Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CONSUMER : October 31, 1999
The seal of quality
The author is former Chairman, Consumer Guidance Society of India, Mumbai.
About 25 years ago, the then Union Minister for Civil Supplies discovered that the Indian male had to put up with so-called "safety" razor blades which gave more cuts on the face than the number of good shaves each morning. The Minister issued a mandate that safety razor blades manufactured in the country should be covered by the certification marking scheme of the Indian Standards Institution (now Bureau of Indian Standards) and carry the ISI mark.
Tests conducted by the institution revealed that all major brands of safety razor blades failed to come up to the relevant Indian standards. This failure of the manufacturers was despite imported raw material, imported machinery (even the dies were imported) and, as some claimed, imported know-how.
Notwithstanding the "imported technology", while one blade would just give a single, satisfactory shave, the best performance seldom exceeded five shaves. The price differential between the lowest and highest brand was in the ratio of 1:6. The reason was that the defective pieces and rejects, segregated during the online quality checks, were earmarked and graded for the lower priced brands.
One particular brand X of carbon steel blade did not give even one nick-free shave. The manufacturer, when confronted, cleverly retorted that what was labelled was meant to be a "blade", not a "shaving blade". On further questioning regarding its use, he recommended it "for pencil sharpening" of course.
The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) certification marks scheme was introduced in 1956 and later various items of mass consumption, which had health and safety implications, were brought under compulsory ISI marking through different enactments. Examples are: food colours and additives, milk powder and condensed milk, vanaspati and vanaspati containers, LPG cylinders, miners' equipment, steel and steel products.
The goods bearing the BIS certification mark are said to be produced "under a well-defined scheme of testing and inspection provided by BIS". The Bureau advises consumers that "in case of any complaint about the quality of BIS-certified products (they) should get in touch with the nearest BIS office." BIS claims to have a system of attending to complaints and to arrange redress by way of replacement/repair of the product in case the complaint is true.
Another legislation to ensure pre-tested products is the Agricultural Produce (Grading and Marking) Act, 1937, which awards the "Agmark" for certain food articles such as edible oils, spices and honey. There is a provision for free replacement of the products graded and marked under Agmark, if not found conforming to specifications.
Both the BIS mark and Agmark are a sort of third party guarantee of quality, performance and safety, as defined in the appropriate specifications. However, the mark is affixed on a product brand licensed to be manufactured at a particular unit. The same branded product, manufactured at a different place, may not be licensed under the marking scheme. Thus, the consumer might find in the marketplace a pressure cooker, for instance, of the same brand name, one with the ISI mark and the other without.
The pressure cooker manufacturer would advertise in the media that his product has been awarded the ISI mark leading the buyer to believe that the brand per se is approved for marking by BIS. In a way, this dichomotic licensing procedure misleads the consumer. Similarly, the Directorate of Marketing and Inspection, Ministry of Agriculture, permits a dual system of labelling, with and without the Agmark "seal of quality".
Tests on domestic electric irons, conducted in 1997 by the Consumer Guidance Society of India (CGSI), Mumbai, found the majority of sample irons carrying the ISI mark (17 out of 25) failed to meet the requirements of the Indian standard. The reaction of BIS to these published findings was rather lukewarm. BIS advises the consumer to "keep the product complained about and its packing in safe custody till the visit of an inspecting officer of the Bureau." Instead of promptly deputing an inspector to CGSI, or investigating the market situation first-hand, BIS got entwined in bureaucratic quibbling. No sense of urgency was evinced by BIS which promises "to provide consumers with prompt attention and speedy redressal of their grievances."
Only three consumer bodies in the country are engaged in comparative testing of consumer products. The CGSI, which pioneered the consumer movement in India, established the concept of product testing way back in the Seventies. Later, the CERC, Ahmedabad and VOICE, Delhi, programmed their own activities of product testing, the former set up a well-equipped dedicated laboratory for quality assessment of a few categories of consumer products.
In 1977, the CGSI assessed the safety and performance of domestic pressure stoves. Two-thirds of the samples failed in safety parameters. Subsequently, ISI certification for pressure stoves became mandatory. The CGSI also tested electrical appliances and fittings, which included irons, immersion heaters, plugs and switches. There were gross failures again. This culminated in the Household Electrical Appliances (Quality Control) Order, 1981.
Comparative testing of products by consumer organisations does make a slow but sure impact on policy and decision makers. But, the execution process is too tardy for meaningful consumer protection.
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