Part I

As we celebrate World Consumer Day on March 15th, it is the time to reflect on what actually is the consumer movement, what has it achieved in Mysore during the last few years, and what can or should be done to strengthen it further. It is my goal to deal with these subjects through three part articles based on the experience of Mysore Grahakar Parishat which has been active in Mysore since 1989.

Consumer movement got some momentum after the passage of 1986 Consumer Protection Act (CPA) both in India and Mysore. But consumer movement is not just promoting the use of that act though many NGOs have predominantly taken up that as the main objective. A true and vibrant consumer movement should go much beyond the promotion of Consumer Protection Act.

The definition of consumer under the CPA is very restricted. Most of the services we get from the government, quasi government bodies and various government supported institutions like universities, hospitals, etc are not covered by CPA. In a country where the government has significant control on the economic activities and where common citizens is made to suffer, excluding those services from the ambit of CPA has made it not as useful as it should have been. However there have been instances though rare where some progressive consumer courts have come to the rescue of the hapless consumers of government services through imaginative interpretation. Finally, the real goal of an outstanding and successful consumer movement should be to avoid the need to use CPA by bringing about structural reforms.

Soon after the passage of CPA, consumer NGOs mushroomed all over India. For some time it looked as though consumer movement will be successful in making Indian consumer as Kings as is often mentioned. Unfortunately it was not the case. There were many nationally well known consumer organizations who have been able to grow from strength to strength with annual budget of more than Rs. five to six crores for some of them. But these can be counted on finger tips. But 95% of them have less than Rs. one lakh. And in the case of some, they exist only on papers.

One of the strategic reasons for the failure of consumer movement is because all of them were trying to assist the consumers with CPA. They did not attempt to find out where consumers are taken for a ride or where they suffer the most or what a real consumer movement should be. This was also partly the result of central government’s Central Protection Council consisting of leading consumer activists and top bureaucrats from Consumer Affairs Department. That council also placed more emphasis on CPA and its implementation.

In a truly functioning democracy, citizens should be considered as masters and bureaucrats and government employees as servants. Unfortunately, the position has been totally different and we are treated as servants in all the government offices. They never think that they are there because of us and we are their paymasters. It is here the consumer movement should have placed greater emphasis. The approach that one should take to improve consumer friendly services in a government office is entirely different than the one in a private sector. Even in the case of government institutions approach one should take to assist the consumers depends upon the kind of services offered. Giving licenses, permits, birth and death certificate etc is very different from supplying electricity, water, and telecommunication, collecting garbage, providing health services, transportation etc.

We are also consumers while we try to get justice by filing our cases on courts of law. We repeat all the time justice delayed is justice denied. Has consumer movement attempted to find out the reasons for such delays? Even more important has it attempted to improve the situation there? A true consumer movement should deal with the problems faced by citizens attempting to get services from these courts of law. On the other hand, the very consumer courts which came into existence because of such delays have now become another set of civil courts with books written analyzing consumer cases. Though cases in consumer courts are expected to be heard with minimal number of adjournments and in three months, it is seldom the case. Universities have even found it necessary to introduce consumer movement as a subject where mostly CPA is discussed exclusively.

Those who attend schools and universities, and their parents are also consumers at these institutions. Consumer movement should involve themselves to improve the kind of education students get. Unfortunately, consumer movement has taken interests in only such limited situation of getting refunds of donation, or securing graduation certificates and marks on a timely basis, or getting declaration of results etc. Consumer movement should take up more fundamental issues like quality of education in private and government schools, menace of donation in private schools, getting rid of examination dreadful examination system inherited from Macaulay’s time etc.

It is not enough if a consumer movement just assist consumers who are wronged either through CPA or any other means. It should also undertake a strong active role in making consumers aware of their rights so that they themselves can fight when they are wronged. A well informed consumer about his rights will become one man army to take up the cause of consumer movement. It should give equal emphasis to inform consumers about their responsibilities like getting a proper receipt, not giving bribes, exposing wrong doings on the part of government bureaucracy, fighting for principles, supporting upright NGOs etc.

The above brief analysis should convince any one that a true consumer movement has very wide scope and not just limited to the use of CPA to get help for those who have been cheated by the sellers of goods and services by private and government bodies.

 

 

Part II

Mysore has at least more than fifteen to twenty consumer NGOs. Some of them are quite specialized like dealing only with tax payers issues or transportation or environment or health problems. Some others like Mysore Grahakar Parishat have attempted to solve consumer problems in just about every area. Attempts made in the past to collect information on these NGOs to assess their impact on Mysore have not been successful. No researcher has attempted to make any systematic study either. In any case when we take a look at how different government institutions serve Mysore’s residents or private sector deals with their consumers, it is evident that consumer movement in Mysore is not very strong here. At least this is not because attempt has not been made based on the past activities of MGP since its inception in 1989.

Under the leadership of Dr. Parpia assisted by Chief traffic warden Mr. Ramakrishna, MGP has attempted to improve traffic situation in the city for many years. NIE’s help was taken to draw up a long term traffic flow plan. Many meetings had been conducted and information about traffic regulations in different countries had been given to various commissioners. Despite all these efforts, driving today in the city continues to be a hazardous task. For some inexplicable reasons, all efforts of this transportation subcommittee have not produced desired results.

Mr. C. V. Nagaraj must have conducted more than 600 training sessions to inform about food adulteration in our city. MGP has been taking samples of various food items and informing the public on rampant food adulteration, and putting pressure on the corporation to improve their food inspection system to punish the guilty traders for several years. The only satisfaction one can draw is that food adulteration in Mysore has not deteriorated in comparison what it used to be. Food Adulteration act if implemented at all, is exploited fully to collect bribes and not to assist the consumers.

Mr. Manjunath the current Working President of MGP along with Mr. Venkatesan and Prof. Ananda Thirtha have been giving presentations on environmental protection and consumer protection to various civic bodies and schools. Not only have they attempted to inform consumers about their rights but also about their responsibilities.

Mrs. Uma Shenoy by serving on Petroleum Advisory committee (which has been wound up since the dismantling of administered pricing system) has served the LPG, petrol and kerosene consumers. At the suggestion of MGP kerosene coupon system was introduced to avoid sale of subsidized kerosene in black marketing. Unfortunately, despite good results the system was dropped as a result of the opposition by the vested interests. Poor consumers especially living in slums continue to suffer because of black marketing in kerosene and poor quality products from PDS shops.

Mr. Nayak and Maj.Gen Vombatkere have been taking up the problems of electricity consumers. MGP has been opposing unnecessary price increase by filing well reasoned complaints to the newly formed Karnataka Electricity Regulatory Commission. In fact it was MGP which had suggested a long time back for the formation of independent regulatory body to approve tariff increase and also to divide KEB into four to five independent autonomous companies for better management. MGP’s recommendations have been partly implemented. MGP has also informed the public on how our own government gave lucrative contract terms to Tannir bavi a la Enron.

P. M. Bhat has been helping the cable TV consumers who are suffering because of the monopolistic behaviour of Multi-system operators and cable operators. Meetings were organized with the police commissioner’s office to implement the spirit of TV cable act to reduce monopolistic behaviour on the part of TV signal providers as well to eliminate mafia type of activities if new cable operators come forward to give competition.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Prof. Ramalingam, Mysoreans have been introduced to simple water testing kits. Mysoreans are now more aware of the responsibility of the corporation to supply potable water. MGP’s continuous struggle with Vani Vilas Water works to install working water meters at all its customers, to fix tariff based on a scientific way based on cost of operations (when such a tariff structure was developed, MGP fully supported it even when consumers had to pay higher price), to draw up a long range plan to supply water on 24 hours basis have fell on deaf years. This is mostly because of vote bank politics. MGP has been suggesting to form an autonomous body like the one for Bangalore to manage water supply for Mysore.

Dr. S. A. Prasad and B. V. Shenoy, the current President of MGP have been spearheading the campaign to enforce building by laws so that the city can develop as per the comprehensive development plan and does not become a vast slum like many other cities. The frequent change of guards ( 15 commissioners in a short span of 10 years at the corporation) and utter contempt on the part of the bureaucracy to implement the rule of law has resulted in officers using by laws to make money rather than to promote the planned development of the city to preserve its rich heritage.

MGP has also taken active interest in protecting the environment. Most of the time it had to file PILs against the very government for failing to implement its own acts. MGP filed a PIL to stop sewage from entering Kukkerhalli lake, to stop felling hundred year old trees near the race course by organizing an “appiko” agitation, saved the People’s Park by exposing the corruption scandals, forced the closing down of Chamundi lead factory which was polluting the nearby residential areas etc.

Thanks to the education sub-committee of MGP, today students can get copies of their examination papers. Stopping of declaring ranks for SSLC and PUC, a totally irrational system to recognize good performance was also the result of MGP’s efforts. However MGP’s efforts to bring about qualitative improvement in primary and secondary education especially in government schools have not borne any fruits.

The above long list of active work by just one NGO (there are others in Mysore doing) should make any one to ask question, why has consumer movement failed to take off? And what should be done to strengthen the consumer movement?

 

 

Part III

The reasons for the failure of consumer movement to take off in Mysore are many and easy to find out based on the experience of Mysore Grahakar Parishat. Some of the reasons of MGP are likely to be applicable for Mysore’s other NGOs.

Before analyzing the factors which prevented the take-off, we need to eliminate some myths and long held wisdom. Usually NGOs try to blame the government and politicians for their failure by stating that the government should finance them. One of the reasons for consumer problems is the inability of the government to spend the funds available to it productively (the famous quote of Rajiv Gandhi that for every one rupee spent by the government, only 15 paise reach the ultimate beneficiary). Therefore no consumer NGO should depend upon the handouts from the government for its activities.

It has been the experience of MGP that none of its projects have suffered because of lack of funds. It can be argued that if MGP had more funds, it could have hired better lawyers to argue its court cases more strongly. Since MGP wants to depend only on those lawyers who are interested to fight for social causes without charging fees, there is no question of attracting better lawyers by paying higher fees. MGP has failed to motivate more competent lawyers to take up its cause. Therefore that may be the reason for its failure to win more cases or file more PILs and not the lack of access to more funds.

MGP cannot blame politicians or elected representatives for its failures. They have shown supreme indifference to consumer movement. In a democracy, political parties and elected representatives have a large role to play. MGP’s goals are to bring about structural reforms which can be achieved only with the help of elected representatives. Therefore MGP should have tried to interact more with them. Just because some of them are corrupt and only after power or many of them are incompetent, it is not a good reason for MGP to keep them out. Despite all the problems and difficulties, MGP should have tried to work with the elected representatives as well as political parties.

Today based on the membership of around 700, MGP is likely to be the largest consumer NGO in the city. But the actual number of members who have any time to work on projects may not be more than 20. MGP publishes a monthly called “Grahak Patrike” and sends it to all the members. It is doubtful even 50% of the members read it based on the responses received. Since its inception, MGP must have served more than 10000 residents directly by assisting them to solve their problems. The number of people served indirectly is the entire population of Mysore. It is reasonable to expect that by this time at least 10,000 should have become MGP members. At least 1000 should have been active members of MGP to demand for consumer rights and be actively associated with MGP.

In this case also MGP has to take some blame. It failed to develop a secretariat with paid staff. Since MGP had in the beginning few activists who were prepared to work without pay and even to spend their own funds, it did not see the need to appoint a paid staff. Even when it attempted to hire some staff, it did not succeed. For an NGO to succeed, it is not enough just to have a team of part time activists however outstanding they may be. They should also have an equally competent staff who are well paid and properly managed. This is one of the reasons for the success of BATF in Bangalore and of a young organization of Mysore Pratham.

While pointing out the drawback of MGP and some of the things it could have done better, it should be pointed out that the most significant reason for the failure of consumer movement to take off in Mysore is the total indifference on the part of consumers to take up even the smallest responsibility. There is just no voluntary spirit or a burning desire on the part of Mysoreans to get involved in civic affairs unless they see the immediate benefit for them.

Affected by the ill treatment by cable TV operators, Gokulam residents came together in hundreds under the leadership of Baradwaj to fight the mighty monopolistic power of signal providers. They were even prepared to boycott the cable TV to teach a lesson. But how many such activist residents can we see fighting for say to get rid of pigs from our city or to remove the petrol station from Panchavati? When MGP organized a demonstration against lead removal from petrol which will cause mental retardation, there were just five to show their support. To show support to organizers fighting against the illegal building in Cheluvamba Park, even the educated residents living in the apartment facing the park did not think it was their duty. They were mere spectators from their balcony wondering at the “stupidity” or publicity crazy act of the agitators. It is only when MGP and other NGOs succeed in convincing the consumers of the city that it is their civic duty to fight for their rights, consumer movement will succeed.