The Asian Age, November 15, 2011


Diwali was a disappointment in one respect. The chirags we bought had only a very thin coating of wax on top. Under it was sand, so that the lamps burnt out in no time. I wish that instead of setting themselves up as national heroes and martyrs, and fighting political battles, our crusaders against corruption attended to these petty abuses that make life miserable.

That’s why I was glad to learn that the consumer affairs department has granted `9 million to the Consumer Unity and Trust Society (Cuts) for a year-long project to investigate consumer interest issues and protect people “against fraudulent, unethical and unfair trade practices.” Cuts says it will add another million rupees to get the project going. Nothing could be more essential in a country that measures economic growth in terms of consumerism. Bidhu Mohanty, director-general of income tax (investigations), says that a lifetime in the Indian Revenue Service has convinced him that the phrase “business ethics” is a contradiction in terms. The magic of the marketplace (Ronald Reagan’s famous cliché) has come to mean cheating and, sometimes, poisoning the public.

I am not talking of high-powered insider trading, massive corporate defalcation or diversion into private pockets of funds allocated for huge public projects. I mean simple things like the Diwali chirags. This is a common trick. On a visit back from Singapore, where we lived for many years, I ordered small boxes of mangoes to take back as presents. The box I kept for myself had four mangoes on top. The space below them was packed with palwal (pointed gourd). I wonder what the Chinese-Singaporeans I gave them to thought. Fraud wouldn’t have occurred to them. They would probably regard the nest of palwals as an exotic Indian offering.

I could go on with such everyday instances of dishonesty but readers must know them already. My wife paid for a kilo of prawns the other day, came home and weighed them to find just over 500 gms, went back to the shop with her own pair of scales, and the shopkeeper made good the deficit without batting an eyelid. Cooking oil and baby food are adulterated. Stone chips are mixed with lentils to increase weight, blotting paper soaked in malai, and artificially coloured berries passed off as cherries. I remember my bitter grief when the brilliantly-hued “Javanese sparrows” my grandmother bought me turned into common grey-brown Indian sparrows after their first plunge in the water. I was all of four years at the time. When he was West Bengal’s Vigilance Commissioner, the late Subimal Dutt of the ICS was surprised at the elaborate system that had been worked out to make a few illegal rupees from the toll charges levied on the Vivekananda Bridge.

When I pointed out some of these unfair practices to Rajiv Gandhi in the course of an interview, he rightly said that the answer lay in a strong consumer movement. Rajiv meant it and was responsible for enacting COPRA, the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. It set up a commendable system of consumer courts. Applying to them is both inexpensive and procedurally simple. But getting evidence for a conviction is not, thanks to the bureaucratic and political lethargy and corruption from which everyone suffers in this land of rampant food shortages, hoarding, black marketing and adulteration of food and edible oil.

I learn from the media that the Cuts project will undertake research on the Indian consumer’s plight and how it compares with consumer rights as enshrined in the United Nations guidelines for consumer protection. Four regional consultations will finalise the research findings once field work in 19 states and three Union Territories is completed. They will finally be translated into a report to be released in Delhi. In addition to the research report, we are promised eight knowledge enhancement workshops in the four target states of Haryana, Tripura, Jharkhand and Karnataka.We can then expect an agenda for consumer protection. But can we expect action?

That’s what really matters. And I fear there can be no effective redressal of consumer grievances until the entire justice system is revived and enforced. I must fall back on the WikiLeaks cables for the information that more than 30 million cases are pending in Indian courts, that our 21 high courts need another 285 judges, and that there are 3,170 vacancies on lower court benches. We have only 13 judges per million people to check widespread crime!

The police has always been corrupt. Rudyard Kipling could have been describing a common occurrence today when the policeman in his novel Kim, published in 1901, demands money to let the boy and his lama friend cross a bridge, saying it’s for maintenance. But if the police force is corrupt, it’s also understaffed, overworked, badly trained and not subject to proper discipline. Calcutta papers once published photographs of a notorious gang leader and the policeman who had caught him. A senior police officer called me up to ask if looking at the picture, I could tell which man was the criminal and which the upholder of the law! No one was surprised when the gang leader succumbed to injuries during interrogation in the police station. WikiLeaks says torture is part of interrogation.

No Lokpal or even Lokayukta can stop palwals being passed off as mangoes. But an effective consumer movement with teeth can. That is what Baburao Hazare, Kiran Bedi, Arvind Kejriwal and Shanti and Prashant Bhushan should be doing. As a former Union law minister, Shanti Bhushan, must know this well enough. But, sadly, reformers are often more interested in playing to the gallery than helping ordinary folk.

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