The Trinidad Guardian ran this story by Yvonne Teelucksingh on Sunday 1st May 2005 under the headline “Vasant vindicated”. At that time Colm Imbert was The Minister of Works and Transport under a PNM administration.
In February 1998, 41-year-old Vasant Bharath was fired as CEO of National Flour Mills. Among the allegations made by the company was that he had taken a unilateral decision to import rice from India at what he claimed were preferential rates, and this had caused the company to suffer losses of some TT$30 million.
Even worse was that the rice that had been purchased was “dog rice,” and unfit for human consumption.
In what Trevor Roberts, former branch president for NFM of the Seamen and Waterfront Workers’ Trade Union described, at the time, as a dismissal that had been “well put together, well orchestrated,” Bharath was vilified and hounded in the national press, his name besmirched, a promising career aborted, his family embarrassed and humiliated in what to this day is referred to as the “dog rice scandal.”
In the end, Bharath was forced to sell his home and his possessions, uproot his family and seek employment in England where, in the ensuing years, he held several high-profile positions, including European general manager and head of foreign exchange operations with Thomas Cook PLC and head of global marketing with Gulf Oil.
Throughout it all—and this Roberts considers to be his greatest mistake—Bharath said nothing.
But Bharath’s silence had been enforced by not only his line minister but also others in authority at that time.
The scandal over NFM’s supposed loss of TT$30 million under Bharath’s watch continues to be the topic of gossip, innuendo and open hatefulness.
The issue of “dog rice” from India, which he is purported to have authorised, has been immortalised in calypso, virulent talk shows and on political platforms.
Vasant Bharath is now back in Trinidad as the CEO of Nutrimix Flour Mills, a direct competitor of NFM whose shares in the years since his dismissal have fallen from a bullish $4.50 to a bearish $2.85 at a time when the Stock Market has more than quadrupled in value.
So, what has changed since 1998 that enabled Bharath to return home?
The short answer is that Claim No1999 Folio No 61 made at the High Court of Justice, Queen’s Bench Division, Commercial Court, Royal Courts of Justice, London, by National Flour Mills against Huntsville Navigation Co Ltd completely absolves Bharath of any wrongdoing in the matter for which he was terminated by the claimants.
According to the claim, served in 1999, NFM had, “by a contract contained in or evidenced by an agreement dated 15 April 1997, purchased from G Gangadas Shah & Sons of India about 12,000 metric tonnes of Indian semi-milled, parboiled rice (non-basmati) in bulk for US$395 per mt C& F Port-of-Spain, free out.”
The first shipment was to consist of about 6,000 metric tonnes.
One of the allegations made against Bharath was that there was no contract.
NFM further claimed that the purchased rice was shipped on the vessel Ruby Islands for carriage to and delivery at Port-of-Spain, West Indies, “in the same good order and condition as had prevailed upon shipment.”
This description of the cargo is repeated in six different instances in the particulars of claim, variously as “in good order and condition”; “good order and condition as had prevailed upon shipment,” “apparent good order and condition…”
NFM’s claim against Huntsville Navigation Co Ltd was that the rice which was shipped “in good order and condition” had deteriorated, the cause being “the negligence of the defendants, their servants or agents,” and the failure of the vessel “to proceed from Kandla to Port-of-Spain with all reasonable despatch…by a usual and reasonable route and had delayed and deviated.”
“Huntsville Navigation Co Ltd are the owners of the vessel, Ruby Islands, which left the port of Kandla, India, “between about 22 and 29 July 1997,” carrying a shipment “in good order and condition 6,350 mt of Indian semi-milled parboiled rice (non-basmati) in bulk…for carriage to and delivery at Port-of-Spain, West Indies.”
No mention was made in the claim of the 35-day delay— after Bharath’s removal from handling the matter—in offloading the rice when the vessel arrived at Port-of-Spain.
The claim by NFM against Huntsville Navigation was settled out of court for an amount that was much less than the TT$30 million loss which, in 1998, NFM claimed to have suffered as a direct result of Bharath’s alleged wrongdoing.
Which begs the question—why was the claim made for less than the amount of the loss?
In fact, NFM employees confirmed that “some of the rice was sold on the open market, and the rest was sold to Colombia for $7 million.”
The processed rice, which could not be sold to consumers, was down-graded to feed grade.
Additionally, it was confirmed by the then Prime Minister that all transactions of this nature “are well-insured.”
Moreover, members of the SWWTU who are employed at NFM confirmed that even after the inordinate delay of 35 days before the relevant bill of lading was released by NFM’s new attorney, “there was a big pelau cook-up at NFM using the ‘dog rice’.”
There was no report of anyone who ate the dog rice pelau having suffered any discomfort.
On balance then, it would appear that NFM did not suffer a TT$30 million loss under Bharath’s watch, and that the rice purchased and shipped from India was “in good order and condition.”
In his statement submitted at the High Court of Justice, Queen’s Bench Division, London, Colin Mahabir, who in 1997, was general manager, marketing at NFM, stated that although it “was not part of my normal function to get involved in contractual negotiations with suppliers,” he was, in early 1997, requested to travel with Bharath to India “to investigate whether we could find cheaper sources of rice than the sources in the United States which we traditionally used” and that he “had been recommended for this role by the chairman of the company at the time, Mr Robert Clarke.”
As a member of NFM’s grain purchasing committee, Mahabir was “involved in decisions about when we should buy and at what price.”
Also, it was “in 1997, and still is, normal practice at NFM that when a new shipment of rice comes from overseas, I am sent samples of the milled product for evaluation in terms of its appearance and smell… and these are subjective matters in which I am very experienced, knowing as I do the market which we serve.”
After stringent checks and balances which included inspection of the mill, water quality reports and verification of proper sampling and quality control procedures at G Gangadas Shah & Sons, Mahabir reported to the tenders committee at NFM along with Bharath, and “the committee decided to place an order with GGS in view of the price and their ability to supply a consistently good quality—a yield of 92 per cent when NFM’s standard yield was 86 per cent.”
Mahabir said he returned to India when the rice was shipped and brought back samples of what had been laded.
He confirmed that there was no sign of infestation.
“I did not see any black kernels. The rice looked to be in very good condition. It was definitely semi-milled parboiled rice,” Mahabir said.
He said he took photographs of the product being loaded and also brought back samples to NFM for testing.
Mahabir said the main problem with the rice which was eventually offloaded from the Ruby Islands was its appearance.
“It had been heat-damaged. Heat causes rice to be discoloured,” he said.
In fact, three separate analyses of the rice, including one done by Cariri and another by the Food and Drug Administration confirmed that the discolouration of the rice had not affected its quality.
In assessing their claim against the shippers, NFM sought expert and technical advice from expert rice broker M Jean-Paul Schepens, then chairman of the London Rice Brokers’ Association and Mr J A Conway, MSc, CBIOL, MIBIOL, who was then principal technical adviser at the food security department of the Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich, Chatham, UK, who has had “some 35 years of experience of post-harvest technology in the handling and storage of durable agricultural commodities both in temperate and tropical countries.”
Both determined that the protracted duration of the voyage was the primary cause of the deterioration.
Bharath’s dismissal was based on 13 allegations.
One allegation was that “no formal contract was entered into between parties” and that the order for rice from India had not been sanctioned by the then acting chairman of NFM and chairman of the Tenders Committee.
Yet, the letter of credit established by Citibank T&T Ltd on April 16, 1997 bears the acting chairman’s signature, as do subsequent amendments.
This letter of credit and its amendments formed the basis of the contract and clearly set out the relevant terms and conditions.
Contacted for a comment, union representatives at NFM said they were not surprised that NFM’s court claim against the shippers had exonerated Bharath.
They said that as far back as 1998, they had taken the evidence that would have cleared Bharath’s name to the Prime Minister and nothing was ever done.
“But”, says their spokesman, “I am happy that my friend can come back here and get the respect he deserves. I am happy to see him vindicated.”
After a seven-year exile in London, Vasant Bharath is glad to be back home.
“Trinidad is my home and it is always nice to be home among your friends and family,” he said last week.
Bharath packed up and left T&T after he was fired as CEO by National Flour Mills in 1998 amidst allegations that he had acted unilaterally in deciding to import some $30 million worth of rice from India.
He is now back as CEO of Nutrimix Flour Mills, NFM’s competitor on the local market.
Asked whether he was aware that NFM knew that its allegations against him were baseless, Bharath said, “I had copies of several documents that clearly showed that there was no wrongdoing on my part at NFM which were never disclosed by the company.”
He said he never made the documents public then because he was advised by his line minister that “I was not to respond to any of these frivolous allegations.”
“Of course, during this time of silence, the country was left to come to its own conclusions,” Bharath said.
“And six months later, when I did disclose the said information in a wide-ranging television interview, the public’s mind had already been made up.”
Commenting on information that completely exonerates him from any wrongdoing in the $30 million rice deal, Bharath said he was tremendously relieved, “not just for myself but for my family and friends who’ve suppported me throughout this matter and who on many occasions, have been the subject of ridicule as a result of their support.”
He said he was initially bitter and angry at what he saw was a well-orchestrated plot to remove him.
“Time is a great healer, and with maturity, I’ve come to realise there have been far greater wrongs perpetrated in the world,” Bharath said.
“As a good friend of mine always says, ‘God wears pyjamas but He never goes to sleep.’”