Friday, November 28, 2014

Consumer protection through insurance cover-Does it make any sense in India?

Consumer is the King, so proclaims almost all the industry players to convey the impression that they care for their clients more than any thing else!. But does the ground reality obtaining in India justify such a tall claim? Whether it is your street corner petty shop or the super duper glittering mall that is sprawling all over the country, one thing is common, that is, if you pay for buying a product, it is yours and yours only, no returns please! That is the fate of "King Consumer" at least in our country. Of course there are exceptions like the traditional family shops where there is "bonding" of friendship between you and the shop owner built over a long period of association and here returns are accepted, though some what reluctantly, if they are faulty or below expected standard. 

Have we ever heard of a product recall incidence in India during the last 71 years of our independence? Such a thing is unheard of in our country because this is like an orphaned nation with no one ready to take the responsibility of protecting the citizen from the marauding food fraudsters lurking all over the market place. On paper there are many rules and regulations put out by the Ministry of Health which the manufacturers and retailers of foods are "supposed" to be following but in practice, except for spooky offices in most town municipalities with grossly understaffed and under prepared  health departments having no clue regarding the law of the land vis-a--vis food safety. In a country of 125 crore, annual conviction rate of food fraudsters is hardly about 1000! There are thousands of cases pending before the courts for years to gether while the criminals roam freely around.

The brand new (2006 vintage!) FSSAI is roaring from Delhi that it would take stringent action on food adulterators and fraudsters with no mercy. Very good intention indeed! But ground reality is some thing different. It was only recently reported that in a prime urban conglomerate like Hyderabad there is no laboratory which can analyze samples supposed to be unsafe or below quality as, when or if picked up by the food inspectors, most of whom are conspicuous by their absence! The mantra of granting crores and crores of rupees to upgrade the infrastructure food inspection and safety enforcement is repeated ad nauseum with no visible evidence of implementing or improving the required facilities. 

In a country like the US there are well laid protocols accepted by the industry to remove from the market food products suspected to be unsafe and the industry covers itself with appropriate insurance protection against public litigation or prosecution by the consumer or the implementing agency. Besides most manufacturers work closely with the retailers to satisfy the customer regarding the quality of food sold and a dissatisfied consumer can always return the product for replacement or refund. Is this possible in India? Never, because the retailer can always deny that he has told it. There are dealers who sell blatantly date expired food products which may injure the consumer who will never be able to conclusively prove that the injury is caused by the food purchased from him.

A most interesting instance of commitment to safety by a country again comes from the US where there are farmers markets spread across the country offering to the consumers farm-fresh food conforming to standards laid down in the statute books. Since these farmers do not possess facilities to test their products in modern facilities, it is their experience that ensures their food is safe. In case there is any incidence of food poisoning or food related adverse episode, happening inadvertently, the farmer has adequate public liability insurance to cover damages caused by such cases. Look at India where there are thousands of mandis or shanties taking place with millions of consumers flocking there to buy their needs at prices much less than that prevailing in organized market places. Unlike American farmers market, where strict laws are there for only genuine farmers to partake in such markets, in Indian shandies there are more middlemen operating than farmers. Middle man is a curse in India who exploits both the farmer and the consumer by manipulating buying and selling prices!

As the conditions that exist in India to day, no citizen can claim protection from unscrupulous trading practices and are at the mercy of these elements day in and day out. Whether it is "mom and pop" or organized retailers or rural mandis, citizen is on his own to ward off such organized cheating and under such a condition how can development pundits expect the food industry to grow fast? Unless product return regime and product liability regulations take root in the country, most consumers will restrict their purchase to the absolute minimum and opt to cook at home rather than buying unreliable  processed products.


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