The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 9, 2000
Consumer Alert

Get justice for Rs 3
By M.R. Pai

WE see morchas taken out to highlight problems of the public. They involve considerable organisation and also expenditure. One well-written letter to the editor of a newspaper is equivalent to a thousand morchas in its effect! It is read by large number of people and politicians, bureaucrats, manufacturers, public utility personnel - all are literally frightened by such public complaints. Even today the printed word has its own mystique.

Fortunately, for the Indian consumers, the Press has opened its doors wide open for their use. Some publications have special sections for public complaints, in which an opportunity is given to the party complained against to explain its viewpoint. Even when there is no special complaint section, the letters to the editor’s mail column is open to consumers.

It is interesting to recall that as early as the beginning of 20th century, the threat of writing a letter to the Press resulted in the Railways introducing toilets for convenience of passengers in the train compartments. Till 1909 there were no toilet facilities in trains. The Railway Board Journal, Indian Railways, disclosed this in its August 1975, issue.

  Yeshwant R. Ingle, a veteran writer of letters to Mumbai papers for several decades, started this activity as a student, and served public interest in several areas.

This author found as far back as 1965/1966 the Press as an effective means of getting remedy for public problems. For instance, there was a funny and cruel practice of mobilising school children and making them stand in hot sun for hours on Republic Day or Independence Day, in order to cater to the ego of ministers. Some of the little children used to swoon, many urinated in their dress. One letter to the Press, deploring this ego-boosting exercise stopped it. The use of these letters to the editor column, extended to consumer causes by bank depositors, telephone or LPG users etc., have brought a harvest of good results.

Consumers as a group can be alerted to their rights which they can then assert themselves. For instance, when banks were acting in a high-handed manner, refusing to accept soiled notes from the public, but forcing on them such notes when they wanted to withdraw the amount from their bank account, a letter quoting the Reserve Bank of India Note Refund Rules, which gave characteristics of legal tender, and made it mandatory for banks to accept them, solved a daily headache of thousands of people who quoted the letter to their banks.

Individuals who highlight their own problems as consumers also get a reply from the vendors. It is no longer possible for manufacturers of durable consumer goods like air-conditioners, refrigerators, washing machines, electric heaters etc., to remain indifferent to public complaints. They have become answerable or accountable to individual consumers who go to the Press.

Some of the public organisations are particularly sensitive to Press criticism. For instance, in Mumbai, the B.E.S.T. Undertaking, of Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, supply electricity to the island, and providing bus service to Greater Mumbai, makes it a point to reply to every letter which appears in the Press. It may not be able to satisfy every public demand, but certainly puts across its own view.

The government also notes public grievances aired in the Press. Even in Soviet Russia, during heydays of totalitarian communist regime, citizens found succour in the letters to the editor. Gorbachev once observed: "Reader’s letters are the best part of newspapers the world over". In India, as the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting in 1974, L.K. Advani informed Parliament, in reply to a question, that as part of its feedback service, it was the duty of the Press Information Bureau to prepare press reviews which take into account relevant contents of the letters to the editor.

To give one specific instance how the Rip Van Winkles in government undertakings wake up and act: A lady in Mumbai had applied for a phone in 1982 and was made to run from pillar to post but her grievance was not solved. She was advised to write a factual letter to the letters of the editor column of a local daily. Within a week’s time, she got justice!

It is not only the public sector but also private companies which are sensitive to consumer complaints in the Press. Many of them promptly respond to the complaints, and offer their viewpoint or assurance that the case has been satisfactorily attended to.

Collective grievances are solved early through letters to the editor. For instance, some years ago, a move by oil companies and LPG suppliers to stop home delivery was aborted when consumer wrote to the one pointing out to all LPG users that it is illegal as it violated Gas Cylinder Rules. All LPG users were given a proforma to lodge their protest with the oil companies, LPG dealers and the Petroleum Ministry. The response was phenomenal and the public won an easy victory, thanks to one letter to the Press, alerting consumers to their rights.

It is sad that even educated persons, having the advantage of literacy, do not use this powerful weapon at their disposal. A Rs 3 stamp currently is the total cost involved in settling many a consumer complaint.

This feature was published on December 26, 1999