In his three-decade long journey as a consumer activist, R. Desikan has fought and won many battles. APARNA KARTHIKEYAN on what keeps this octogenarian going

“Whenever something went wrong, I fought it,” says R. Desikan, the founder-trustee of Consumers Association of India. Desikan, who looks and sounds younger than his 80 years, settles for a chat and by his feet, a black-and-tan dachshund snoozes.

Desikan’s three-decade long journey as a consumer activist started with the realisation that consumers in India are a neglected lot. “We have export quality products, but we have substandard ones for our own people! Why should we be cheated or get second-rate goods? Every Indian deserves the best money can buy.” The consumer movement in India took root in Mumbai, and Desikan says that a peculiar incident triggered it. “In the early 1960s, there was a sudden rise in the price of tomatoes and milk; this angered women, who then walked into the Food Minister’s house and demanded that he keep prices down. They were successful!” he smiles.

Interestingly, Desikan’s foray into the movement involved a touch of chivalry and a dash of anger. “In Mumbai (1965), I bought what was advertised as leak-proof batteries. But they not only leaked, they also damaged my wife’s radio. She was appalled; being a young man just getting to know his wife, I wrote an angry letter to their head-office. They replaced the batteries thrice!” Desikan met his wife while working in Reader’s Digest.

Although he never completed his degree — family circumstances and poor health prevented him from doing so — Desikan decided he wouldn’t let that be a disadvantage. Moving back to Chennai in 1971, Desikan started India’s first neighbourhood newspaper, South Madras News (SMN), which enjoyed a good run from 1977 to 1993. In 1986, he started the SMN Consumer Protection Council, and held its first meeting in Adyar, which was attended by over 150 people. “I was always very active. And till today, I believe in myself and stand by what I say.” In the 1990s, the organisation joined forces with others in the state, to form the Federation of Consumer Organisations in Tamilnadu (FEDCOT).

Conferences and training programmes followed. Desikan fine-tuned every detail, including planning the menu, sometimes for 1,800 people. “This way, we trained over 1,500 consumer activists, a large number of them women. Over the years, our master-trainers have trained 62,000 women. Empowering women is very important, as it’s they who are price-sensitive.” He recalls an old woman asking a younger relative to note down points during a conference, telling Desikan “tomorrow, we will go the ration-shop and fight”. “Knowledge is power,” he says with conviction.

A fighter, who refuses to take things lying down, Desikan counts the 1987 closure of a petrol-bunk that supplied 18 per cent adulterated fuel as one of his early victories. “I spent a day in the lab, then I rang up the petroleum company with the evidence. They closed down that bunk. Over the years, there have been attempts to bribe and threaten me. But I’m not afraid.” In 1997, after the 3rd conference, Desikan laid down office at FEDCOT and in 2001, Consumers Association of India (CAI) was born.

Serving as a membership organisation, CAI publishes a consumer digest, holds seminars, lobbies on behalf of the consumer, receiving, on average, four complaints a day. “In the last ten years, we have handled 10,000 complaints. Hundreds of cases go to court, I have gone and argued myself!” Over the years, he has fought for transparent MRP, filed class-action suits for standardisation in the size of packaged goods, and got the RBI to implement a daily rate of interest in the savings account. “It was a significant win, benefiting over 35 lakh people!”

But strong-willed manufacturers, pitted against consumers who are afraid to take them on, either due to a lack of knowledge or apathy, often have their way. “I can accomplish more if I have the manpower. We also need money to take it forward,” he says, adding that all the trustees work on an honorary basis.

A visionary, Desikan started CONCERT (Centre for Consumer Education, Research, Teaching, Training and Testing) back in 1997. He would now like to establish a world-class laboratory and training centre in Chennai, to test food, drugs, children’s toys, petroleum products and vehicles. He sees a tremendous need for people to know about the Consumer Act. “It will save an enormous amount of money at every stage. You know, India has the best laws; but law enforcement is not the best.”

Desikan, who will turn 81 in July 2013, says he’s now a contented man. “I’m going to retire from CAI and CONCERT in July; I have achieved all that I wanted toI’m here to protect the consumer. People ask me all the time why I’m doing this; I don’t get money. Solving people’s problems gives me great satisfaction. And that’s what keeps me going.”