D. N. Bezboruah
The Indian economy is not in the best of shape just now. Just months after the NDA government came to power, the rupee slid down to its lowest exchange rate against the US dollar. The US dollar is worth more than 67 rupees now. There was a time more than 60 years ago when the US dollar was worth just Rs 3.75, and when I was a schoolboy, it was worth no more than Rs 5. Not being a student of economics, what irks me is that despite all the inflation all over the world, the exchange rate of major currencies of the world has remained more or less steady over the years except for the Indian rupee. The British pound sterling was worth about 1.5 US dollars in the 1960s and retains about the same exchange rate even today. The exchange rate between the Singapore dollar and the US dollar has changed very margilly because the former has emerged a trifle stronger over the years. But there have been no volatile changes as in the case of the Indian rupee. The pound sterling that was worth Rs 13.33 in 1965 is worth about Rs 96.44 today. Does this signify good things about the Indian economy or the value of the Indian rupee today?
And what are the other reports about our economy? One is about a decline in the manufacturing sector. Another is about a small drop in our exports. Yet another is about Union Fince Minister Arun Jaitley looking for more engines of growth for the Indian economy. These are reports that would indicate that we are slipping despite all the pious talk about “make in India”. True, a United tions report predicts that the year 2016 will see India emerging as the fastest growing economy in the world. But UN reports generally talk about potential and rarely about actual performance. There is no reason to doubt that the potential for India becoming the fastest growing economy in the year 2016 certainly exists. But there is room for doubt as to whether our industrialists and manufacturers can put up the requisite performance to match our potential. Our manufacturers and exporters are uble to deliver in the expected ways not because of any lack in what they are capable of doing, considering the “level playing fields” that the government has been providing for our manufacturers and exporters over the decades. Most people would infer that what is happening is more due to attitudes rather than to abilities. And there were hints of this in Prime Minister rendra Modi’s convocation speech at the B.R.Ambedkar University in Lucknow on Friday—a speech that was unfortutely interrupted by a section of recalcitrant students.
There is no doubt that much is amiss with the attitudes of our manufacturers and industrialists as far as their responsibilities to the people are concerned. Unfortutely, a whole lot of manufacturers and service providers are of the view that it is perfectly in order to swindle the consumer in as many ways as possible and to increase profits thereby. In other words, the consumer has been regarded as fair game for the unscrupulous manufacturer or trader’s tricks of the trade to short charge consumers and deny them what was their due in terms of announcements made about any given product in advertisements and on the packages of manufactured items. The general tendency is to give the consumer less than what was promised and to generally violate the provisions of warranties and guarantees issued to the consumer. This is not to suggest that all manufacturers and service providers are unscrupulous or are out to take the consumer for a ride. But the number of unscrupulous manufacturers and traders has increased so rapidly that generalizations on the basis of their unscrupulous actions are closer to the reality than what the honest manufacturer or trader gives us. I can begin with just two examples and go on to many more. Most people who have bought single bedspreads stated to be 60” x 90” have really bought bedspreads that are really 58” x 88”. This is almost universal. Why should a buyer be deprived of two inches of cloth in each direction every time he buys a bedspread? The manufacturer will argue that the bedspread was 60” x 90” when the cloth was cut to stitch the bedspreads. Two inches were lost in both length and breadth due to stitching and shrinkage. But what prevents the manufacturer from being completely honest and announcing that the bedspreads are 58” x 88”? The consumer is not interested in what the size of the bedspread was when the manufacturer cut the cloth. He wants to be told the true size of what he is going to get when he buys the stuff. Anything else is dishonest trading. Then you have the sale of 40 micron plastic garbage bags sold in packets claimed to contain 50 pieces. They seldom contain more than 24 or 25 bags. These days, many manufacturers have stopped mentioning how many bags the packet contains even though the law mandates that this should be mentioned. What is even more interesting is the maximum retail price of Rs 150 mentioned on the package even though the packet is available for Rs 60. This is yet another way of fleecing the gullible consumer. After all, how can every customer expect that bargaining can be done to less than half the marked MRP? Most of the problems arise from manufacturers having no respect for common people—the consumers—even in a democracy. And this attitude of always wanting to cut corners with the consumers in respect of size, weight, durability and cost extends to foreign consumers as well. Manufacturers ought to know that they cannot play tricks with overseas customers who are used to honest deals when they buy things. Could this be one of the main reasons why Indian exports are beginning to decline?
Hoardings have come up in many places of the city holding the Prime Minister solely responsible for the severe inflatiory trends in the country. Some medicine prices have are stated to have gone up by 1,000 per cent. There is also the mention of the prices of pulses going up abnormally—to even Rs 200 a kilo in some cases. While the Prime Minister should be able to put in place the mechanism for controlling such abnormal rises in prices (even in a free market economy), the fact remains that many of the price rises are triggered off by unscrupulous traders who create artificial shortages to rake in hefty profits in the months preceding general elections. With a fall in diesel prices during the last few months, there should have been a fall in the prices of certain essential commodities. This has not happened. It is time the Prime Minister pulled up senior bureaucrats who could have done their bit to control prices but did not. The same goes for chief ministers of States who have allowed retail prices to go through the roof without taking action against unscrupulous traders who have caused artificial shortages.
Filly, there are the guarantees and warranties on consumer durables that are turning out to be amusing rituals that are often not even worth the paper they are printed on. We are all aware of the hassles and the quarrels that consumers often have to put up with in getting what they are entitled to from promises made by manufacturers. Most people quickly tire of the exercise of getting warranties and guarantees honoured and give up in disgust. They should not. Once manufacturers begin to realize that even in a State like Assam there are consumers who do not give up easily, the very attitude to consumer protection could undergo a change. The difference between a warranty issued by a manufacturer in India and one in Europe is that in Europe the tendency is to give a little more than what the warranty stipulates while in India the general anti-people attitude of manufacturers is to give as little as possible and to celebrate the gains made.
Perhaps the best protection that Indian consumers can work towards is the formation of consumers’ associations so that a consumer knows that he does not stand alone. It is when consumers’ associations begin to demonstrate their collective strength that manufacturers will begin to take consumers and their legitimate demands more seriously than they have done so far. And until these associations can be formed, consumers who have had a raw deal at the hands of manufacturers and their dealers should write letters to the editors of newspapers letting people know the facts. And since newspaper editors are not anti-people, they should extend all help to suffering consumers against unscrupulous manufacturers. I see a bit of poetic justice in the popularity of on-line purchases that are getting more popular by the day. This must be because the deals are a good bit more honest than what one gets from dealers and much cheaper as well.