Monday, June 29, 2015

Ralph Nader of TN - R.Desikan

If I have to name a person as an unforgettable character in my life it would be R Desikan, the consumer activist who died on the night of June 27. Considered the Ralph Nader of South India, he was a remarkable personality whose fighting spirit made him take on establishments – both government and private -- regardless of the threats involved.

Interestingly he was self-taught and did not hold a graduate degree. Born into a large family on June 7, 1932, he grew up in a village in Tirunelveli district. As his father died when he was in the first year of college he had to drop out, but he made up for the lack of formal education by reading for hours at the Connemara Library, in Madras.

Though activism was his passion, his first love was the publication business. He started as a representative for Imprint magazine for five years and then moved to Reader’s Digest. While working there, he pioneered the concept of ‘Advertiser’s Supplement’, a first of its kind in the country. In 1973, he moved to Chennai and soon started full-fledged publishing. He launched the magazine ‘Indian Needlewoman’ under the banner of Speciality Publications with his wife Nirmala as editor. Nirmala, proved to be the greatest asset in Desikan’s life. While he was the ideas man, she was the executor and together they started a series of magazines, including the first ever women-centric Tamil magazine Mangayar Malar.

It was in 1977 that Desikan decided to rustle up the scene by bringing out a weekly community paper called South Madras News, distributed free. The magazine allowed residents of South Madras to voice their issues. A natural corollary was the establishment of an NGO in1987, SMN consumer protection council. This was followed close on the heels of the much debated Indian Consumer Protection Act 986 being passed by the Parliament.

During this time his publishing project took a hit, he decided to close the unit and took on the avatar of the consumer activist. With Concert (Centre for Education, Research Testing and Training), he took awareness on consumer rights to a national level. Concert was the first ever fuel testing laboratory run by an NGO in Chennai.

Along with some stalwarts he started an NGO, The Catalyst Trust, now active in championing electoral reforms. The flagship organization of the group, Consumers Association of India (CAI), has come to be recognized as one of the two top consumer organizations in the country. Established in 2001 it has helped consumers get redressal from governments or erring corporates.

Though I had known Desikan for over 45 years, I witnessed his crusading spirit when he invited me to join the Consumer Association of India as a trustee. He was singularly responsible for opening up a whole new world to me, introducing me to the Round Table India – a youth organization devoted to fellowship and service.

I met him in the hospital ten days before his demise. While the doctors were
debating whether he should be put under the scalpel, he was talking with great enthusiasm about new projects on the anvil at CAI.

An ad-man, journalist, printer, publisher, a pioneer of ideas, an inveterate optimist, a visionary with tremendous energy and enthusiasm - more than all these descriptions of Desikan, what people will always remember him  for is his role as a crusader for consumer rights.

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