Monday, 25 March 2013

Helen McCallum's India Diary: Call for collective action

CI Director General Helen McCallum travelled throughout India recently, meeting with many CI members, to discuss how a vast country with a disparate population can most effectively promote consumer rights. In Part 1 of her blog, she examines the existing situation.

Even before arriving in India, the advice one regularly hears, “don’t drink the water”, points to one of the key consumer issues in this vast and vibrant country.

The trip from the airport in Chennai certainly confirmed that for many people access to basic services is still where the main problems lie.

But the other half of India, witnessed in the Bandra district of Mumbai, reveals problems more often associated with well-to-do consumers: misselling of financial services; access to cost-effective energy services; junk food advertising; and the miss-use of private data gathered through the Internet.

The consumer movement in India certainly faces an extremely difficult challenge: to support the needs of a widely diverse population. Luckily, on my travels I also found some energetic and committed people and organisations ready and willing to tackle this challenge.

On arrival in Chennai, someone told me that there are more than 1,000 consumer organisations (COs) in India. How many of those are active and viable no one seems to know.

Those that I met, including active CI members from Tamil Nadu in the South to Mumbai in the west to Delhi in the North, as well as the many organisations represented at CI’s annual Asia Pacific and Middle East regional meeting were all effective in their various ways.

What I found was enormous diversity in terms of organisational strengths and activities – all united by a vision of the empowered consumer.

For example, CI member MGP in Mumbai runs a food cooperative supplying more than 95 essential household items to more than 32,000 families in West India.

They deal in locally-produced goods which are high in quality and short on packaging, making a significant contribution both to community cohesion in a large urban environment and to sustainable consumption.

MGP’s work empowers a large numbers of consumers in a really practical way. Families who are part of their network remain members for life, many of them offering their services as volunteers to support the additional work on consumer education and advocacy campaigns which are an essential part of MGP’s activity.

MGP enjoys good media support for their campaigns and have had a number of high profile successes but they still need to be able to access more expertise to back up their lobbying and enable them to do even more.

The strength of other COs such as CI members CAI  and CAG in Chennai, and CUTS and Voice in the North lies in consumer advocacy, education, awareness and mediation.

CAI has just extended their helpline service which enables consumers to call them and leave a message to register a concern or complaint and receive a call back to support them in resolving it.

Consumer courts in India are notorious for taking a long time to reach a resolution – with the consumer often left in limbo for years waiting for redress.

This is the reason for the emphasis on mediation which I found throughout India and which also appeals to the Indian culture, resulting as it does in a win/win result rather than a win/lose result which is inevitably the outcome of court action.

Consumer clubs in schools and universities were another feature of my visit – Indian consumer groups believe in catching them young – and with good reason.

Such clubs frequently act as the breeding grounds for the next generation of consumer activists as well as helping young people avoid potential pitfalls, creating savvy consumers for the future and using their influence within the family to alert their parents and relatives.

This clearly gives the many volunteers associated with COs in India a real sense of progress and satisfaction.

I met only one group who have established laboratory facilities for testing consumer products and that was CERC based in Ahmedabad. Although I wasn’t able to visit the labs, I met with the CEO and one of the trustees and had an in-depth briefing on the capability and range of testing they were able to do.

Other organisations were keen to carry comparative data in their magazines and some were clearly wanting to move into this area in a much bigger way.

Information services are common and consumer magazines well read – although not many of them bring revenue to the publishing organisation.

One example which does is the Right Choice magazine in Mumbai, an initiative to discover if the Which? subscription magazine model – so successful in the UK – could thrive among India’s developing middle classes.

The magazine is set at a high price for India at 100INR an issue (just more than one GBP and the equivalent of 1.8USD and 1.5EUR).

After a slow start – perhaps to be expected in such a varied population – Right Choice is beginning to gain ground with 25,000 subscribers – 7,000 of them recruited since January this year.

The magazine – like its parent body Which? – takes no advertising and ultimately aims to raise revenue from consumers prepared to subscribe to support services for all consumers – the first expression of which is a 50,000USD fund to be made available from July this year to support consumer advocacy in India.

Right Choice has made an additional commitment to testing Indian products through CERC, bringing much needed revenue to this organisation. 

Sustaining the Indian consumer movement

Investment such as that made by Right Choice in Indian consumer affairs may help a little and the fund raising acuity and ingenuity of Indian organisations in attracting excellently qualified often retired volunteers to the cause means that most organisations teeter along.

But the reality is still that financial sustainability is the key issue for all groups. Project funding – including some from government sources – is all well and good but it is short term, tied to specific activities and contributes little to the organisational infrastructure.

Nothing remains to undertake new initiatives and developments which are both possible and urgently needed.

So, as it is for CI, the outstanding need for Indian COs is for unrestricted, no-strings-attached funding sources which can help increase expertise and modernise services to meet the myriad challenges facing rich and poor Indian consumers alike.

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