By Bhamy V Shenoy

Events like World Consumer Rights Day and National Consumer Day have too often become ritual exercises organised for photo-ops for unenthusiastic audiences of school children and officials. A ritual held in most district headquarters is to organise a meeting, typically presided over by presidents of consumer redress forums who discuss how efficient they have been in giving judgements while quoting some obscure statistics. But reality is vastly different.

Surveys have shown that consumer courts set up at the district, state and national level have not fulfilled the intended vision of the Consumer Protection Act (COPRA) adopted in 1986. The original objective of parliament was to provide speedy justice with minimum adjournments and without lawyers. Not one judge has dared to question why all these consumer courts have become more like civil courts or asked what can be done to better help consumers.

Most consumer organisations concentrate on the use of COPRA but not on the original intention. Very few have the interest or capability to handle larger issues like improving the water supply, providing uninterrupted 24/7 power supply, efficient public transportation, corruption-free public distribution system or well-equipped government hospitals with competent doctors etc.

India”s consumer movement has a long way to develop in order to meet the urgent needs of long-suffering people who are not receiving the services and protection they have been assured. If the consumer movement was really strong, a long-pending Consumer Protection Bill 2015 to replace COPRA would have been passed by parliament to provide speedy justice to consumers.

There may be at best fewer than 2,000 consumer organisations all over India to serve 1.2 billion people. Most of these consumer NGOs look for government handouts to exist. By taking money from the government, they become subservient to officials and are often the ones who create problems to consumers directly or indirectly.

Consider some of the important consumer issues that the consumer movement has failed to take up. The NDA government announced a policy recently to create a giant integrated oil company by merging all state-owned companies to compete with large multinationals. However, they ignored how such a behemoth will become a modern-day Bhasmasura and kill competition in the petroleum sector.

A vibrant consumer movement would have risen in revolt against such an anti-consumer policy. But no consumer NGO protested. Fortunately, the petroleum minister has backtracked later, suggesting only a holding company by ONGC to buy either HPCL or BPCL. Even this is not a sound idea, but less harmful than the original mega merger.

The suffering of people from various forms of food adulteration is a well-known problem throughout India. Food samples taken from different states in 2015 revealed that 20% were adulterated. This information comes to national attention only when people die of food adulteration, then it is quickly forgotten. On paper, India has one of the most potent laws to prevent food adulteration but implementation has failed abysmally. Again a vibrant consumer movement would take this issue seriously.

For example, when people use tur dal, turmeric or sweets adulterated with metanil yellow (a carcinogenic chemical used to make food attractive) harmful effects are not experienced immediately. The result is cancer but by the time it is detected, it will be too late. Despite the dreadful impact of food adulteration, why has India”s consumer movement not taken up this issue on a war footing?

Much has been written about how justice delayed is justice denied and how millions of cases pending in courts have prevented India”s development. This is a topic of critical importance to all citizens and not just to those litigants who have filed cases. Sadly our consumer movement has taken little or no interest in this issue.

Digital world

The theme of Consumer International (founded in 1960 with over 240 members in 120 countries) this year is “Building a digital world consumers can trust.” This is certainly relevant as we implement the mission Digital India and promote a cashless economy.

However, when a significant percentage of Indians are below extreme poverty level, the consumer movement needs a more appropriate theme. We must think strategically about what different path India”s consumer movement can chart to reduce the extreme poverty that has remained even after 70 years of independence.

What does the consumer movement have to do with poverty? A vibrant consumer movement has the power to force an all-round efficient economic system with minimum corruption that can result in rapid development. We know from Tenali Raman”s story how a pond will haveonlywater if everyone thinks that others will pour milk for the king”s bath. But few of us apply the moral of the story.

Unfortunately, most of us who are actually aware of the problems are more likely to shy away from taking an active part in solving them. We expect others to do so while we stand by doing nothing. This same type of indifference from consumer organisations and from citizens is not acceptable.

In the 1960s, nascent consumer organisations concentrated in buying goods in bulk to save money and create consumer awareness. Later they organised protests when consumers were cheated. When COPRA was adapted, they became immersed in promoting COPRA to obtain redress. The consumer movement must now take up critical systemic problems in order to promote rapid economic development and reduce poverty by involving every citizen.

Time has come to reinvent the consumer movement in India. The World Consumer Rights Day and National Consumer Day celebrations are prime opportunities for us as a society to promote a vibrant consumer movement – a truly meaningful celebration by consumer activists and ordinary citizens with the involvement of educational institutions, large companies, government offices, public sector companies and civic groups interacting on consumer-related issues.