This column appears on the day the world is supposed to end according to the ancient Mayans. In case there has been some calculation error and you are still around to read this, I thought it might be interesting to dwell on the highs and lows that we consumers faced in 2012. After all, having put aside the matter of the apocalypse, what else can be more important. So here goes—first the lows so that we end on a high note.
The new gas laws: Every household is entitled to one liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) connection across gas companies. Only nine cylinders per year. Six at the subsidized rate of around Rs.400 and three at the full rate of (gasp) around Rs.900. Yes, we know that oil companies are facing losses so subsidized cylinders have to be cut. But as consumers, handing over two Rs.500 notes to the delivery boy after years of giving one, feels like someone pinched our purse.
The return of SMS spam: They are back. Those property text messages urging you to buy a plot in Bhiwadi or a 3,000 sq. ft plot on Yamuna Expressway to make your life meaningful. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) had flexed its muscles at unsolicited messages and calls in 2011, but canny telemarketers seemed to have found a loophole. Or maybe the Gods who protect us from phone spam are on vacation.
Domestic airfare: Domestic airfare increased by 20 to 30% this year though passenger traffic actually dipped. On an average, every month, only 72% of the seats in aircraft were occupied. Having 28% of the seats empty is a loss-making scenario for airlines and one would expect that they would have lowered fares to increase occupancy. But they didn’t, citing high jet fuel prices as the reason for increasing fares.
When Kingfisher Airlines Ltd was grounded by the aviation regulator in October after curtailing flights for several months, it was the end of good times for air travellers as well. Passengers who may have flown on Kingfisher flocked to low-cost airlines, which gleefully raised their fares by an estimated 10%.
Low cost airfare effectively became history.
Air ticket printouts: In this day and age of ubiquitous digital devices and environmental awareness, our domestic airlines—Jet Airways (India) Ltd, SpiceJet Ltd, Indigo (run by InterGlobe Aviation Ltd) and GoAir (run by Go Airlines (India) Ltd)—decided to charge Rs.100 per person if passengers don’t get a printout of their ticket. Apparently airlines see this as a way to earn “ancillary revenue”. Right!
The Google-Facebook war: The collateral damage of the war was that users of their sites were driven to tears by the changes imposed on them. Facebook suddenly switched to a timeline format and hounded users to fall in line. It was no longer possible to merely edit a Facebook post, one had to delete it. It was difficult to be just a Gmail user without somehow getting entangled in Google Plus’ “circles”. Good old Picassa morphed into something else, sharing a private YouTube video needed some code to be embedded…whew. When elephants fight, it’s hard on us ordinary folk.
Bread: Yes, bread. Have you seen the profusion of healthy breads in the market this year? After decades of having the same kind of bread and bun stacked sadly on the stand, suddenly the kirana shop’s bread corner came alive with colour and variety. Britannia, Harvest Gold and even smaller regional brands like Bonn introduced 100% wheat, oats and honey, multigrain with a liberal sprinkling of flax and sunflower seeds, vitamin enriched and many other variants. All the nutritional information is available on the package so that we make a good, informed choice. We’ve come a long way from the column I wrote two years ago (“Give us today our daily bread”; see: http://tinyurl.com/clrtxaw ). No longer do we have to search for high end bakeries to buy a loaf of whole wheat bread at double the cost of the branded ones. Definitely worth raising a toast to.
Smartphones: What a year it has been for consumers who bought smartphones! Samsung, Nokia and Apple fought it out loading their phones and tablets with more features and applications until the buyer was utterly spoilt for choice. Smartphones are the fastest growing segment of the cellphone market (accounting for 47% of all cell phones sold worldwide) and 2012 was all about smartphone wars. According to a survey, this was the first time in 14 years when Nokia lost the top spot to Samsung, which even overtook Apple. For the consumer, this fiercely fought war meant lots of models, many dealer discounts and a great product.
Tobacco warnings: The war against tobacco products like pan masala and guthka and even cigarettes acquired a new intensity. Warnings have started creeping up on cinema screens even before the actor has pulled out a light. Explicit images of the damage caused by tobacco appear on cigarette packs. One can’t see a movie without repeated messages and film clips about the harmful effects of guthka etc. All for the good of mankind.
Standard pack sizes: From November, packages of 19 commodities have had to contain the standard weight specified for it. So the weight of an ostensibly 1kg packet of detergent cannot be 993g and a biscuit packet has to be 500g, not a bizarre 484g. In the absence of this rule, the consumers were often not getting the quantity they thought they were paying for.
Paperless railway ticket: The Indian Railways decided to accept SMS tickets and screenshots of the ticket on mobile phones and laptops, doing away with its previous outdated practice of fining passengers Rs.50 if they didn’t carry a printout. Consumers heaved a sigh of much needed relief and many trees silently thanked the Railways.
Happy New Year and more power to you, dear consumer.
Vandana Vasudevan is a Delhi-based writer on urban consumer and civic experiences. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org