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Issue of October 2006 

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Case Studies

  • Document management at Sahara Life Insurance
  • Customs Clearance: The ICEGATE way

Document management at Sahara Life Insurance

Sahara Life Insurance threw open its doors for business in October 2004. Long before that day, the company's IT team was busy setting up a document management system that would speed up application processing. Rishiraj Verma takes a look at the organisation's IT set-up

Life insurance revolves around paper. Especially for an up-and-coming insurance firm, where it is essential to make sure that every document is not only scrutinised thoroughly but is also retained. This is where Sahara Life Insurance (SLI) differs from the rest.

SLI jumped onto the IT bandwagon, and one of the systems it deployed was document management. What’s interesting is that the document management implementation took place even before SLI signed up its first customer.

Saving time

Balaram Sarma

Explains Balaram Sarma, Chief Operating Officer of SLI, “There is the need for paper validation of every transaction that takes place at an insurance firm. This is a time-consuming procedure.”

Proposals from a potential insurance applicant need to be verified and underwritten before the policy is presented. Sometimes, there is also the need for additional documents. This adds to the amount of time taken to complete the process. If the traditional paper-based methods had been followed, it would have taken 15 to 20 days for each application. For a firm just setting foot in the insurance sector, this was time it didn’t have.

In perspective

This is why SLI wanted everything in place before it launched. They had to make sure that the entire process of paper validation (especially primary papers such as applications or claims) was sped up. This meant that only information—rather than hard copies of secondary documents—had to be sent to the company’s primary location at Lucknow. “We realised that if only a scanned copy was sent to the primary location we would save a lot of time,” recalls Sarma.

In effect, this would mean that additional documents and secondary papers would remain with the other locations. These papers would be sent to the primary office later by post. However, the primary papers still had to be sent. Says Sarma, “The laws require insurance companies to retain the hard copies of the primary papers.”

He informs that the company also wanted a process by which it would be possible to record every incoming paper form received from a policyholder. This would help SLI keep a tab on transactions at a much faster pace than was possible with traditional methods. It would also help the organisation when a policyholder applied for a claim. “To take an example of usage, searching of documents would become much faster,” points out Sarma.

He says that numerous vendors were evaluated before coming down to a final choice. “The vendors were known throughout the world market and many organisations were using their solutions but we were looking at something different.”

The requirements were clear—the vendor had to be able to provide the right solution and do so in a short period of time. “Nimbleness was also something we were looking for in our vendor,” says Sarma.

He remarks that Newgen, the chosen vendor, wanted to prove itself in the software arena, while SLI wanted to prove itself in the insurance sector. “Just this need to prove ourselves would have made a great pact.” Newgen Software Technologies was thus chosen as the partner for SLI’s implementation.

Sarma explains that the vendor provided them with a solution in three parts: OmniCapture for scanning documents, OmniDocs for document management, and OmniFlow to manage automated workflow. These, according to Sarma, have helped in Sahara Life’s endeavour to cut down on the time taken to complete the paperwork.

Less intervention

According to Sarma, OmniCapture has helped them scan documents with lesser human intervention and fewer errors. On the other hand, OmniDocs has been useful for archiving purposes, helping them in preserving important documents such as policies and claims granted. Finally, OmniFlow has acted as the spine of all information that comes into the organisation through policyholders.

The Newgen solution, Sarma says, has been useful in ensuring that important information is provided to all users. He therefore feels that the implementation has been an overall success.

IT shall come first

While most organisations, not just BFSIs, start operations and then look to upgrade their infrastructure, including that which is IT-related, Sahara Life Insurance decided to go the other way around.

Balaram Sarma, the company’s Chief Operating Officer, explains that the company began operations in October 2004, but the IT implementation began around July the same year. “We were able to complete the process in a matter of three months.” He however adds that the process of “fine tuning” is still going on based on the responses that users are providing.

There were no phases to the implementation per se. “The main idea was to ensure that there was a system in place which would automate document validation and workflow throughout the organisation.”

In a nutshell

The company
Sahara Life Insurance is Sahara India Parivar's latest venture. It was launched with an initial paid-up capital of Rs 157 crore.

The reasons

  • To cut down on paperwork in the company.
  • To cut down on the time required to complete the processing of a policy from application to granting it.
  • To record every incoming paper from policyholders.

    The solution
    Newgen's solution in three parts: OmniCapture for scanning documents. OmniDocs for document management. OmniFlow for automated workflow.

    The benefits
    Time required for processing a policy down to three days instead of the 15 days through traditional methods.

Perception hurdles

What may be considered a negative by most organisations was taken as an advantage by Sarma. Says he, “The users were completely fresh.” This ensured that they would be keen to work on the solutions and therefore be more accurate at their jobs.

About the challenges faced as part of the implementation Sarma declares: “There was only one.” According to him, the users, because they were new, had a sort of a mental block related to dealing with information rather than papers. However, this block was soon cleared, and now users don’t have many complaints about the solution, or even about working on the electronic documents.

“It’s the time factor again,” Sarma says as he explains that the period for completing all paperwork related to a new policy application or claim has been reduced to about three days as compared to an average of 15 without these technologies. This, he says, is the biggest benefit.

Sarma may still be fine-tuning the current applications, but that does not stop him from thinking of the future of IT at his organisation. He discloses that the next move would be to align a software called AsiaLife with the current applications.

Customs Clearance: The ICEGATE way

The Indian Customs department wanted to simplify the complex process that importers have to go through to clear their goods. This was achieved by deploying Electronic Data Interchange. Dominic K reports

The Indian Customs handles the management of cargo at airport and seaport terminals across the country. The data generated and transferred between Customs offices in the form of paper documents is enormous. This is why the department decided that they needed a way out of this maze.

The Customs department decided to implement an Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) system to automate its processes and also introduce an e-payment service to make life easier for end-users and the department’s officials. The EDI system helps transfer data between different companies using networks such as the Value Area Network (VAN) or the Internet.

The VAN is basically a data communications service provider that stores and forwards electronic data (usually EDI messages) within its network as well as to subscribers on other VANs. In the case of Indian Customs, the VANs use the X.400 protocol. This enables a trading partner situated at any location to dial into the local node of the VAN of which he is a subscriber. The messages can be transmitted as an EDIFACT file or a flat file.

Cutting down on time

The EDI deployment’s primary objective was to level the paper mountains and automate processes. This is essential to facilitate Customs officials and businesses involved with imports and exports. Single point access to Customs and Central Excise officials was required for this.

A K Prasad

The next requirement was to ensure secure transaction gateways over the Internet for enterprises and businessmen linked to various banks. With these objectives, a portal was launched for all transactions and customs clearance documentation. The EDI migration was executed centrally under the supervision of the Directorate General of Systems and Data Management, Central Board of Excise and Customs based in New Delhi.

As A K Prasad, Commissioner of Customs, Mumbai explains, “We have 200 Customs stations. Out of these, 35 stations handle over 80 percent of the traffic. We wanted to manage and automate the process to reduce paper work and increase efficiency. Now the electronic transactions and processes can be conducted through”


ICEGATE is an abbreviation for the Indian Customs and Central Excise Electronic Commerce / Electronic Data Interchange (EC / EDI) gateway. The portal provides online documentation (e-filing) services to trading partners such as trade carriers, cargo carriers, and other enterprise clients.

The typical EDI process has a Web interface through the ICEGATE portal where the enterprise completes documentation formalities, finishes the payment formalities, and collects goods. The e-payment process will be fully functional soon.

When a trading partner completes the process and payment, the information is sent to the bank (where the partner has an account). The bank verifies and completes the transaction. This is then sent to the Customs officials for goods clearance based on remarks and inputs.

Conversion and e-filing

Prasad says that huge volumes of data had to be checked and uploaded to the EDI servers. “This had to be done manually since there was no other option ,” he adds. Also they had to ensure that the portal was secure and that transactions executed through it were protected.

With respect to digital signatures, the Customs has issued unique registration numbers to clearing agents who are also known as Custom House Agents. This was initiated as it was observed that agents used to falsify their identity. The process became operational this September.

The Web interface ensures electronic filing of the bill of entry (import goods declaration) and shipping bills (export goods declaration) as well as other documentation. Apart from the Customs offices, data and information is also shared between various government departments.

Regulatory agencies are also on the information-sharing list to curb malpractices. These include the Directorate General of Foreign Trade, Reserve Bank of India, Apparel Export Promotion Council, Cotton Textiles Export Promotion Council, and Directorate General of Commercial Intelligence and Statistics.

Benefits all the way

The portal facilitates the e-filing of import or export declarations. This enables the Customs to respond to the importers or exporters by way of assessed bills of entry and shipping bills.

The portal has facilitated the exchange of EDI messages within the Customs community of partners for cargo clearance. Zonal data centres are spread across the country and are interconnected through leased lines from MTNL and BSNL.

Prasad elaborates. “This has enabled reduction of traffic at the port and container terminals. With the deployment of EDI almost 99.6 percent of the processes are now completed electronically.”

The deployment has enabled Customs officials to centralise management of all IT resources of the Customs and Excise department within a zone.

The portal also provides for the non-repudiation of the declarations filed through digital signatures allocated by Customs acting as a Certification Authority under the IT Act, 2000.

The Customs has deployed an Interactive Voice Response System to facilitate importers and exporters to enquire and know the status of their Bill of Entry / Shipping Bill. The locations cover all the major ports and airports.

The road ahead

Filing of documents through ICEGATE is operational at Delhi Air Cargo, Sahar Air Cargo, Chennai Air Cargo, Chennai Sea Cargo, Nhava Sheva, Bangalore Air Cargo, Patpatganj and Tughlakabad. A similar service will be introduced across the country in phases.

The network architecture is spread across the country. It is under process to be administered and monitored from New Delhi. The database is planned to be upgraded. Currently the deployed database is Oracle 7 which is planned to be migrated to Oracle 10g within the next three months.

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