Friday, January 4, 2013

From P{romoter of Consumerism to Consumer activism - Part II (R.Desikan)

When I asked R. Desikan what made him transform himself from being an active promoter of

consumerism in the country to becoming a consumer activist, he narrated these two incidents:
In 1977, when the country was still reeling under Emergency rule and any form of criticism
against the Government would earn its wrath and a guaranteed place in jail, he wrote a long
letter to Indira Gandhi about the travails of the consumer in India, highlighting the importance of
passing the Consumer Protection Act. Not only did Indira Gandhi respond to his letter, but she
also gave him an audience to hear his views on the matter! This incident taught him the
importance of voicing an opinion when faced with problems, instead of living with them.
However, his fight against establishments producing sub-standard products or providing shoddy
services can be traced back to a personal episode involving a new Ambassador car which he
had bought. When the car gave him serious trouble, even during the warranty period, he went to
the car dealer who had sold him the car. The indifferent attitude of the dealer who had the
audacity to tell him that he had no choice but to live with the defective vehicle, forced Desikan to
take up cudgels and fight for the cause of the consumer. Those were the days of a seller's
market, where manufacturers got away with producing poor quality products.

By this time his over-ambitious publishing project ran into a serious financial crunch and he
decided to close the unit and sell the title of Mangayar Malar alone to another friend who, in
turn, sold it to the Kalki magazine group. However, Desikan continued running a printing press
for South Madras News. After trying out a couple of other businesses, he decided to cease all
business activities and concentrate fully on consumer activism.

* * *

His experience with the SMN Consumer Protection Council led him to take an active interest in
the Federation of Consumer Organisations in Tamil Nadu (FEDCOT). He became Chairman of
the organisation and during the six years that he was involved with FEDCOT, he helped the
membership grow from 12 organisations to 260 organisations and the turnover increase from a
few thousand rupees to Rs. 75 lakhs, through grants and subsidies from donor agencies.
Desikan's work at FEDCOT was noticed by people in Tamil Nadu and he became a name to
reckon with in the world of Consumer Activism. He was now keen to play an active role in
promoting awareness about consumer rights and responsibilities at the national level. His first
foray was Concert (Centre for Education, Research testing and Training) which established the
first-ever fuel testing laboratory run by an NGO in Chennai, and has been publishing reports
based on comparative testing of products commonly used by consumers. Concert has also
developed an adulteration detection kit and trained over 2500 women in Tamil Nadu to use it.

Along with stalwarts like B.S. Raghavan (IAS RTD), K. Ravindran IPS, Dr. S. Krishnaswamy,
and N.L. Rajah he started an NGO called The Catalyst Trust with the objective of bridging the
gap between grassroots people (aam-aadmi) and government establishments. 'Catalyst' is also
active in championing electoral reforms and already has 207 regional Citizen Centres and
publishes a monthly journal in the regional languages. 'Catalyst' has been very active in
promoting voter awareness in a big way, with aggressive media campaigns. According to
Desikan, it helped add 1.2 million new voters during the 2004 election.
The flagship organisation of the group, Consumers Association of India (CAI), was started in
2001, with Desikan, the late Yegnaraman and Krishnakumar as Founder Trustees. Today, the
Board of Trustees of CAI includes some well-known names, like N. Gopalaswami, former CEC
of India.

During the last eleven years of its existence, CAI has helped over 10,000 consumers get
redressal for their problems with Governments or erring corporates; 98 per cent of these cases
were resolved without any legal intervention. The persistent efforts of CAI resulted in RBI
passing a rule by which banks are now calculating the interest due to Savings Bank account
holders on a daily basis instead of the earlier periodicity which had been unfavourable to bank
customers. This is helping millions of customers across the country get better earnings. CAI has
also been working closely with self-help groups in Tamil Nadu, training them to be more aware
of their rights and responsibilities as consumers. A few of them have also become Consumer
Activists. In recent years, CAI has been working closely with schools and colleges, trying to sow
the seeds of consumer awareness in young minds. CAI has published a number of guides
useful to consumers and every member gets a free copy of its bi-monthly called Consumers
Digest. With some major projects assigned by the Government to CAI, it has come to be
recognised as one of the top two consumer organisations in the country.

* * *

Desikan had a major health crisis in 2006. When doctors had given up hope, he had a
miraculous recovery. After spending a couple of months in the hospital and later recouping at
home for a couple of more months, Desikan was back in action with greater vigour and energy
to do what he is passionate about – fighting for the hapless Indian consumer!
When I asked him why in spite of poor health he continues to push himself beyond his
endurance limits, he said, "I feel very happy when people who have benefited from CAI come to
thank me. More than any award, it is this spontaneous appreciation from the common people
that is keeping me going. I am happy that I am able to make some difference to their lives."
An ad-man, journalist, printer, publisher, a pioneer of ideas, a visionary with tremendous energy
and enthusiasm – more than all these descriptions of Desikan, what people will always
remember him is for his role as a crusader for consumer rights.


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