much for the consumer, though the establishment of an ombudsman was thought to be a good idea but unfortunately the people posted being from the banking sector as an opportunity for retired officials rehabilitation is affecting the functioning and has not gone well to address real grievances in a systematic way.”

According to Mr Somasekhar, to effectively resolve complaints of the Public Distribution System (PDS), the consumer affairs department should be separated from the food civil supplies department as it already overloaded and is unable to concentrate and give proper attention. He also wants changes in the 30-day time clause for goods & services as it lacks clarity, unfair trade practices should be expanded and made a cognizable offence and the recruitment at the consumer forums should also be streamlined.

Rajyalakshmi Rao, former president of National Consumer Dispute Regulation Commission, stresses upon the need to improve the budgetary allocation for consumer forums and inclusion of telecom complaints. “Class action has helped in many cases. Today, the biggest apathy is the attitude of the government. Consumer forums, which are the first step of grievance redressal, are under tremendous pressure. On one side they have lot of cases to deal, while on the other hand there inadequate resources. They work on low salaries. The state governments should address these issues immediately. Contrary to popular opinion, consumer forums have an impeccable record of 90.55% disposal of cases.”

She adds that, “A Supreme Court ruling has excluded telecom complaints from the ambit of Consumer Protection Act. It serves against the interest of consumer, especially from two and three tier cities. The Act should be amended accordingly to deal with such cases.”

Achintya Mukherjee, secretary, Bombay Telephone Users’ Association (BTUA), says that the biggest problem is to get different consumer organisations together to attack broader issues. “The general apathy of citizens and consumers is due to the lack of mobilisation of consumer organisations and poor participation of the consumers. They work with a limited view that does not go by the action which will make a major impact. Consumers approach organisations only when they have a problem. Once it is solved, they are not even bothered to help these voluntary organisations struggling for funds.”

Mr Mukherjee, referring his personal experience of participating in policy decision, explains, “Often in policy making, public opinion in asked through floating of a consultation paper. This process is itself questionable. For instance, TRAI’s papers are often dressed up in such a language that it fails to address the real consumer issue and is limited up to want the regulator wants. They are confusing. Many a times they do not bother to include a counter view or views which are critical.”

BTUA wants a concrete grievance redressal mechanism, transparency in consultation paper and its process, a telecom ombudsman with a counsel supervising its works and more benches of Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) in metros like Mumbai and Bangalore.

The list of demand would be endless. Considering this, it would be better to say “Jago Sarkar Jago” instead of “Jago Grahak Jago”.


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