Safety check

Pushpa Girimaji

FOR long, the consumer movement in India has been accused of being elitist and taking up issues affecting only the urban consumers, especially those in the upper and the middle class bracket, and ignoring the concerns of the poor and the disadvantaged.

However, if the recent national convention of consumers is any indication, there will be a paradigm shift in the direction in the consumer movement which will then not only spread to the rural areas, but will represent those that need to be protected the most ó those living below the poverty line.

Some important issues that were discussed during the two-day meet organised by the Consumer Coordination Council (CCC) included the consumerís right to basic necessities like safe water and sanitation, safe and clean environment, nutritious food and quality medicines. The convention also deliberated upon the means of taking the movement to rural areas and involving the elected representatives at the grass root level. By tradition, and legal definition too, a consumer is one who buys or hires`A0goods and services. The payment for goods bought or services hired is a necessary pre-condition to acquiring the rights of consumers. It is for this reason that those who receive health or medical services free of charge do not have the right to redress before the consumer courts constituted under the Consumer Protection Act. Does that mean that the consumer movement should leave out those who cannot afford to buy goods and services?

Over the years, there has been a lot of debate in the national and international forums over this issue and slowly, the difference between a consumer and a citizen is getting blurred.In India, the Citizens Charter scheme promoted by the CCC and formulated by various government departments was the first step in this direction.

Meanwhile, the Consumers International (CI), a coalition of consumer organisations worldwide, has been enlarging the meaning and definition of the word consumer to include even those who cannot afford to buy goods and services and has been taking up their right to basic necessities like food, water, shelter, medicines and health services.

The convention had representatives from the government in large numbers, other NGOs, besides organisations like WHO and UNICEF. There were also representatives of trade and industry.

Even though the convention was organised by the Consumer Coordination Council, the invitation was not restricted to only the 55 members of the CCC. It was extended to non-member consumer groups too and this was a welcome move. Even though it was a national convention, there was the presence of a number of consumer activists from neighbouring countries China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Singapore. There were also representatives from the CI. This is the fourth convention organised by the CCC since its inception in 1993. The credit for bringing consumer groups in the country together on a common platform goes to the German foundation, Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung, which helped form the CCC and continued to provide financial support to the Council till 2002.

The convention would go down in the history of the consumer movement in India as a mega event, paving the way for a stronger movement. Marilena Lazzarini, President, CI, remarked that she found two unusual factors in India. She said while one was the active support that the consumer movement received from a pro-active government (Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs) and the other was the low percentage of women among the delegates.