Financial Express, March 24, 2002
There are few people in the country who have better credentials to write a book on consumer rights. One of the forerunners in the consumer movement in the country, Pradeep S Mehta runs Jaipur-based Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS), which is perhaps the only southern consumer group with centres in Zambia, Kenya, and the UK, promoting South-South civil society cooperation, and better outreach to Northern consumers and policy makers. In an interview with The Financial Express on Sunday, the veteran consumer activist gives an overview of the consumer movement in India from a larger perspective. Excerpts:
How far has the consumer movement come since its beginning and vis-a-vis other countries?
India is well ahead of other developing countries in the consumer movement. Malaysia will perhaps be the other developing country, where the movement is equally vibrant. The movement in India got a boost when the Consumer Protection Act came into effect in 1987, which recognised the role of voluntary organisations. In the west, consumers support the movement in a big way by buying their magazines, which carry comparative analysis of goods and services. This enables the consumers to buy the best goods and services. India doesn’t have such a market. Few consumer groups have started testing programmes, though.
What is lacking in the movement? Even the movement for cleaner environment seems to be doing better.
There are several reasons for this. Firstly, donor support to the environment movement and cause has been very high compared to the consumer movement. This is one reason that many of the environmental groups are professionalised, while a very few consumer groups have similar resources. Therefore, the capacity of environmental groups to lobby policy is much higher than the consumer movement, hence their visibility is also much higher.
Secondly, many of the consumer issues in India relate to poverty and rural issues, which are in any case in the active domain of political parties and development organisations. Most consumer groups in India are focused on urban middle class consumers, who don’t even want to give any donation to consumer organisations. It is their mentality.
Thirdly, consumer problems are so many and varied that it is often difficult for any consumer organisation to deal with the whole lot. This too acts as an adverse factor.
The implementation of the Consumer Protection Act leaves much to be desired. How can it be improved?
Firstly, by banning the appearance of lawyers in consumer courts, who are the main cause for delays. Many times such a move has been initiated but has floundered due to a powerful lawyers’ lobby.
Secondly, by providing sufficient resources to state governments to ensure the proper functioning of consumer courts.
Thirdly, by ensuring that the courts observe the letter and spirit of the law, which is to provide simple, inexpensive and cheap redressal to consumers. This can be done by better selection and continuous orientation of the court members by both the government and the consumer movement.
On the ground level, what is CUTS doing for the consumer?
We are providing counselling to consumers, publishing guides, books, newsletters, etc, for ground level activism. We are also implementing several projects to empower consumers (and farmers) at the grassroot level on their rights (in particular with women) with the aim of creating a questioning society.
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