We have all heard of products proudly proclaiming their ISI mark. ISI stands for the Indian Standards Institute, a body set up when India gained Independence to create standards needed for orderly commercial growth and maintaining quality in industrial production. By the mid-80s the country’s socio-economic climate had changed, triggering the need to set up a stronger body, the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), which then took over ISI. But the term “ISI mark” continues to be used to mean that a certain product conforms to the quality standards set up by the government.
Who can use the ISI mark? BIS is authorised by a legislation of 1986 to offer product certification. This certification programme is basically voluntary. Any manufacturer who feels confident enough that his product has the ability to meet the BIS standard can apply for product certification in two ways:
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• Submitting an application at the nearest BIS office. A BIS officer will then evaluate at the factory level, the capability of the manufacturer to produce goods according to the standards laid down for the category. Samples are tested at the factory and outside. If the evaluation is satisfactory and the product passes the tests, a licence is granted and the manufacturer can use the coveted ISI mark.
• The manufacturer provides test reports to BIS after it gets the product tested in the bureau’s labs and gets the necessary documents certified independently. BIS is supposed to check the veracity of the reports within a month and grant a licence for usage of the ISI mark.
While product certification is otherwise voluntary, there is, however, a list of items which for reasons of public health, safety or mass nature of consumption are mandatorily certified by BIS. These include gas valves and cylinders and infant food. Manufacturers of such products can’t apply for ISI mark under the voluntary scheme.
Are there standards for all products? There are 16 broad categories, including textiles, packaged water, food, automobile components, plastic products and electronics, for which BIS has laid down standards. If anyone wants to add a new category to the current list, they can apply for it. There are 19,000 standards formulated for products across the 16 categories. It covers so many areas with such meticulous detail that there actually shouldn’t be any substandard products. For example, there is a standard for windshield wipers of four-wheelers, for the quality of silver foil used in sweets, for precast concrete slabs used in pavements and even for hooks and fasteners. So, yes, there is a standard for almost every product, and new ones can be made for products not yet covered.
How are standards formulated? A body called the Certification Advisory Committee, consisting of people from sectors such as manufacturers, consumers, government agencies, industry associations, exists under BIS to advise on policies and formulation of standards on different products. To ensure that consumer interests are effectively represented in these committees, BIS invites NGOs or experts to participate in the committee of their interest. If you are interested, you can contact the nearest BIS branch office (addresses available on www.bis.org.in). If your experience is found suitable, you could be invited to be part of the technical committee. (What’s more, DA on actuals is paid for meetings attended. Plus, I bet there’s chai and samosa.)
What if standards slip once the certification is obtained? BIS has to check conformity to the standards by regular surveillance of the licensee’s performance including surprise inspection and testing of samples, drawn both from the factory and the market.
Why do we still have substandard products? While studying about ISI, it became apparent that like all things in the government, the structure and policies to ensure quality and safety to consumers are well formulated in painstaking detail and well intentioned. Logically, with such stringent standards to protect consumers, our markets must feel like those in western countries, where you can pick a product and ponder about its suitability for you, but not worry about safety and quality.
Then why are consumer complaint forums bursting at the seams about things which broke down immediately after buying or about promises not kept by manufacturers? Why is this column bemoaning adulterated grains and spices, artificially ripened fruit and poor product labelling? Why do we keep reading about spurious medicines and contaminated kuttu atta? I see a few possibilities:
• Complaints are about non-ISI products. With only 30,000 manufacturers across industries granted licences to use ISI mark, obviously there is an ocean of manufacturers who are operating at sub-par standards. Therefore, perhaps BSI should do away with the voluntary scheme and make it mandatory for all products to conform to basic quality standards.
• For complaints about ISI products, it would mean manufacturers slip on standards once they get the ISI certification and BIS is not vigilant enough in catching on. (Incidentally, if you have a complaint about an ISI mark product you can register it online on their site.)
• Unscrupulous producers use the ISI mark and cheat consumers without actually applying for the license through BIS. This point is acknowledged by BIS, which conducts enforcement raids on such manufacturers, whose numbers have been increasing every year.
For now, consumers must look for the ISI mark while buying products. As you can see, the granting of the license to use this is quite stringent. Keeping the faith that the process was followed, it is as good a guarantee of quality and safety as one can get today. Meanwhile, if you want to check what are the Indian standards for the skimmed milk powder or mineral water bottle you bought, you can purchase a copy of the bureau’s standards for all products online. Sounds like a great way to spend the weekend.
Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com