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Updated: March 14, 2013 17:33 IST

Save the consumer

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Helen McCallum, director-general of Consumer International.
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Helen McCallum, director-general of Consumer International.

Today is World Consumer Right’s Day. Helen McCallum, director-general Consumers International talks about rights and problems

Until people encounter a problem, they don’t even think about consumer rights, says Helen McCallum, director-general of Consumers International (CI). On a recent visit to Chennai, Helen spoke about the importance of making consumers understand their rights. “It saves time and money; because later, setting up consumer help-lines and legal redress is expensive.”

As CI’s director general, since 2011, Helen has spearheaded dramatic changes in the way the consumer organisation — established in 1960, comprising 240 members across 120 countries — functions. “The fights are similar across the world, even though consumers are in different positions. In India, access to clean water is a huge issue; in Africa, it is nutritious food; and yet, you find a lot of mobile phone users everywhere,” she says. But since it is not possible to tackle all global concerns at once, CI focuses its efforts on a few issues. Food security — both tackling obesity, and at the other end of the spectrum, access to food — is one of the causes she champions. “We’re working with WHO and individual countries regarding food safety. We’re also framing international guidelines for financial security, and we’re looking to create awareness about the need to protect finances, especially among the poor, who don’t have money to bank. And since we’re now in the digital age, we’re tackling issues that affect consumers online — their privacy, identity thefts, online pricing, and in some cases, when they do not get the service they pay for…”

Leading CI’s calls for better consumer protection around the globe, Helen rues that often the most deprived people are used as markets for bad products, and these are usually places where consumer protection is weak. In these cases, CI works with the governments, and brings them up to speed with consumer laws. Among CI’s big victories, Helen counts restrictions on marketing junk food to children and food labelling. Big supermarkets, she says, are being asked to display traffic-light stickers on their products — the red standing for danger (foods that are high in salt/ sugar/ fat), to green, which endorses the food as healthy. “We’re also working with them to reformulate the products, right at the production, so that consumers do not have to make that (unhealthy) choice”. Of course, it only applies to packaged food, agrees Helen, but eventually, food labelling should help everybody.

Moving on to India, Helen says that water sticks out as big problem for the country. “The rural poor do not have access to basic services — food, sanitation and a clean water supply. The last, particularly affects an awful lot of things, making it difficult to keep things hygienic.” Consumer awareness also seems fairly low, she says, adding that people are chary to complain, even when they are sold defective goods.

However, she speaks highly of the country’s consumer movement, adding that India is lucky to have very good, very lively and energetic consumer organisations. “There are good laws in place, in India; it’s the gap in the enforcement that’s the issue.” 14 consumer organisations from the country are part of CI; and CI’s role is enabling them to exchange global best practises. Most consumer groups around the world face similar monetary challenges, says Helen. “Many of them choose to surmount this by selling consumers information through magazines. But since the advent of free information on the internet, that model is threatened, and it calls for a rethink”.

During her visit in India, Helen says she finds the country vibrant and colourful, just as she expected, and the people very welcoming, caring and concerned. ‘It’s very busy here! And there I was, thinking London was a busy city!” she laughs.

(Helen McCallum interacted with members of Consumers Association of India [CAI], and various other consumer groups in Chennai and TamilNadu during her visit to Chennai. This was the first visit by a senior official from CI to the city.)

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