Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

CONSUMER : October 31, 1999

A mode of empowerment

Pritee Shah

Courtesy Consumer Education and Research Society, publishers of Insight - The Consumer Magazine.

Consumer organisations in the Sixties were largely engaged in activities of consumer protection through writing articles, holding exhibitions, and making representations to the Government for some change in policy or law.

It was against this background that the Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC), Ahmedabad, was set up during 1978, providing a thrust to the movement in terms of result orientation through effective uses of the law, the media, research, lobbying and advocacy. The movement received a shot in the arm in 1986 when Parliament enacted the Consumer Protection Act.

Then, along with a three-tier consumer grievance redressal mechanism and other major developments that the Act brought in its train, followed the concept of comparative testing of consumer products by organisations. It began to be viewed as a mode of consumer empowerment. The Consumer Guidance Society of India, (CGSI), Mumbai, used to do it off and on even during the early period. VOICE at Delhi started comparative product testing during the early Nineties with the help of a Government grant and the services of outside laboratories. It began with testing television sets and published its findings in booklet form. However, the country's first independent inhouse laboratory run by a consumer organisation came up on the CERC campus in Ahmedabad in 1994. The laboratory was equipped for testing three categories of products, to begin with, namely foods, pharmaceuticals and domestic electrical appliances; it has been taking up one product after another ever since its inception.

The present activities of the comparative testing laboratory at CERC are: to inform consumers of the findings of its comparative testing, ranking and evaluation of consumer products and recommend the "best buy" or "good buy" to consumers; call for corrective action like product recall or discontinuation of unsafe products; demand action against false and misleading claims not substantiated by laboratory tests; help consumers in recovering damages for loss or injury; campaign for striking down unfair conditions of contract opposed to public policy; and review and improve standards.

It is a proactive laboratory, buying products directly from the market, checking against standards laid down by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), the Prevention of Food Adulteration (PFA) Act and against claims made by the producers. It compares the products also against the standards abroad that are important from a consumer's point of view. The test findings are published in the organisation's bimonthly Insight - The Consumer Magazine, identifying the products tested and their manufacturers.

The consumer is often not aware of the comparative advantages and disadvantages of the various brands of a particular product vis- a-vis their performance, safety, quality and price. The test reports equip him with this information which in turn empowers him to exercise an informed choice.

Take, for instance, the laboratory's test report on bottled water published in Insight (January-February 1998). The laboratory tested eight brands of drinking water and five of mineral water, including many reputed brands. The laboratory's comparative testing, evaluation, rating and ranking revealed that only three brands conformed to the standards out of 13 brands tested. The three in order of their ranking, were Saiganga (mineral water), Ahmednagar; Bisleri (drinking water), Baroda; and Bailley (drinking water), Mumbai. One brand revealed arsenic in higher quantity than the stipulated maximum, another brand showed a high level of aluminium. Floating particles were found in some others.

The laboratory has since tested paracetamol syrup and tablets, aspirin, ampicillin and intravenous fluids in the pharmaceuticals category, soft drinks, milk packets, turmeric powder, tea, coffee, chilli powder and butter spreads in the food category, and electric and steam irons, mixers and grinders, in the domestic electrical appliance category.

The concept of comparative product testing is, however, not new in some of the developed countries. In the US, for instance, it is over 60 years old. The laboratories of the Consumers Union (CU) have been turning out product test reports since 1936 when they started with the publication of their bottled milk test report in their magazine. The CU's monthly Consumer Reports is now the world's largest circulated consumer magazine with a circulation of 5.8 millions. The CU tests products range from cars to coffee to vitamin tablets.

In fact, Consumer Reports have become the Bible of the American consumers so much so that the magazine is consulted before buying almost anything.

Comparative product testing by consumer organisations is also developed in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and some other countries. Which magazine of the U.K., the Choice of Australia, and The Consumer of New Zealand have all been publishing test reports and each has become a force to reckon with.

Unlike in the West, quality consciousness is not yet a way of life in India. The concepts of product testing, consulting a magazine before buying, and asserting their rights as consumers will, therefore, take time.

Insight magazine believes that empowerment of the consumer alone can weed out substandard, spurious and unsafe products from the market.

Creating consumer awareness, dissemination of test findings, ensuring the safety and quality of products, addition of newer product categories to meet the consumer needs are the goals before the laboratory. In the near future the laboratory will be expanded to include the testing of environment friendly products, toys, and energy-saving electrical appliances, etc.

Comparative testing, rating and ranking of consumer products made little sense to the vast majority of Indians till the early Nineties. Understanding the dynamics of laboratory testing of products - be they bottled water, mixer grinders or aspirin - and making an informed choice before purchase was not the Indian consumer's cup of tea.

Since inception the laboratory has been assisted by many financial and non-financial organisations in India and abroad. The initial support came from Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ), a German technical assistance agency. GTZ extended an assistance of Rs 5.4 millions for three years from January 1998. The CU has also been a consultant to CERC's laboratory project.

While the Gujarat Institute of Chemical Technology, Ahmedabad, donated the land for CERC, further assistance came from the IDBI, IFCI, ICICI, GIC, LIC, SBI, BoB, as well as from the Ministry of Civil Supplies, and the United Nations Development Programme.

The test results, besides being published in Insight, are sent out to other consumer groups in the country which publish newsletters, magazines, bulletins, etc. They also reproduce the test findings.

Insight was launched on January 1 1998 at the national level. It is India's first priced consumer magazine which publishes test reports and is supported by an independent, inhouse consumer product testing laboratory.

The magazine's groundbreaking reports exposing the often shoddy and unsafe nature of consumer goods in India have spurred government investigation and remedial measures. Our testing and publication programme has inspired consumer groups in other developing countries to launch their own efforts in this area. While test reports form the mainstay of the magazine, national and international consumer-related articles are also published.

The test reports published and publicised so far are still sending ripples far and wide. The products tested include bottled water, packed milk, packed tea, soft drinks, instant coffee, turmeric powder, bath soaps, electrical and steam irons, food mixers, aspirin tablets, ampicillin capsules and paracetamol tablets and syrups. The findings are released also to the print and electronic media. Reports are sent to the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Indian Standards, other regulatory authorities, consumer co-operatives, etc.

The findings have left their impact on the media, which in turn has disseminated the information and sensitised consumers. The print media in particular has created history by publishing not only the findings but also the brand names and the names of manufacturers.

Traditionally, criticism of product brands in any form and mentioning the names of manufacturers was taboo. CERC's test reports have removed all qualms from the media mindset. Today, the print media takes pride in publishing the test reports to the last detail. Some newspapers even go to the extent of grilling manufacturers before they publish their reports, maybe even at the cost of alienating them. In fact, the media is now even ready to pay for such rare information and share them with the readers.

Aditya Dhawan

The media, by and large, has taken serious note of the inadequacies in safety and quality revealed by our tests. If the findings disturbed some manufacturers, they helped others set their house in order and uplift the quality of their products.

The Industry's initial response, however, was lukewarm, almost sceptical. But when representatives of several industries at the regional and national level visited CERC on different occasions, when they saw for themselves the well-equipped, inhouse comparative product testing laboratory, its rigid, objective, unbiased testing procedure, and the organisational infrastructure, when they interacted with the testing personnel and other members of the staff, learnt of the organisation's past performances and future projects, they went back reassured of CERC's credibility. Indeed, most of them extended their support to CERC's mission for improvement in the quality of products and protection of the consumer. Some manufacturers volunteered to consult us in designing better products, in following the standards or even in setting up a new plant. The concept of comparative product testing in practice coupled with publication of test reports has brought about a welcome attitudinal change in industry.

Philips India sought our cooperation in formulating the "criteria for convenience" for all electrical home appliances. We offered our willingness to interact with a forum such as the Association of Electrical Appliances Manufacturers, rather than with a single manufacturer, in conducting a survey or research to formulate the criteria.

Acqua Bisleri, manufacturers of Bisleri (a brand of bottled water we tested from four different bottling plants around the country), sent information on the recent measures undertaken by the company to improve quality. Other than improving the quality of their product by updating technology,they have set up bottle and cap manufacturing units adjoining their plants. They have developed a special "break-away seal" to prevent misuse and have undertaken daily and periodic testing of water samples to ensure quality.

Kothari Beverages, manufacturers of YES, has dropped the label claims of adhering to "WHO, EEC and USFDA standards". Pal Cospo sought our guidance for improving the quality of mineral water, BOSS, and also revised their label claims to suit the product. The new label comes without the earlier exaggerated claims of "fulfills WHO and FDA standards" and "zero contamination".

In Parliament, members found in our test findings a stick to beat the erring manufacturers and regulatory authorities.

Government departments at State and Central levels felt uncomfortable at the publication of the test reports and the reactions they generated in the various segments of society. The departments concerned with consumer protection, the functioning of the regulatory mechanism, conformity to product standards or lack of it, etc. felt themselves exposed and attracted criticism. When questions are raised in Parliament, or the Bureau of Indian Standards is in the dock, it is the Government departments which have to bear the brunt. We were vindicated in our efforts by the all-out support from our readers. Since the publication of our first test report, there has been a steady inflow of encouraging letters from our readers. Many have even volunteered their professional expertise in support of the cause. And thanks to the impact of our findings on the market, even multinationals have realised that they cannot take the Indian consumer for granted.

The expectations of the individual consumer from consumer organisations in general and the CERC in particular are rising. The test reports emanating from the laboratory are creating a silent revolution in the manufacturing industry, slowly but steadily leading to welcome changes in the safety, quality, performance and price of products - to the advantage of society with the consumer at the centre.

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