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Print Edition: May 3, 2007

Those were the days

The year was 1954. One of my close friends from Lucknow—where I worked as Superintendent of Agencies with New India Assurance (which was owned by the Tatas with J.R.D. Tata as the chairman)—was travelling from London to Bombay. He was studying gynaecology in Britain and was returning to India by ship. He had insured his luggage with Thomas Cook. One of the suitcases he was carrying was lost in transit. When the ship docked at Paris on its way to India, he informed the local Thomas Cook office of the loss. One week later when he landed in Mumbai a Thomas Cook officer greeted him at the port with a cheque for the amount of his damage claim. Such was the level of efficiency and customer service in those days.

There were over 240 insurance companies, all of them private and many of them fully or partly foreignowned. New India Assurance was in both life and non-life insurance. Though I dealt with life, I remember when I had to inspect a claim for car insurance. The manager of a big landlord in Faizabad had made claim for damage of one of his cars— none other than a Buick (a brand owned by General Motors). The company had responded to his claim through a letter stating they were sorry to hear of the damage and would be releasing the claim as soon as they got my inspection report. Making false claims, and getting away with it, was difficult then.

For life insurance, endowment policies were the most preferred. New India had given me a Fiat and we would travel extensively for business. In 1956, life insurance was nationalised while the non-life sector was taken over by the government in 1972. C.D. Deshmukh, the finance minister in 1956, had assured us of our jobs—especially those who worked hard. I remember the exact words he said: “Workers at all levels should not have any worries, but of the continuance of sinecures, we cannot guarantee.” I became an employee of Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) and was posted to districts like Sultanpur, Basti and Orai. LIC took life insurance to the smallest and remotest villages and we would travel extensively to expand the coverage and penetrations of insurance. It’s quite likely that the efficiency and customer service did not keep pace with the expansion. I remember the largest insurance I did was of Rs 50, 000 in the 1960s.

I retired from LIC as a senior branch manager in 1982. Reading of the return of private and foreign insurance companies makes me nostalgic. I hope as the insurance business expands, companies—government or non-government—do not lose sight of customer service. After all, as the line goes, insurance is a subject matter of solicitation.

Author, R. S. L. Srivastava, is a veteran of the insurance business, having served in both pre- and post-nationalisation period.

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