By Pradip Phanjoubam
Manipur often thrusts adventures, more likely misadventures, on the unsuspecting. To be honest, even the most cautious are not immune. Sometimes these are innocently and meaninglessly bizarre, and if you had the patience to bear them out, they would remind you of hilarious episodes from Charlie Chaplin movies – situations in which you expect a misfortune in a given circumstance because you have had the experience before, but the same misfortune surprises you yet again even as you keep a watch. I don’t remember which movie it was in which Charlie Chaplin opens a rickety door and a loose wooden bar falls on his head and he is left dazed. The next time, he is cautious and looks up to see if the loose bar was in place as he opens the same door, and the bar falls on his head again putting him in another daze. At other times, these misfortunes are absurd to the extent of tragic, leaving you fuming, helpless and frustrated, not knowing what the appropriate response should be – tear the pillow to shreds, scream at the sky, punch the wall… Last fortnight, when I was in Imphal for a short holiday from my mountain hermitage in Shimla, I went through one of the second category.
In the last few years, I have become a regular shopper on the popular online shopping portal Flipkart.com – obviously not to buy cars and jewelleries, but essentially for books, but also small gift items, computer accessories etc. I do this because it is convenient. Prices are competitive and generally lower than on other online shopping sites, it is fast on updating its book shelves, purchased items are accurate to description, shipping charges are nominal and delivery is quick etc. On the last point, I am conscious, there should be a caveat. While placing orders from anywhere else other than Manipur, I suppose Flipkart’s claim of delivering purchased item/s at any address within India in two or three days, will probably hold. My own experience has been good when the orders were to be delivered elsewhere other than in Manipur. In the past, from Manipur too, though orders seldom arrived within two or three days, they landed reasonably promptly, with a maximum delay by another day or two.
Not this time.
I did not expect my orders to arrive in two or three days, but I did not expect it to take more than two weeks either. I will not name the private courier service employed by Flipkart this time, but suffice it to say it was not the one they normally used earlier. Instead of being apologetic for the inordinate delay in delivering the parcels, a man from the Imphal office of the courier service called up, almost in a chiding tone, sounding bewildered that I had not yet come and collected my parcels from their office.
Apparently, two of the parcels (I ordered three, a set of ten books in two different orders and two American Tourrister school satchels for my daughters, in a third order) had arrived the previous day, and the courier office was harangued that my parcels were using up their storage space more than the time warranted.
I was already back in Shimla then, but all the same jumped into a temper. I told the voice on the phone that the contract is for my parcels to be delivered at my residence and he should better do it immediately, in what I imagine should have registered as a veiled threat. But the man was still unperturbed in an idiotic way, and in a businesslike tone as if trying to convince me why I should collect the parcel myself, said home delivery would mean another three or four days delay. I told him to do what he was supposed to do and that I would be complaining to Flipkart again, and hung up.
Three days later, I was informed the parcels did not still land at my Imphal residence, so I swallowed my pride and agreed to have the parcels collected from the courier service’s office in Thangal Bazaar. Their staff did not still understand what the outrage was all about I was told. They seemed convinced that the responsibility was with the customer to enquire the arrival status each day at their office, after a parcel had been shown as dispatched on their internet parcel tracking facility, and then collect it after it had arrived at their office.
I wrote a complaint letter to Flipkart, informing them of the inconveniences I was put through. The company was quick to respond. They apologised profusely in notes after notes, by email as well as SMS, and somebody from their customer service even made a courtesy cum business call. They also informed me they made an enquiry and discovered only two of my orders (the ten books in two sets) had been found to have been shipped, but the third was not. The two school satchels were to have been shipped by a Calcutta retailer registered with the company, but they cancelled the order with this retailer and placed it afresh with another in Mumbai, and this later retailer has dispatched the bags, but unfortunately by the same courier service I had problems with, and not by the one the company had an arrangement with earlier, which in my experience, was far more reliable. I suppose business contracts cannot be rewritten overnight. The same assurance was also given to me again that the parcel would be delivered in two or three days. I am awaiting news of its arrival at my residence.
The moral of the story runs much deeper than apparent, which is why I thought it should deserve to be the subject of my column this week. It tells of a dismal lack of consumer rights awareness in the state. Everybody knows the prime motive of any private business is profit. This is perfectly fine provided there are checks and balances. If these checks and balances are missing, the nature of the beast being what it is, it will end up cheating and even fleecing the customers. It is also a truism that the biggest moderators of this possible anomaly, indeed danger, especially in a free market, are the customers.
The courier service business, as we know is rapidly expanding in the light of the radical changes in lifestyles, professional patterns, businesses, in the last few decades. So in a situation where there is a shortfall of awareness amongst consumers of their guaranteed rights, as is seemingly the case in Manipur, these services would cheat and make money in unwarranted ways. I know of many reputed courier services which do not do it, but it is also equally certain there are a mushrooming number of others in the same business who has been, or would be, doing it as a matter of routine, as my experience this time with the Flipkart purchases indicated. Just as the lower staff of this courier service agency were under the impression it was the customers’ responsibility to collect their couriered parcels from their office, many customers too would be under the same impression. This vacuum created by ignorance, or lethargy, would be what these dishonest businessmen would be exploiting for their personal benefits.
The modus operandi is pretty simple. Many of these courier services would claim they use the air cargo therefore their services are prompt and efficient. This claim would legitimise a component of the higher premium they charge for their service. Unknown to the customer, they would however be using the cheapest surface cargo facilities available for dispatching their orders, and would pocket the extra premium the customers paid for what they believed was the extra cost for air cargo.
Then in the last mile in the reverse traffic, that is, after the cargo has arrived at the courier service’s office, they are supposed to distribute and deliver the individual parcels and mails to the addressees. This would obviously require another set of staff, and consequently, related overhead expenditures such as salaries, petrol, vehicle maintenance etc. Another component of the extra premium the costumers are made to pay is justified as the cost to meet these overheads. So when the customers do not get this extra service of home delivery, the courier service agents are being allowed unfairly to pocket what the customers paid precisely for this extra service.
In other words, the customers by paying for this extra service, is contributing to the general economy of the place by providing the basis for creating new jobs, but the courier agents, by not extending these extra services, are killing these jobs and pocketing what would have legitimately belonged to these putative jobs.
I am sure mine is not a unique experience, and many other consumers would have faced the same harangue. Many customers would have believed or else simply resigned, this is a general, expected and legitimate bottleneck of the courier service system as such. I am only saying, it is not, and that there is foul play involved. I am also suggesting the customers should begin asserting their rights, and even invoke the law to put these services in the right order they are meant to be in.
I know I cannot vouch for other customers on what their experiences were in the regard, but I know it for certain this problem is much more widespread in Manipur for I have had similar issues with some other courier services as well. As for instance a jacket sent for me from Mumbai took nearly a month to reach me. The courier service in this case, supposedly also using air transport, was surprisingly candid when I pressed the issue in what must have come across as increasingly hostile with each day of extra delay. It admitted that the parcel was loaded on a wrong bus from Guwahati and went to Silchar, and was being redirected from there. So much for air cargo!
To be fair, let me also add, there are some reputed courier services with a presence in Imphal, who conduct their businesses honestly, and as per their claims. My profession determines that I am a pretty frequent air traveller and a pretty frequent user of the courier services, therefore have become acquainted with many faces in the business. Some of these courier services, when they have not booked their orders as air cargo, buy a passenger ticket in the plane on a regular basis, and have a staff carry their orders to the nearest connecting offices in Guwahati, Kolkata or Delhi, as personal check in baggage. I have no idea why Flipkart has discontinued its partnership with one of these and chosen another which so far has not proven its worth, at least in Imphal.
It is quite ironic that Manipur which at one level seems acutely aware of rights, is so totally negligent and ignorant of these same rights of the individual citizen at another level. There is not a day we do not see protest rallies against violation of rights, a bandh or a blockade to demand what are unilaterally held as legitimate birthrights. It is really a wonder how a society so preoccupied with such grand and often grandiose notions of rights and entitlements, from self determination to human rights to gender questions etc, can so be totally tolerant of everyday affronts on their senses of dignity and dignified living. How have we come to be so tolerant of say, the uncleared garbage on the roadsides, wafer thin black toppings on roads which get washed away every monsoon, unmanaged traffic which saps everybody’s patience and energy every day, open black market sale of petrol… The list can go on. Issues like these should not have been any extra worry for anyone if the ultimate consumers were more vigila
nt. A stitch in time saves nine, as the saying goes.
There are too many issues to be settled, but it would be wise not to allow the immensity of them all to lull everyone into inaction and despair. Instead, let us begin from the beginning. The way to go would be, I imagine, to take note and single out the immediate affronts each of us faces at the moment and think of a legitimate redress route. I faced pique with my courier parcels and did my best to get my immediate problem resolved, materially as well as morally, without compromising my fundamental sense of rectitude. It can go further if others who face the same pique were to join the issue. We also had an official consumer redress forum where individual consumers could lodge complaints. Has it gone dormant? Together we must find ways to swing the services that affect our everyday living back into action and smooth out the issues such as the one I faced recently. We will be doing a great service not only to ourselves, but in however little way, to the society as a whole too.