Recovering funds should be top priority
An important job was pending, and "Everybody" thought "Somebody" would do that. "Anybody" could have done it, but "Nobody" did it. "Somebody" got upset, as it was "Everybody's" job. "Everybody" thought "Anybody" could do it, but "Nobody" realised that "Everybody" wouldn't do it. It ended up with "Everybody" blaming "Somebody" while "Nobody" did what "Anybody" could do.
This old satirical adage pretty much mirrors poor handling of wheezing worms out of e-commerce's can in Bangladesh. It is quite annoying rather than shocking. The government has allowed the incremental violation of law and all norms of doing business in the name of e-commerce only to advance its mythical doctrine of "Digital Bangladesh."
Rogue websites were allowed to fraudulently publicise impractically low prices of consumer goods, home appliances, vehicles etc. It sparked the nationwide wildfire of marketing hype. But the government did nothing. E-commerce outfits took advance payments against unusually belated deliveries. And the government did nothing. The consumers got angry when their deliveries never arrived. Yet, the government did nothing.
Even when the defaulted e-commerce outlets started procrastinating to refund, the government, armed with legal instruments and institutions, did nothing whatsoever to salvage the helpless citizens from such a brazen scam. Finally, when the media started exposing the frauds of epic proportion, the law enforcers woke up and nabbed a few culprits.
Then the soap opera of blame game began within the government.
Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal made the commerce ministry public enemy number one. "They [the commerce ministry] have to take the responsibility primarily. At the same time, other agencies involved should take the responsibility collectively," he said, The Daily Star reported.
Conventional and mobile banks, except Nagad, along with all payment gateways function under the central bank's jurisdiction. Therefore, when the finance minister says "other agencies involved should take the responsibility collectively" he, whatever inadvertently, also points the finger at Bangladesh Bank.
But Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi has questioned the central bank's ability to recover the money of disgraced e-commerce outlet Evaly. "The e-commerce company has spent a lot of money on promotional purposes or diverted funds elsewhere," he told the press.
The commerce minister is clearly in denial mode to handle the administrative and regulatory hot potato. He also keenly shields the competition commission's monumental failure of halting the rise of e-commerce crooks like Evaly and e-Orange.
Interestingly enough, the telecoms minister has said nothing whatsoever when over Tk 47 crore of Sirajganjshop customers' refund money in the custody of Nagad went missing in just two days. The contagion of fraud and irregularities that plague the budding e-commerce sector because of a few bad apples is now spreading to mobile financial services.
Just like e-commerce, a lack of regulatory oversight is putting the hard-earned financially inclusive ecosystem in jeopardy. By allowing opaque ownership and false advertising, customers' money entrusted with a mobile financial service is even getting swindled.
Evaly's fraudulence began with offering mobile phones at Tk 16 ($0.19) on November 30, 2019. This campaign is still hanging in its website. What more it takes for the Bangladesh Competition Commission to wake up when mobile phones are sold at the price of a bottle of water?
The commission, despite being empowered to penalise and imprison such fraudsters, has allowed Evaly's monstrous rise instead. The competition watchdog's unforgiving failure to intervene has dared Evaly to grow and prompted others to follow suit.
Authorities now scramble to cover up their spectacular failure to act and protect the deceived customers of the e-commerce syndicate. A populist idea of raising an e-commerce-specific regulator is also gaining momentum. It will merely add another point of failure in the already disoriented club of regulators.
The government should identify where, when and why the incumbent regulatory gatekeepers have collectively failed to contain the fraudsters' lust. But recovering and refunding the customers' money should be the government's topmost priority.
The author is senior policy fellow at LIRNEasia.