Friday, January 4, 2013

From Promoter of Consumerism to Consumer Activist-Part-I ( R.Desikan)

R. Desikan is a highly respected consumer activist who is looked upon for advice on any consumer-related issue by both State and Central Governments. Scores of people approach him every week seeking redressal for their product or service-related problems. Though I have known Desikan for over 40 years, I saw his fiery passion and crusading spirit for consumer activism from close quarters only when he invited me to join the Consumer Association of India as a Trustee a couple of years ago.

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Desikan's fighting spirit can be traced back to his school days. What he lacked in terms of physical size in height and weight, he compensated with rustic intelligence and raw common sense.

When he was still in school, a diminutive young boy who showed no fear in dealing with any situation, he was challenged by a big bully in the class to a wrestling match. He accepted the challenge. With his clever mind he quickly identified the weak spot of the boy and managed to get hold of that part in a vice-like grip and would not let go until the boy, in sheer agony, surrendered. Desikan was to later adopt the same strategy in dealing with erring corporate goliaths as a consumer activist.

Born in Srirangam, he was brought up in a village called Desamanikam in Tirunelveli District. After schooling there, he joined Madras Christian College to pursue a course in Mathematics and Economics, subjects which he hated. He would often bunk class to watch English films – always first day-first show. Unfortunately, within six months of his joining college, his contractor father passed away, leaving the burden of bringing up the family on his eldest son. Desikan, the younger son, had to discontinue his college education as his brother found it difficult to pay the college fees. He now taught himself by becoming a voracious reader of books, often spending hours at the Connemara Library in Madras.

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Desikan's first job was as a special health worker, in which role he had to visit several villages assigned to him and examine people for ailments and report them to Government for action. However, impressed by his enterprise and passion for books, Dr. (Rev.) J.R. Macphail, the former Principal of Madras Christian College, persuaded Desikan to help import books and magazines for use in the libraries of Madras Christian College, Women's Christian College, and Christian Medical College, Vellore. This probably sowed the seeds of entrepreneurship in Desikan and the experience came in handy when he launched his own publishing house later in life.

While he continued importing books and magazines, G.R. Devarajan & Co., a well-known wholesale distributor of books and magazines in Madras, sought Desikan's help to appoint Distribution Agents for Reader's Digest and Life and Time magazines. This gave Desikan an opportunity to visit every important town in South India and he gained valuable insights into the distribution business. Impressed by his performance, the company made him a Director and its Company Secretary. That was in 1956 and Desikan was just 24.

Unfortunately, in 1958, Devarajan's business collapsed for various reasons and Desikan joined the Southern Languages Book Trust (SLBT) as its Development Officer. SLBT, at the time, was involved in the translation of World Classics . He remembers that Rajaji's Chakravarthi Thirumagan sold 1,00,000 copies in English and a book titled How to Repair a Motorcycle published by Higginbotham's sold 75,000 copies. Desikan helped SLBT open book outlets in Coimbatore, Hyderabad and Madras. In those days, Madras had only two established bookshops and 25 magazine outlets. Desikan's efforts helped create 150 bookshops and 1200 retail book outlets in Madras alone.

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Around this time his elder brother passed away and the responsibility of looking after his large family fell on Desikan's shoulders. He realised that he was now responsible for the education of his brother's four sons and a daughter as well. He decided to postpone his own marriage and look for a more lucrative job. Between 1961 and 1966, he was the representative of Imprint magazine in India. His success with Imprint made Reader's Digest offer Desikan the position of Regional Manager (South) based in Madras. In 1968, he was transferred as its Bombay representative and, within a year, was promoted as Advertisement Manager. In this role he pioneered the concept of the 'Advertiser's Supplement', the first of its kind in any magazine in the country. It was a 32-page insert on the topic 'Good Health', consisting of 65% editorial matter and 35% advertisements.

It was in Reader's Digest, that Desikan met his future wife Nirmala, who was the Executive Assistant to the MD. Having fulfilled his commitment to educate his brother's children and creating a future for them, Desikan decided to get married. He was 36. In spite of company rules prohibiting married couples working in the same organisation, Parameshwaran, the MD of the company, got special permission from headquarters to keep both Nirmala and Desikan with Reader's Digest, as he found them indispensable. Nirmala proved to be the greatest asset in Desikan's life. Coming from a large family, Nirmala was not only a great homemaker but also a great support to Desikan in all his, often adventurous, ideas! He was the ideas man and she was the executor of his ideas. A truly 'Made for a Each Other' couple!

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When his contract with Reader's Digest ended in 1973, he decided to move to Madras, for his family's sake. His good friend (Babu) Krishnaswamy had insisted that he join Krishnaswamy Associates, the documentary/ad film makers, as a Director. He accepted the offer and helped the firm quadruple its turnover in one year.

While still with Krishnaswamy, his love for the publishing business got the better of him and he decided to start a magazine called Indian Needlewoman under the banner of Speciality Publications with Nirmala as its Editor. It had the support of Madura Coats, the well-known textile company based in South India. Inspired by the success of the magazine, Desikan and Nirmala decided to launch a slew of magazines, all pioneering efforts at the time.

Indian Needlewoman was followed by Indian Cookery. Later, Mangayar Malar, the first ever Tamil magazine exclusively targeting women, was launched. Based on the success of Mangayar Malar, he combined the two English magazines to launch Indian Housewife, soon to be followed by the Hindi version, Grahani and Grahasthi.

Then, in 1977, Desikan thought of a local community newspaper to be distributed free, another first of its kind in the country. South Madras News, a weekly, was devoted to local news and promoted local talent which were not getting enough exposure in the major media. The magazine also paved the way for representing the problems of the South Madras community to the government in power. A natural corollary was the establishment of an NGO called SMN Consumer Protection Council in 1987. It was significant, because it followed close on the heels of the much-debated Indian Consumer Protection Act 1986 passed by Parliament the previous year. The Act was to help the much exploited Indian consumer, empowering him with rights and responsibilities. This was the beginning of Desikan's avatar as an aggressive consumer activist.

(To be concluded next fortnight)

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