Losing colour and spirit?

WHEN FOREIGN colas entered the country in the late 80s, the so-called conservative Indian market said in a chorus, "Yehi hai right choice". The fizz from the `right choice' made the domestic national player's `zing thing' go up in vapours and there was nothing to say about the small and tiny units. The entry of MNC soft drinks rang the death knell for many local players with the competition hotting up. Not only their range of products attracted the market, but even the television commercials starring `the men who mattered' from the world of Indian cricket and Bollywood swayed the youth and the young ones alike.

With every sip of the `phoren drink', the youth thought that they became part of the `civilised western' population. This was not only the case of metropolis but also the agro-based Madurai. It did not take a long time for the MNC bottles to enter remote villages here. The rural Maduraiites who were used to asking for "colour" started exercising their choice by spelling out the names - Fanta, Sprite, Dew, thanks to the TV ads. Even the traditional coffee took a back seat as middle class families took pride in serving the guests soft drinks, thanks to the introduction of pet bottles.

But the development of last week (the CSE report on soft drinks) has opened a Pandora's box.

The Maduraiites were quick to react, as they would always. The result, the MNC bottles were "hanged in public". It is not new for the city, as it had launched a crusade against the MNCs' "imperialistic attitude" when, during a protest demonstration, a donkey and a dog were fed with the fizz, in March this year. Even when the MNCs brushed aside the report saying "nothing official about it", the silent protest of Maduraiites cannot be taken lightly, as there has been a near total `rejection' of their brands. Industry observers say there has been a dip in the sales of MNC products. "The products which were sold in crates everyday are now selling in bottles," says S.N. Sheik Farithullah, who runs a shop in a bustling area in the city.

What triggered the sudden fall? How could such a huge patronage vanish in quick time? The domestic players have many answers for that. First and foremost is the "unethical marketing practices", many say in chorus. "The MNC products were not the natural choice of the consumers. In fact, the people were made to drink them," says a consumer. How was that possible? The marketing strategy gave them a monopoly in the business. "Even the Mappillai Vinayagar, a local brand, which was started as early as in 1909, does not find a place even in theatres owned by the company." The local brands are not only out of cinema halls, but also from the hotels, petty shops, college and school canteens.

The advertisement blitzkrieg made the MNC products visible and omnipresent. The freebies offered by them had no limits, so was the pricing. In the cola war, many local brands faded away and the remaining were pushed to a corner with a market share of just 4 per cent. The traditional flavoured milk, fruit juice, squash and tender coconuts found no place in the thirst quenching market in this belt where agriculture is the backbone.

"It is nothing but cheating the innocent paying consumer," says K. Ramachandran, the president of Madurai District Tiny and Small Industries Association (MADITSIA) reacting to the CSE report. "If the allegations against the MNCs are proved, they should be made to pay compensation for the damage they have caused to the consumers", he feels.

There were many instances when the bottles of SSI units were "stealthily damaged" by the representatives of the MNCs causing a huge loss, says K. Kathirvel, Chairman of Mappillai Vinayagar Group of Companies.

Now the company is forced to place orders for new bottles in thousands, rather in hundreds, as the MNC has taken over the bottle manufacturing unit also. So it is a multipronged attack on the SSIs, he says.

However, the local players feel that the `revealing report' is a `Godsend' and would add fizz to their market, which is fast fizzling out.

Now, they plan to capitalise on the situation and enter the educational institutions, as few of them have already banned the MNCs from the campus.

`No preservative, no caffeine, no phosphoric acid' will be their slogan.

They feel a revised tax structure benefiting the SSI to provide a level playing field would revive the small players in the food processing industry, give a fillip to the agricultural sector and also create more employment opportunities.

Will the market see the "colour" again?