Vivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.
Perish the thought that insurance companies cover risk. Private insurance companies in India play so safe it is a wonder they allow the vehicles they have insured to venture out on the roads at all. My experience with TATA AIG, HDFC Ergo and Berkshire is illustrative. No sooner than I had sought a cover through the website www.policybazaar.com than the cellphone did not stop ringing. I explained to the voice at the other end that my vehicle has a monogamous relationship with me, that the old faithful had never strayed which is why she had been rewarded with no claim bonuses for seven years in a row, that this time a rustic on a bike had taken a fancy for her in the hills of Uttarakhand and knocked off a few teeth, but the insurer had got off lightly citing advancing age, that though she looked like a bat she was built like a mare and drove like one, and that an oversight on my part had led to a break in insurance cover, which is why I had knocked on the doors of the portal.
No problem, oozed the syrup at the other end, when could the car be inspected? Any time, I said, and told her where the car and the keys could be found. The inspector came in my absence, sized up the bird, and apparently left in disapproval, which I realized after a few days of expectant waiting, when I decided to end the suspense and call. HDFC Ergo had declined. But why? I asked the disembodied voice. Oh, there is a crack in the bumper and too many scratches, she said. Show me a car in Delhi that does not have scratches, I said, and as for the cracked bumper, well, why not exclude it from the cover? In any case, since the depreciated value is so low, why not just provide third party cover, which is mandatory and all insurance companies are obliged to sell? Sorry, she said, we only do comprehensive. Not to worry she assured me, Tata AIG is not quite fussy, and the job would be done. So I went through the grind again. At long last the inspector showed up even as the sun was shutting down, but he could not take photographs because the charge in his cellphone had run out. Did I have a device with a certain number of mexapixels? No I said. Then I will have to wait. The next time he came he pointed to a dent in the door. I did not realize then that the observation would prove to be fatal.
Berkshire Insurance sought details of the car, secured a scanned copy of the registration certificate from me and said it would revert. It has not. So far. Its owner Warren Buffet who has made a fortune though patient investing could take a few tips from his insurance agents.
Suitably chastened, I went back to my old agent, who represents a state-owned insurer. Could I get just third party cover so I am able to drive my car? No problem, he said. He meant it.
Increasingly I have come to realize that private insurance companies are there just to skim the cream. They are just not enterprising. They are so process-oriented, that they will not take up anything that falls outside the mould. You cannot talk to the call centre guys; all you get is cyclostyled answers.
A few years ago ICICI Lombard declined health cover because its medical tests threw up a condition which I had already disclosed! What is more, it would not part with the report that I had paid for. It relented only after I threatened to move the insurance regulatory authority. The state-owned Oriental Insurance obliged, and so far it has had no reason to regret the trust it has reposed in me.
I dread the 'relationship managers' of private banks. They are so transactional; even predatory. They often sell you stuff that is not in your interest. I am sure that the Goldman Sachs employee was not exaggerating when he wrote in a New York Times article (and a recent book) that at the investment bank they regarded customers as 'muppets.' I have had relationship managers suggest multiple churns of mutual funds so that their banks could earn commissions, peddling such exotic products as 'quant' funds, persuading me to keep dormant bank accounts alive when all they did was run up charges for non-maintenance of minimum balance, seek appointments so they could deliver in person passwords that would enable me to view my pension account online when they were really seeking a pretext to sell more of the same, and advice investment linked insurance when I needed plain life risk cover.
I am a supporter of private enterprise, so it is not easy for me to say this. But one cannot ignore the evidence. Private financial firms are good so long as your interface is with their technology. When it comes to service I would hold as examples a manager at State Bank of India's Kasturba Gandhi Marg and the officer dealing with public provident fund at Punjab National Bank's Preet Vihar branch. They were so human and obliging that I carry pleasant memories of my dealings with them.