15th March every year since 1983 is celebrated as The International Consumer Rights Day. Since then 15th March has become an important occasion for mobilising citizen action, and solidarity within the international consumer movement.

The basic idea of this movement is

  • promoting the basic rights of all consumers
  • demanding that those rights are respected and protected
  • protesting about the market abuses and social injustices which undermine them

The fuss all started way back in 1983, but yes, what are these rights actually???

On 15 March 1962 former US President John F. Kennedy said: “Consumers by definition include us all. They are the largest economic group, affecting and affected by almost every public and private economic decision. Yet they are the only important group… whose views are often not heard.”

There are eight basic consumer rights which include the rights to:

  • satisfaction of basic needs – to have access to basic, essential goods and services: adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, public utilities, water and sanitation
  • safety – to be protected against products, production processes and services which are hazardous to health or life
  • information – to be given the facts needed to make an informed choice, and to be protected against dishonest or misleading advertising and labelling.
  • choice – to be able to select from a range of products and services, offered at competitive prices with an assurance of satisfactory quality
  • be heard – to have consumer interests represented in the making and execution of government policy, and in the development of products and services.
  • redress – to receive a fair settlement of just claims, including compensation for misrepresentation, shoddy goods or unsatisfactory services.
  • consumer education – to acquire knowledge and skills needed to make informed, confident choices about goods and services, while being aware of basic consumer rights and responsibilities and how to act on them.
  • a healthy environment -to live and work in an environment that is non-threatening to the well being of present and future generations.

All these are very important in our day-to-day life. Afterall it is us who has the choice to buy or not buy a product or a commodity. We decide to what level we get satisfied and how long we remain satisfied. A consumer does not have any love lost for a specific brand or commodity unless he or she is continuously satisfied. This is a very basic principle behind many organizations opting for conducting customer satisfaction surveys and campaigns.

“Enhancing the customer satisfaction” is the basic aim of revising the ISO9001 series standard in 2008 when the standard was due for revision at the ISO committee.

Consumer activism is something which is fast catching up in India though the movement stated in 1986. Repeated awareness campaigns short films, skits and continuous information over national networks is helping the movement gain a lot of popularity in India. There is a “Consumer Protection Act, 1986” under the Parliament of India which aims to provide for better protection of the interests of consumers and for that purpose to make provision for the establishment of consumer councils and other authorities for the settlement of consum­ers’ disputes and for matters connected therewith.

Although Consumer Voice’s Sanyal admits that awareness is still low in India, he says things have been looking up since the Jago Grahak Jago campaign by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs.

Although Consumer Voice has evolved from a kind of home-run advocacy and awareness outfit (it was started by a group of academics) into a fairly influential NGO that runs big projects on health and food safety, it still has nowhere near the numbers of its American counterparts. Consumer Voice’s magazine and Web site together have a subscription base of just 50,000. “Here, people are willing to take action only when faced with trouble,” he rues.

Despite the difficulties and lack of support, Sanyal sees some difference. “Earlier we used to get 500 complaints, now we get 5,000,” he says. But, we are not promoting complaints,” he clarifies quickly, rather focusing on prevention.

Right now relying more on grants and funds (some of it from the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and a few from UN bodies), Consumer Voice too does product testing and also works with the standards agency. After a great deal of pestering (that’s what we do, says Sanyal), it has managed to get a foothold in the various committees that set standards. The recent guidelines on food safety standards being a case in point.

The good news, he says, is that consumer affairs have got onto the university curriculum. Two years ago, it was offered by Delhi University and the response from students has been good.

Hopefully, there will come a time when the Indian consumer is as proactive a watchdog as the American one!