Consumer rights awareness growing in India: US NGO

New Delhi, July 9 (IANS) Has anyone ever fought for your baby’s faulty crib? Meet Charles W.F. Bell, a veteran consumer rights crusader whose NGO forced manufacturers in the US to withdraw a ‘faulty crib’ from the market this year and who says awareness is growing in India too.

‘Our organisation has mobilised public opinion against key lifestyle hazards like cigarettes, safety belts, microwave ovens, safe water supply, door locks and vehicle rollovers through our journal, leading to landmark legislation,’ Bell, a top official of Consumers’ Union, told IANS.

Bell said: ‘India is passing through a phase of consumer rights awareness that America underwent after the Great Depression years.’

He was in the capital to address a select audience on healthcare and consumer rights. Consumers’ Union, one of the biggest non-profit consumers’ rights groups in the US, known for publishing a journal, Consumer Reports, since 1936, ‘tests products, informs the public and protects consumers’. It has four advocacy offices across the US.

Bell recounted the ‘historic drop side crib recall and the ensuing legislation to protect toddlers from dying in their cribs’.

‘Once we realised that the cribs were faulty, one of our experts went to the standards organisation and presented our concern that the cribs were unsafe. The manufacturer acknowledged it and began to withdraw the product in phases,’ Bell told IANS.

The crusade launched by the Consumers’ Union in New York against the the ‘drop side crib’ after the death of a toddler in a portable crib in 1998 forced lawmakers to lend teeth to the Consumer Product Safety Improvements Act of 2008 in June this year, Bell said.

Bell, who looks after external funding and alliances, said: ‘Consumers in

the US were not always aware of their rights. The spread of consumer rights’ awareness was a historical process and developed over many years.

‘After World War I, for about 15 years, American consumers remained insulated till 1936, when they began to question their rights. The consumers’ rights movement gathered steam after the World War II when the US economy began to take off,’ he said.

‘India is passing through a period of similar economic growth. A group of people whose incomes are rising are placing more importance on consumer rights,’ Bell said.

Part of this trend in India can be attributed to ‘growing awareness’, the consumer rights crusader said.

‘We tend to experience frustrations. We don’t think we will be able to do anything about it. The fight witnesses several movements to pile pressure on the company, provider, supplier and on governments. What happens? Once the market is impacted, people are energised by the collective victory. The process goes on,’ Bell said.

In 1962, the US government outlined four basic consumer rights – the right to be informed, to choose, to safety and to be heard – which later came to be known as the Consumer Bill of Rights, Bell said.

But in countries like India, the ‘awareness should come from the market’, the activist said.

‘A store owner should be embarrassed to display inferior quality products. There comes a point of time when it is no longer fashionable to sell a shoddy product. Retailers should demand better products from suppliers and suppliers from manufacturers. The buyers should insist on quality from shopkeepers. It is a chain…,’ Bell said.

The consumer activist said: ‘Complaints about erroneous banking and financial services top the list of consumer rights disputes in the US.’

‘They are followed by complaints about high credit card fee, home improvement contracting, kitchen fixing and food safety,’ Bell said.

The activist writes on healthcare and consumer issues.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)

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