The e-commerce sector in Bangladesh is touted as one of the most promising of business sectors by people in know of things, thanks to its rapid growth in the last few years. However, as it spread its wings across the length and breadth of the country, so did allegations of malpractices and anomalies even as according to a report by the Cyber Crime Awareness Foundation, more than 11.48 per cent of customers of the e-commerce sector were deceived last year from various e-commerce and Facebook commerce (f-commerce) websites. The number was previously 7.44 per cent in 2019.
Meanwhile, as per media reports, the Government had received over 13,000 complaints against e-commerce firms and to protect the consumer rights, the Directorate of National Consumers’ Right Protection have had to conduct around 70-80 drives every day across the country even as after years of complaint against the online sellers as well as responding to the growing impact of digital platforms on the current economic progress and challenges posed by them, the Ministry of Commerce after due consultation with the stakeholders, issued operational guidelines for the e-commerce sector.
“We have been demanding for a long time to introduce e-commerce law and escrow services so that e-commerce companies can be brought under legal obligation and the financial transactions of buyers can be secured,” underlined President of the e-Commerce Association of Bangladesh (e-CAB) Shami Kaiser, who was part of the meeting of the stakeholders even as e-CAB Secretary General Mohammad Abdul Waheed Tamal on his part added, “Two proposals regarding implementation of SOP and escrow services were adopted by e-CAB at the meeting. I believe if this decision is implemented, millions of entrepreneurs and buyers will be saved from financial uncertainty.”
Not too long after the meeting, the Commerce Ministry released the e-commerce guidelines prepared after consulting various ministries, Governmental and non-Governmental organisations, and other stakeholders concerned, aimed at bringing accountability to the sale of goods and services online.
Pertaining to the same, Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi briefed reporters on various aspects of the guidelines.
“It gives detailed explanations about displaying product and services information in the marketplace, general rules, presentation of sale of goods or services in the marketplace, product delivery, advance payment price adjustment etc. We hope it will be helpful for customers,” maintained Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi.
Terming the formulation of the guideline a milestone, Syed Almas Kabir, President of the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services, observed that if it is not implemented with the involvement of law enforcement agencies, the guidelines will fail to bear any fruit even as a top official of an e-commerce business reportedly told the media that the move will enable more accountability for digital marketplaces and sellers as Facebook-based untraceable marketplaces have mushroomed recently, following which consumer deception has also increased.
“We welcome the new policies for e-commerce business operations in Bangladesh. This is a ground-breaking example that will help shape and boost the growth of the e-commerce industry in our country. Although we do not have any direct inventory in our stock and most of the dealings are done between the buyers and sellers, we have decided to collect a valid NID before allowing any member on our site,” stated Eshita Sharmin, Managing Director of Bikroy.com, an online marketplace which was launched in 2012 and where one can reportedly buy and sell almost everything from second-hand cars to mobile phones, property, etc.
Almost a month since the guidelines came into being, what’s been the state of affairs as far as the e-commerce sector is concerned?
Now, if reports are to be believed, despite the recent introduction of the operational guidelines for the e-commerce sector, the industry still seems to be rife with complaints even if in addition, the Criminal Investigation Department or the CID is said to have found evidence against 14 companies, suspecting that hundreds of crores of Taka have been laundered by some e-commerce platforms even as experts maintained that the regulatory bodies and all stakeholders involved must monitor and enforce laws to stop any unhealthy competition while safeguarding businesses and the consumers.
It may be mentioned here that one of the prominent names in the e-commerce sector in Bangladesh, Evaly was issued a show-cause notice recently as to how it would settle its current liabilities to customers and merchants even as the notice also asked Evaly to clarify the whereabouts of around Taka 338 crore that the platform owed to customers and merchants, which follows a Bangladesh Bank investigation, which maintained that Evaly has a liability of Taka 213.94 crore to customers and Taka 189.85 crore to merchants.
The Commerce Ministry reportedly further added it had noticed that Evaly was not delivering products on time despite receiving advance payments from customers.
On 19 July, the Ministry sent a letter to Evaly, asking it to explain by 1st August how it would settle its current liabilities to customers and merchants, to which the e-commerce platform replied on 1st August seeking more time to respond in detail to the show-cause notice, subsequent to which the Commerce Ministry decided to form a committee to decide whether it would provide six months to Evaly after the digital platform sought the time.
The notice ordered the e-commerce site to come up with an explanation why no legal action would be taken against it to protect customers and merchants and prevent the digital commerce sector from any negative impact. It also inquired about the company’s business practices.
“The company has given a reply and sought six months to provide its response in full. A committee will decide whether the Ministry will give it the time,” stated Hafizur Rahman, Additional Secretary of the Ministry while speaking to the media
Meanwhile, President of the Consumer Association Bangladesh (CAB), Ghulam Rahman maintained that the Government is mainly responsible for enabling a framework that ensures good governance, which in turn helps safeguard the consumer rights.
“The Government is mainly responsible for protecting the interests of the consumers as part of good governance through a framework. Under the framework, ministries, regulatory bodies, associations, legal enforcement agencies have to act as an ecosystem,” said the CAB President, adding, “If consumer rights are violated, one can register complaints with the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection (DNCRP), and following an investigation, if the violation of rights is proved, legal action can be taken through law enforcement agencies.”
If you take the new SOP introduced by the Ministry of Commerce into account, it might have some flaws, which can be addressed if the associations shed a spotlight on them, observed the CAB President while adding Bangladesh Bank, CAB, Ministry of Commerce and other associations have worked side by side to come up with the guideline to ensure good governance and if there are gaps, those need to be brought under attention and the Government should address those.
Commenting on the current state of e-commerce sector in Bangladesh, Dr Muhammad Shahadat Hossain Siddiquee, who teaches Economics at the University of Dhaka, told the media: “These companies somehow entered into the market under a regulatory body. Now if you stop their operation in the name of irregularities, it would be a headache,” even as he added that on the other hand, prioritising consumer rights protection, regulations, and monitoring in this business was vital as e-commerce is a new phenomenon in the domestic market.
Dr Muhammad Shahadat Hossain Siddiquee believes that weak mechanisms from regulatory bodies are what led to chaos even as he added that scrutinising the business model and analysing sustainability is very important from the authorities’ end with respect to protecting the business and consumer interest.
“Several merchants have submitted complaints against platforms for not paying several crores worth of owed money. Then there are consumers who are not getting refunds and orders,” reportedly underlined a top official of the e-CAB, while interacting with the media on condition of anonymity, “Actions that will be taken have to be rational, considering the future of the industry and safeguarding everyone from falling victim to such a situation, rather than addressing emotions that are intertwined with the hard-earned money of people, that is at risk.”
Going by the view and opinions as expressed by the experts, one would assume things are far from ideal as yet in the e-commerce sector. However, proper and strict monitoring by bodies concerned as to any anomalies in the sector and stringent, corrective follow-up actions, if taken, are bound to improve things further in the days to come.