In Her Words
In this column we will be featuring the writings by award winning women journalists in India found in the collection of the book ‘Making News Breaking News Her Way. It is a publication by Tranquebar Press in association with Media Foundation, New Delhi which instituted the annual Chameli Devi Jain Award for an Outstanding Women Mediaperson in 1980.
A CONSUMING CAUSE
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t was the first day of my return to work after a long maternity leave. I had left my two-month-old son, Ujwal, at I. home and was wondering how he was coping, when I got a call from my editor. ‘I would like you to write a weekly consumer column,’ he said when I met him. He had even thought of a title: ‘What? Which? How much?’
Till today, I do not know why he chose me to write that column, nor have I ever asked him why. Was it because I had carried out a campaign against the contaminated water supplied by the civic authorities in Bangalore while working with The Indian Express? Investigating the supply of polluted water in certain parts of Bangalore, I had unearthed the fact that nineteen people had died of hepatitis as a result of consuming this water. Worse, the civic authorities had released the water despite a warning from the government-run water- testing centre of its high coliform content rendering it unfit for consumption. My sustained campaign had culminated in a writ petition before the Karnataka High Court, seeking a directive to the water supply and sewerage board to replace ill old and leaky pipes, separate the water and sewage pipes wherever they were on the same side of the road and ensure safe water to the city.In fact, a major portion of my work during my early days as a reporter in Bangalore, beginning 1976, centred around consumer issues -be it a thirteen-part investigative series on the exploitation of parents and teachers in the primary education system (written along with a colleague, R.Akhileswari), or the tragic circus fire that extinguished in seconds so many young lives, or the investigations into medical negligence in hospitals. Perhaps what I needed was someone to nudge me further in that direction, and the call from the editor that day did more than that. It gave my work as a journalist a new meaning, a new purpose. Now when I look back, I realise that it was a turning point in both my professional and personal life. From a generalist reporter, I had turned into a reporter with a cause. A cause, a passion, which so engulfed me that sometimes my husband would politely ask me if I could talk of anything other than consumer rights.
The year was 1983 and I realised that, within just two months of delivering Ujwal, I had a second baby that required as much nurturing as the first -perhaps even more. There was no such column in any of the Indian newspapers and I was treading an untested and untried path. Added to that was the ridicule I had to face from my colleagues who called it a ‘subzi column’. Those were the days when stories on politics hogged the limelight and reporters who wrote on issues other than politics invited only scorn. Jokes were no doubt cracked at my expense, but I had no time to bother because every week I had to think of issues to write about and getting information was tough. There was no internet and no one was clued into consumer-rights issues. If I needed to know about consumer-rights laws in other countries, I had to contact the embassies of those countries and request them for information.
The entire exercise was a learning process for me. Even as I grappled with consumer issues, several senior journalists expressed concern over the direction that my specialization was taking me. ‘Abandon this, it will take you nowhere in the profession -this is suicidal for a serious journalist like you,’ they said. Given the media’s obsession with politics and politicians at that time, I knew they were right, but the readers’ response to my columns was so tremendous and encouraging that I could not dream of quitting, whatever the consequences.
I soon found that consumers had no voice whatsoever in India. No one cared for them, not even the government. Laws safeguarding their interests were passed but rarely enforced, or poorly implemented. The Hire Purchase Act of 1972 is a good example. Meant to protect the interests of consumers vis-a-vis hire-purchase transactions, the law was to come into effect from 1 September 1973, but, a month prior to that, the government issued a notification rescinding the operation of the Act. Over the next twenty-five years, several unsuccessful attempts were made to bring in the law in a modified form. Eventually, the government preferred to accept the argument of the financial sector that such a law was unnecessary in the post-economic liberalisation scenario. If only we had that law, hundreds of consumers would not have faced the ignominy of their vehicles being re-possessed forcibly and without notice (and sufficient justification) by goons hired by banks.
Similarly, despite laws such as the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, sale of adulterated food was rampant. The government’s apathy was evident, since there was not even a comprehensive and scientific survey to assess the extent of adulteration, identify problem areas, plug the loopholes in the law and enforce it. The Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act was another classic case -thanks to its poor enforcement, consumers were often prey to unsubstantiated claims in advertisements offering miracle cures for a variety of diseases.
Once, while looking at the ‘Super Fast’ levy imposed by the Indian Railways, I realised how even the public sector undertakings exploited consumers. Although the ‘Super Fast’ nomenclature was given to the relatively faster trains and an additional ‘Super’ Fast levy imposed on travel in them to meet the increased expenditure incurred to run them, the railways started classifying even trains that chugged along at thirty-five kmph as ‘Super Fast’ in order to earn extra revenue. It took consistent campaigning for the railways to finally define ‘Super Fast’ and remove a large number of trains from the list.
The year 1984 saw a positive development: an amendment to the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices (MRTP) Act brought all unfair trade practices (UTP), including false and misleading advertisements, under the purview of the LMRTP Commission. The director general (Investigation and Registration) and the chairman of the Commission worked as a team to protect consumers from several unfair trade practices. The DG even got a comprehensive investigation done on ‘discount’ sales to get to the truth of such claims, and the Commission formulated specific guidelines for all such sales to protect consumer interest. Those were exciting times for me and I would be at the MRTP office almost every day, either to report on decisions or to bring to the notice of the DG, cases of UTP. With the dissolution of the Commission in October 2009, we really lost a watchdog of consumer interest. (The Competition Commission, which replaced the MRTP Commission, unfortunately does not deal with unfair trade practices).
For someone like me who had campaigned for a comprehensive consumer law and was involved in its birth from the time of its first draft through several processes of its metamorphosis, its enactment in 1986, was a matter of great joy. However, I soon realised that manufacturers and service- providers would not give in so easily. Sure enough, the real estate lobby, particularly the state-run land development authorities, argued before the Supreme Court that they could not be brought under the ambit of the consumer protection law (and lost the case).
Next to take a similar line were the medical professionals, except that their campaign was far more forceful and I aggressive. As it gained momentum, there was real fear that the government would bring in an amendment to protect their interest. This time I carried on a full-fledged campaign for the rights of patients. What kept me going was anger at the helplessness of the victims of medical negligence, and I remember being heckled and booed for my views at several of the meetings organised by medical professionals who wanted to be kept out of the purview of the CP Act. It was a tough fight and finally we did manage to win. A friend who attended one such meeting told me jocularly that if I fell sick, I could be sure no doctor would treat me!
It was then that I wondered whether I was overstepping my boundaries as a journalist. Was I a journalist or was I also becoming an activist? I soon realised that I could not be bothered about labels nor could I put myself in a straitjacket. If helping consumers who came to me from remote comers of the country made me an activist, if being on a policy-making body and arguing on behalf of consumers made me a consumer-advocate, or if campaigning for a law to protect consumer interest made me a lobbyist, so be it. If I failed to help those innumerable consumers who wrote to me for advice, my journalism would have no meaning, no purpose.
In the last thirty-five years of my work as a journalist, I have been bestowed with a number of honours and awards and I gratefully acknowledge all of them for the encouragement they have given me. But the Chameli Devi Jain Award in 1991, has special significance because it came at a very crucial time in my professional life, when I needed all the support and backing I could get. That was the time I had taken a major decision to quit The Indian Express and to syndicate the column I had started there in 1983 so that it could reach a larger number of consumers, particularly those who read Indian-language newspapers. And the award really boosted my self-confidence and reinforced my belief that I had taken the right decision. From then on, my involvement
in consumer affairs became full-time. I soon found myself travelling to small towns and villages to address public meetings on consumer rights’ issues, interacting with consumers and consumer groups, and helping consumers who were fighting their cases before consumer courts.
The consumer complaint adjudication agencies or consumer courts, as they are popularly known, brought in mixed feelings over the years. Yes, for the first time, consumers in the country had an exclusive system of redressal. More importantly, for the first time in India’s history, we had a law that encapsulated the rights of consumers and empowered them like never before. But there was great disappointment in store at the way these courts functioned, or rather, did not function. Complicated procedures, repeated adjournments, poor compensation packages, prolonged adjudication process, delays in the appointment of members -all conspired to take away their very raison d’ etre -simple procedures and quick decisions. This, in turn, emboldened the trade and industry and they continued to treat consumers with utter disdain and disrespect.
As I look back over the last twenty-eight years of my column-writing, I find that the process of economic liberalisation and the Consumer Protection Act of 1986 have together brought in considerable change. There is relatively better consumer awareness; we have a parallel system of consumer justice (even if its working leaves much to be desired), and consumers have a better choice, whether in the manufactured-goods sector or the services sector.
Yet, the consumer continues to be the victim of marketplace chicanery and skullduggery. Whenever I revisit my early columns, I find myself laughing at some of the issues that had so bothered me then. For example, I see many angrily penned articles on the inordinate delay in the fructification of trunk calls booked through the telephone exchange, the rude behaviour of the operators, disturbances on the line and inaccurate billing. Issues that were once big, but non-existent today.
Today, unfortunately, the old problems have made way for new ones. Consumers now have a choice of insurance companies, but they continue to be victims of unfair trade practices perpetrated by the insurers. Today, they need not go to a bank and wait for hours to withdraw money, but are victims of A TM malfunctioning and A TM frauds. Whereas earlier, adulteration of food with toxic colours haunted us, today, we are grappling with issues such as the indiscriminate use of growth hormones in agriculture and animal husbandry, and genetically modified foods.
There are, however, some areas in which things have not changed at all. Thirty years ago, I was witness to a tragedy I can never forget -the circus fire in Bangalore. Caused by callous indifference to safety norms, it led to the death of hundreds of children. And even now, three decades later, see many such catastrophes just waiting to happen. Year after year, overloaded boats, ferrying people across overflowing rivers capsize, killing hundreds. During the monsoon, lightning kills school children because the buildings do not have lightning arrestors. And we have witnessed a number of tragic school fires, all pointing to a complete lack of safety consciousness.
Another area of concern is the widening gap between rich and poor consumers. Today, have a large percentage of disadvantaged consumers without access to basic rights such as safe drinking water, sanitation, adequate and safe food, health-care, shelter and clothing. It is unfortunate that the Indian consumer protection law recognises only six rights of consumers and not the other two recognised by the UN and the international consumer movement -the right to satisfaction of basic needs and the right to a healthy and sustainable environment.
But I am an optimist and am sure that in a decade or two, things will really change for the better and the Indian consumer will triumph. Till then, I have a lot of work to do.
Pushpa Girimaji has the distinction of being the only Indian journalist to have written extensively on issues of consumer rights for the last twenty-eight years. Her weekly columns (both syndicated and exclusive) appear in six leading publications. She has written Consumer Rights for Everyone (Penguin Books, 1999), a book on consumer law, and a monograph on misleading advertisements, published by the Indian Institute of Public Administration. She represents consumer interests on several policy-making bodies. Her campaigns on behalf of consumers have led to new consumer protection regulations and standards, amendments to laws, rules and regulations, ensuring better protection of consumers. She won the Chameli Devi Jain Award in 1991. I
She shared the award with Mediastorm.