E-commerce Industry: Still left to run without reins
E-commerce firmly began to put down roots in Bangladesh back in 2009 and since then has gone on to become a mainstay in the retail landscape.
Yet, in all these years, the government did not feel the urgency to come up with a definitive e-commerce policy or assign a regulatory body for the fast-growing industry to ensure discipline.
And it is this loophole that rogue players like Evaly and Dhamaka Shopping exploited to the hilt to expropriate money from unassuming consumers.
While there is a National Digital Commerce Policy 2018, it was not until July this year that the commerce ministry came up with the standard operating procedure and guidelines.
By this time, the rogue e-commerce players have run amok with people's money.
The policy also mandates the formation of an e-commerce regulatory authority, which the government is yet to do, prompting Supreme Court lawyer Md Anwarul Islam Badhon on Monday to submit a writ petition as public interest litigation to the High Court on the matter.
This begs the question: why was the government so negligent on this sector, one of the pillars of its much-cherished Digital Bangladesh vision?
The Daily Star spoke with a host of government agencies that could have stepped up and what emerged was a contemptible picture of blame-shifting.
The commerce ministry only formed the e-commerce cell when some companies were found to be involved in false marketing, said Hafizur Rahman, an additional secretary of the ministry.
The cell, which Rahman helms, was formed in February this year -- about six to eight months after the deluge of customer complaints against Evaly, the most infamous of the rogue e-commerce platforms, began.
After one too many allegations surfaced against Evaly last year, a multi-pronged investigation was initiated by several government agencies, including the Directorate of National Consumer Right Protection (DNCRP), commerce ministry, home ministry, the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Bangladesh Bank.
They all came back with truly shocking findings and yet the e-commerce platform was allowed to operate as normal, ensnaring more gullible consumers and vendors along the way.
Not just that, a handful of new players with a similar strategy as Evaly like Dhamaka Shopping, which did not even get the permit from the Registrar of Joint Stock Companies and Firms, were allowed to enter the fray.
Asked about the commerce ministry's lethargic response, Rahman said the responsibility lies with all related government agencies like the Bangladesh Competition Commission (BCC), the DNCRP, the BB and the ACC.
Had any aggrieved customer filed a complaint against those companies, the DNCRP could have taken the action against them, he said.
Contacted, Md Mofizul Islam, chairperson of BCC, said his organisation began taking action against Evaly as far back as August 12 last year, when the company announced an 80 percent to 150 percent discount on products.
"We have sent notice to the Evaly to stop the such a big discount and a case was filed by the BCC," Islam said.
However, the BCC did not take the same step against the other e-commerce platforms that were advertising as deep discounts as nobody lodged any complaint of anti-competitive business practice against them.
"The BCC's job is to keep watch on anti-competitive issues to protect the interests of consumers and businesses," Islam added.
Bablu Kumar Saha, director-general of the DNCRP, said the onus also lies on the customers in protecting their interests.
If they put in complaints, the DNCRP takes action, he said, adding that his organisation settled 85.9 percent of the customer complaints that were lodged between July 2018 and June this year.
Rogue e-commerce platforms have cropped up in Bangladesh because of the government agencies' laxity in duty, said Ahsan H Mansur, executive director of the Policy Research Institute.
"Only the formation of a cell is not enough for monitoring such a big industry."
He went on to recommend a commission like the Bangladesh Securities and Exchange Commission with representation from the commerce, finance and home ministries, the National Board of Revenue, the BB and the private sector for the proper functioning of the sector.
Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, echoed the same.
Companies in many sectors in Bangladesh grow without following proper rules, which ultimately raises questions on governance, he said.
Md. Abdul Wahed Tomal, general secretary of the e-Commerce Association of Bangladesh (e-CAB), said the association has informed about the flouting of rules by some companies to the central bank, commerce ministry and the other agencies but no action was taken as there was no particular law in this regard.