India's consumer movement doesn't exist

Published: Saturday 15 January 2005

-- it is cheaper, elegantly uses waste from power plants, is less of a drain on scarce natural resources and has better resistance to cracks: cement with fly ash. But the Indian consumer doesn't like it. Companies manufacturing Portland Pozzolana Cement complain consumers prefer ordinary cement (with high compressive strength) for structures like houses that don't require that kind of compressive strength. They pay a higher price for a commodity that uses greater amounts of limestone, a non-replenishable mineral resource.

That the market is not willing to accept a cheaper substitute is only part of the problem. The bigger issue is the absence of an environmental consciousness among India's consumers. In fact, the country doesn't have a consumer movement worth mentioning. The market is driven mostly by prices. For commodities like cement, it can be argued, for example, that one wants to play safe because building a house is something s/he is not likely to do very frequently. But that is exactly the point of a consumer movement: informed choice. As new information and knowledge trickles in, consumer groups help its absorption in the market.

Not that India's cement manufacturers aren't to blame. All cement advertising uses symbols of power, going to the extent of scaring consumers that their houses will get blown away if they don't use a particular brand. Certainly, this is not the making of a good relationship between manufacturers and consumers.

The Indian middle class loves to imitate its Western counterpart. Environmentalism in the West is closely linked to consumer movements. Why doesn't that happen in India? Why is it up to the Supreme Court to intervene on behalf of the consumers when it asks cola manufacturers to publish details of the pesticide content in their soft drinks? Why isn't pressure on government coming from consumers? For one, the middle class has little interest in the politics of governance. Because it can get what it wants through the nameless, faceless bureaucracy. But it is the middle class that consumes a bulk of the resources and products, and is also responsible for the environmental costs of industrial development.

But 2004 saw the inklings of a consumer movement in India. The media has started approaching consumer groups for comment on business stories. These groups need to build greater credibility. The consuming middle class of India badly needs direction.

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