Boycott poor service
Pushpa Girimaji

Are you angry with the sloth and inefficiency exhibited by power supply undertakings? Are you unhappy with the quality of water that comes through the pipes connected to your home? Are you sick of being taken for a ride by service providers and manufacturers? Well then, go ahead and express your anger and, preferably, do it with a group of friends or neighbours who are equally angry. In fact the larger the number, the better the effect. You will be surprised at the results.

Even though the Indian consumer movement began in the 1960s with consumers expressing their anger over steep escalation in the prices of essential commodities and also their non-availability, somewhere along the way, consumers lost the habit of giving expression to their displeasure through mass demonstrations, marches and boycotts. This has cost the Indian consumers dear.

Take the Bhopal gas tragedy, for example. That was the time environmental groups gave a call for the boycott of Union Carbide products, the idea being that it would force the company to pay decent compensation to the victims and settle their claims with alacrity. But forget boycott, there was not even a murmur of protest from consumers.

Similarly, in the early 1980s when it was found that pharmaceutical companies were selling immunoglobulin infected with human immunodeficiency virus, there should have been a groundswell of anger and resentment over the way consumersí lives were put at risk by pharmaceutical companies and the regulators. But forget anger, consumers did not even react to what had happened. But for a resident doctor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences who got the globulin tested before it was administered to his pregnant wife, none would have ever known that they were infected. By the time the drug regulator acted and ordered all blood products to be taken off the shelf, a considerable percentage of immunoglobulin had already been used up, putting all those who had received the blood products at risk of getting infected with the deadly virus.

If this had happened say in North America, it would have led to a boycott of those pharmaceutical companies that paid no attention to safety and quality. It would have resulted in the pharmaceutical companies paying hefty compensation to the victims. But, in India it seemed the consumers did not even comprehend what had happened. There was no demand for compensation. There was no call for action against pharmaceutical companies. Consumers did not even question the regulators (the drug control departments) who had allowed such blood products to be sold.

However, in the last few years, there have been a few sparks here and there, giving rise to the hope that Indian consumers are finally learning to flex their muscles. These have not been sustained, planned campaigns, but short, spontaneous reactions to situations. And they are indicators of changing consumer behaviour. A couple of years ago, in the height of summer, when the air-conditioning in a Rajdhani Express going from Delhi to Kolkata failed, the passengers refused to accept it. They pulled the chain, stopped the train and did not allow the train to proceed till the air-conditioning was set right.

Similarly, several states have seen slogan-shouting, angry consumers demonstrating before power supply undertakings and demanding better quality of service. In recent times, airlines have also tasted the wrath of passengers. These have been unplanned, unstructured, spur-of-the moment reactions, but in those situations, they did send the message that consumers can no longer be taken for granted.

There have also been agitations against cable operators. In several small towns and cities, consumers have clashed with cable operators over poor quality of service. In a few localities, the residents have even boycotted the service, even though for a short period.

Thatís not all. In 2003 and 2006, there were consumer boycotts of colas in response to the reports of the Centre for Science and Environment on pesticide residues in these drinks. Last year, consumers in Bangalore resorted to a boycott of petrol pumps for a day to express their anger over frequent petrol price hikes. And they used SMS for spreading the word around. In essence, the Indian consumer has finally come out of that shell of indifference and has begun to demand value for money.

So perfect the art of mass dissent, demonstration and boycott. Thatís how consumers in the West have won their battles. In fact no other form of protest can be as effective and powerful as boycott. And today, with the 24-hour news channels ever eager to report such events, consumers really have a major advantage. So let the year 2007 mark the emergence of a stronger consumer. A consumer who does not hesitate to take on those who treat her/him with disrespect.