Ordeals of a small exporter in India

Sorry I’m in a mood to rant a bit. Background: I run a small smart-devices startup tinkerbee.in and we’ve been trying to send a small shipment to a customer in the US.

Ease of Doing Business, my foot! It’s been 10 frikkin days trying to decipher the entire export machinery. 😡

It’s all ‘electronic’ and ‘online’. But there’s nothing worse than badly implemented ‘digital India’. Its cruel and insensitive, to say the least. If its difficult for a tech-savvy user like me, I shudder to imagine what others might be going through.

There’s no point trying to scream at the dumb screens and machines. They hide the real incompetence of some large IT cos who are implementing these systems and can safely sit and hide behind their screens. No one seems to be working on the real issues real people face trying to use them. Mind you, these are not scrappy startups like mine, these are large organizations with significant budgets and resources.

Export 101. It all starts with something called an AD (Authorized Dealer) code that every exporter needs get from the bank where your company holds the current account. Till last year, all we had to do was send a copy of this letter along with a ton of other papers to DHL (or their ilk). Its a one-time thing. We had a registered AD code bank of A earlier, but (since it almost came to the brink of shutting down once) we opened an account with a different bank B. Bank B gave us the code and the letter promptly.

We asked our CA to update this on the DGFT (Directorate General of Foreign Trade) portal along with our IEC (Import Export Code) and he confirmed that it was done. But the DHL folks kept reporting that the customs portal was still not updated. Apparently there was another process to update this with the Indian Customs department. They directed me to something called the Icegate portal: icegate.gov.in

This is indeed a portal to usability hell! First we tried for a day to sign-up on it using my Digital Signature (DSC) token (every director needs to have one). These things require Java applets to run and interact with the browser. Since all browsers have shuttered this tech (for its security vulnerabilities, mostly), the only option left is to use the ‘recommended’ ancient Internet Explorer 11 (I think it also works with Firefox, not entirely sure though).

Anyways, for some strange reason, clicking the OK button on this applet on selecting our DSC would lead us back to the same point again and again :(.

Finally, we figured out on maximizing this applet window, that somewhere along the sequence it showed some class validation ‘failure’ among about 10 lines of ‘success’.

Then, scratching our heads further we read somewhere that starting Jan 1st only class 3 digital signatures were valid 😡.

Mine was a class 2 signature that I had recently renewed from signkaro.com (to the best of my knowledge, they hadn’t informed me of this change!)

Anyway, back to our icy portal to hell. I spot a notification that says that there is now a ‘simplified registration’ that does not require any DSC. Yay! We finally sign-up using that link.

Simplified registration notification

Now I try to add the AD code. Sounds simple? Hell, no.

Things just didn’t move from this screen for a long time

Things just didn’t move from this screen for a long time. Then after some time they finally did, but I found that documents have to be uploaded on a separate portal :,( So, I reach another pdf user-guide with a screen-shot that says, on logging in, we will see something called e-Sanchit on the left side menu, just upload documents and get a unique IRN (document reference number). We need to save a couple of those reference numbers in a notepad and then find the obscure link to update the AD code. Done? Wrong again.

Well, I keep searching for a link to this e-Sanchit but figure out that the user-manual screen-shots are outdated and so are the ones that the call-center folks seem to be using. This link is now hidden somewhere else. Play around enough and you will accidentally find it. LOL. Here’s an exercise, guess which link I should click to reach e-Sanchit from the screenshot on the right.

Finally, I figure out the clicks required to reach e-Sanchit. I try uploading the documents, but of course they don’t generate any IRN number!!! Then I realize on reading another user-manual pdf there which says that the documents have to be first digitally signed before being uploaded!!!! WAAAAH! :(

The ‘false’ highlighted is the only sign that something is wrong. Trying to use Class 2 digital signature

I try signing with my DSC as per their process and upload. Of course it does not work. And the error is as cryptic as any lazy developer can make it to be. The actual error is probably that I am trying to use a class 2 DSC while a class 3 is required (this is my best guess). Anyways no DRN and IRN generated and so nothing moves.

Its been a couple of days already and DHL guys have now returned the shipment till we register our new AD code.

So now I figure out that we could get a class 3 DSC online from e-Mudhra.com. I promptly call them up and they say that yes, I could get the token picked up from their office the next day! Sweet I thought and proceeded to upload all the authorization and KYC documents that they need to issue this. What they didn’t tell me that what I pick up would be a blank USB, there would be a few more driver installs and application installs to make this usable. The unkindest cut was, the next day I get an email from e-Mudhra saying some document was missing etc, so I promptly upload them again. Another day passes. Now I get an email saying that something else is missing. We go through a 5 day back and forth ritual of this sort where I literally print sign, scan and upload whatever they want me to, and of course a couple of videos to prove that I am alive etc. I am led to believe that the product team there is incentivized to design processes where customer’s interest is an after-though. “Lets make it as slow and as painful as we can since we need to sign off on all the compliance check-lists” seems to be the mantra.

So yesterday, many days after this saga began, I finally got my class 3 DSC downloaded and installed on the USB tokens, (This process is NOT for the faint-hearted! and involves a windows application download and driver install and some steps where the default admin token PIN that is 12345678 that I figured out from a YouTube video).

Now I go back to Icegate portal, all ready to upload! End of the tunnel? Ha, ha, you must be joking, updating an N digit AD code on a government portal cannot be that simple (evil smile).

Page entered to be signed is not found. 10 marks trying to guess what the error actually means.

I upload the document and of course it rejects it because my account is still linked with the old DSC and of-course it would say some obscure error which you again have to decipher. You need to be Byomkesh Bakshi to figure things out here.

In a secret Icegate portal developer language, that error means, you cannot update your DSC here, you dummy customer!

So, now I try the link in the Icegate portal, update profile page to update my DSC, but it simply throws an error. Frustrated I reach out to the Icegate call center (These folks have been trying their best. But here is the prime example of misplaced priorities. Digital interfaces for the masses should NOT need user-manuals and call centers simply to be used. If they had spent half the money they spent on call-centers, on UX and user-centric design, we would not be here).

Back to the story. I am informed that I cannot update my DSC like this and that the button does not work for people who signed up using simplified registration process.

The way out? I am informed that I have to delete my Icegate login, and register again. Simple right? No.
So last night I tried deleting my id. For some strange reason it kept showing ‘No record found’ when searching.

Here is the reason I found out. I was typing in lower case (as most folks normally do), the input box however was auto-converting to upper case, but on submitting the search form, it was submitting the id in lower-case id and threw up a not found (because my original id was in upper case, huh). I caught this one after a few hours luckily and deleted my old id after turning CAPS LOCK ON.

Ok, then I try to register afresh. Its past midnight now. I submit my IEC code and GSTN and it shows an error ‘Unable to Connect with PAN Services’. I keep trying a few times, but no use. Again, users are assumed to be detectives to understand that connecting with ‘PAN services’ is required for signing up on Icegate and you are not informed up-front, but after going through a few paces!

Unable to connect to PAN services. I’m having pizza tonight so no pancakes for you. Go figure.

Then I see a scrolling notification on the screen:
*Users are informed that PAN Services will get affected from Feb 12th 20:00 hrs to Feb 13th 10:00 hrs & Feb 13th 20:00 hrs to Feb 14th 10:00 hrs due to some technical reasons. We request your cooperation.

See that tiny scroll, super-human customers are supposed to read that and understand that they cannot register on the portal

:( :( So I shutdown the computer and login the next day, past 10:30 am (Feb 13th) and guess what, it shows the same error. So I call up the Icegate helpline again and I am casually informed ‘Sorry sir, some technical work is going on. please try tomorrow or much better try Monday morning’

What the actual ****! They exceed their scheduled down-time and don’t show the courtesy to even update the scroll or inform the customer legibly!

Of course, I cannot explain all this shit to my customer in the US who was expecting a shipment 10 days ago. I can only apologize.

I am tired. This is just one among a hundred inane things that I do not want to waste my mind and time on. I am actively looking at other places for moving my startup where I can focus on innovation and value creation (but even that is not easy). It would do this country good to set up a national user-centric-design-framework which needs to be put front and center of all Digital India initiatives. We don’t need more posters of Digital India and Atmanirbhar India, we need simple customer centric execution across.

If any website requires pdf user-manuals and a call-center to operate, it must be shut-down and taken back to the drawing board. Doing otherwise must be a crime. That’s the only way I see out of this mess.

Best wishes to all who are trying to make things work in this country. I hope we will succeed someday.

obsessively compulsively creative. getting better every day.

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