Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CONSUMER : October 31, 1999
Fighting for a better life
The author is a consumer activist in Chennai.
In recent times, consumer organisations have been in focus as a result of the issues raised by them on the cost of health care, regulation of nursing homes and development issues. These organisations originated as a result of the frustrated psyche of the common man, who faces all kinds of inequalities and injustices in life. In Tamil Nadu alone there are over 300 voluntary organisations. These have achieved a legal status by formally registering themselves as a society under the State's Societies Registration Act or under the Indian Trusts Act, as a Public Trust. Some are letter-head organisations, which function only on paper, there is no concrete activity. Some organisations are one activity councils as in the case of a council in a suburb of Chennai. The residents of this suburb joined together to form a consumer council to solve their problem of erratic milk-supply by Aavin. The council filed a complaint in the district consumer disputes redressal forum with the help of another council. Their complaint was allowed and compensation was granted. After collecting the compensation and depositing the amount in the council account, its activities faded away.
There are some organisations which are formed around a particular issue and spread out to other issues. In the Palar river belt, pollution of well and river water caused by dyeing units, led to the formation of organisations on environmental issues, but which later expanded to tackle other consumer issues. Initially formed as an unconventional gathering, after a few exposures with professional groups, the associations acquired legal status by getting registered under the State's Societies Registration Act. They are now involved seriously in the protection of the environment. In the small panchayat of Nattam, a consumer council was formed by a linesman in the electricity board with a few educated persons.
After a few formal meetings, the first issue the council took up was collection of water tax by the Panchayat. The Panchayat was supposedly collecting taxes, but there was no water supply. The council having failed to elicit a suitable response on the representations, decided to settle the issue legally. They were advised that action cannot be taken under the Consumer Protection Act against collection of taxes. A writ petition was filed pleading permanent stay of collection of water taxes without supply.
What was interesting was the information provided by the council negating the reason for collection of water taxes. The council provided information on the loan taken for construction of a water tank by the Panchayat, the nett loan repaid and the diversion of collected water tax to other activities of Panchayat. This writ is still pending. The fact that a group in a not so well known area is aware of the ramifications of taxes is highly gratifying and indicates the strengthening of a people's democracy.
Consumer organisations with simpler perspectives are most effective. A flat owners association in Mumbai decided to buy groceries together. They bought all commodities at wholesale rate. Two persons were employed to clean, weigh and pack the commodities under supervision.
The members found that this saved them money and gave them a sense of achievement. Now other consumer groups are doing the same. They have even strengthened themselves by learning more about adulteration and the ways to detect it. All these organisations were started as unconventional gatherings which acquired an organisational facade after interaction with networking councils. They survive on membership fee and very rarely get Government funds.
On the other side of the spectrum there are professional groups which have a good funding base. Groups like the Consumer Education Research Centre (CERC), Ahmedabad, Consumer Unity and Trust, Rajasthan and West Bengal, Common Cause, New Delhi, Citizen, Consumer, Civic Action Group, Chennai are highly professional. They have a good infrastructure, employ professionals, have a set of committed associates and have attained a certain credibility. These councils involve themselves in activities ranging from individual complaint redressal to research on consumer issues. The CERC is a pioneer in this field and even offers research fellowships in the consumer field. These professional groups engage themselves in training smaller councils, networking at the national and international levels, and involvement in advocacy measures. Several kits have been developed by these groups for use of other consumer organisations. Kits on legal formalities to be followed in forming a consumer council, formats to help in filing complaints before the consumer fora, adulteration check kits are very popular and used by small councils.
At another level, groups have joined together to form federations. The Federation of Consumer Organisations of Tamil Nadu (FEDCOT) has Consumer councils as its members. The federation gets its own funding and involves itself in training and advocacy activities. The little known consumer councils have gained ascendancy after becoming members of the federation and by getting an opportunity to represent their views in larger forums, at the national and international level.
The involvement of the Government in consumer activities has been ensured by the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act. Under the Act, the central and state governments have to form the Central Consumer Protection Council and State Consumer Protection Council respectively, ensure for its members, consumer groups, industry, and women's groups with the Minister for Consumer Affairs as the Chairperson. The councils are to meet every third month and formulate policies on consumer issues. In one such meeting the consumer groups objected to vast amounts of excise duty collected in excess, being handed over to manufacturers. Apparently this amount is already built into the price component and resulted in unfair enrichment of the manufacturer. This fund was asked to be diverted for consumer welfare. Accepting this argument, the Central Consumer Welfare Fund was constituted. From the interest derived out of this fund, the Central Government releases grants to small consumer groups for infrastructure, training, consumer education and research activities. Any consumer group which has been registered legally and in operation for three years is eligible for a grant from the Consumer Welfare Fund. Apart from this the Ministry of Consumer Affairs presents awards to consumer groups, activists and youth for work in consumer field, annually. The award includes a certificate and prize money.
After a long gap, this year the Tamil Nadu Government constituted the State Consumer Protection Council. All these efforts are mere lip-service to consumer welfare. The Public Distribution System - the single largest consumer problem remains unresolved. A small experiment was done by the CAG, two years ago. A few activists from women's groups in the city were trained and given identification cards, announcing them as PDS volunteers. Amazing results were reported. Two women were, in separate incidents, threatened with dire consequences, if they interfered with the working of ration shops. Treatment improved after issue of these cards. If identification with a consumer group can cause slight difference, the Government can really make a mark, if it only took more interest in consumer activities and created a separate department for consumer protection.
At the moment, voluntary organisations are helping one another by networking within themselves. In the past five years, groups have multiplied. It is apparent that consumer groups have come to stay as lobbyists as well. At the international level, a consumer group from Calcutta, represented consumer interest on the discussion on GATT, with U.N. officials.
A few blacksheep posing as consumer activists are out to grab available funds. A group in Chennai used to ask any person having the misfortune to enter its premises to pay Rs. 650/- before talking to them. Some groups mislead the consumer and take on the role of advocates. While on the one hand consumer groups profess to work for elimination of advocates in consumer fora, on the other hand they charge a fee for representing complainants. In some cases, consumer groups file complaints through advocates, pro-bono and collect payment for the councils. One person in Chennai approached a consumer group for filing a complaint against a nationalised bank. A lawyer working pro-bono filed a complaint and got an order of compensation to the party. The consumer council charged the complainant Rs. 5,000. Later the council members discovered that the then Secretary of the organisation, now out of the country, had misappropriated the amount. Funding agencies also get carried away by certain individuals and repeat funds to the same group. Some federations insist on individual members by name rather than the group to the detriment of the growth of the organisation. Barring this minority, a number of consumer groups survive in their own interest and spirit.
The effectiveness of consumer organisations can be tested by various issues. For example, the combined effort of consumer organisations has demanded creation of the Public Utilities Commission. This would be a forum for consumers to agitate against the inequalities in increase of rates by public utilities like the unaccounted hike in bus fare, railway rates, banking charges etc. People respond well to credible organisations.
For a seminar conducted by FEDCOT, 2000 women from lower middle class and peasant classes turned up and stayed two full days. Of the 30 resolutions read out at the end of the seminar, at least 20 referred to the Public Distribution System and the malpractices in it. The fact that there are roughly 300 consumer groups in Tamil Nadu itself must speak for the snowballing effect of the consumer movement. The issue being raised by consumer groups now are pointers to the awareness among people, of the need to get together and raise a protest against injustices. Already moves are on by a consumer group to contest elections. A consumer group in Chennai is solely engaged in educating voters of their rights and responsibilities. The idea of a Citizens' Charter was introduced first in the Central Consumer Protection Council. Now every Government department has announced a Citizens' Charter. This is only the beginning. In the next decade consumer organisations will be able to demand and probably achieve accountability and a better quality of life for the people of this country.
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