Information is power. If it is there and correct4 min read . Updated: 13 Sep 2012, 08:52 PM IST
It protects consumers against misleading and fraudulent labelling and advertising.
The last column dwelt on the consumers’ right to safety as enshrined in the Consumer Protection Act 1986, whose completion of 25 years is being observed by various consumer forums. The second right it grants consumers is the right to be provided relevant and sufficient information to enable a rational purchase decision. It protects consumers against misleading and fraudulent labelling and advertising, deceptive packaging and any kind of selling practice that is unfair to consumers. In the Indian market the lack of adequate or correct information affects buyers in and across many markets in myraid ways. Here are a few glaring examples.
Product labelling: The Packaging Commodities Rules and Regulations Act 2011 lays down a whole lot of information that manufacturers need to display on the label, including some information that has to be mandatorily there on the main panel, like nutritional content. But I discovered the other day that sometimes all the information can be there, and yet be misleading. On a packet of Haldiram’s Baked Bites biscuits I saw that trans fat was zero but the ingredients said that the biscuits contained hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is an unmistakable bearer of trans fats. Unless, unknown to the world, Haldiram has invented a hydrogenated oil that is free of trans fat.
Misleading claims: In the UK recently, an ad for Kelloggs Special K cornflakes claimed that the cereal would help women control calories and stay slim because each 30 gram portion was only 114 calories. It did not clarify that the 114 calories was excluding milk, though the visual showed milk being poured over the cornflakes. The ad was alleged to be misleading and banned because a consumer might assume that the calorie count included milk. In India, however, the Special K ad still runs. One version has a visual of actor Lara Dutta making her husband wonder why she is looking different. The answer as it turns out is because she has been eating Kelloggs Special K, which the ad claims makes a person slim because it is a low fat breakfast, despite the sugar in it being more than in normal cornflakes.
I am a Complan-chasing parent, like many others, but Complan’s claims to make children’s memories sharper and thereby playing on the obsession of Indian parents with examination success, has attracted much criticism. Heinz India, the makers of Complan, have cited studies carried out in the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad but critics say the sample size was too small and can’t be extrapolated to make a universal claim. Tellingly, the ads of both Complan and Horlicks claiming to make kids sharper and stronger have been banned in the UK.
Blatant misinformation: This happens with lesser known sellers of goods and services, which the readers of Mint might be insulated from, but is rampant in semi-urban areas. My driver Suresh used to work for a man in Noida who ran a flourishing institute offering microbiology courses. Loads of students signed up and classes continued until it was discovered that the institute’s claim of being affiliated to a deemed university were bogus. The students protested, filed a police complaint and the owner was arrested but is now back in business, though it is not clear if he’s operating legally.
Alok Bajpai, owner of a travel portal, and a reader of this column, once wrote to me about his sister in Jaipur who went to enrol in the branch of a leading coaching centre for management exams but found that the it was an imposter using the same name, claiming falsely to be part of the same group.
Real estate is the minefield of misinformation. The pictures of the flats on the brochure are photoshopped and the eventual house that the buyer will get will look nowhere near that. Commitment to deliver by a certain date are not worth the paper they are printed on. Across the country, home buyers are typically either waiting for homes they booked ages ago or have moved in with half the promised facilities yet to be delivered.
Lack of information: Air India doesn’t bother with SMSes to inform passengers about flight schedule changes. The Railways haven’t even thought of doing it for train delays. Sometimes ticket buyers to public events like a mega concert or sports events are left wondering which enclosure their seats are in or where gate ‘5B North’ might be.
What needs to improve?
l The Right to Information is protected by many laws apart from the Consumer Protection Act-, the Food Safety and Rules and Regulation 2011, the Packaged Commodities Rules 2011, the Drugs and Cosmetics Act and so on. But there are some industries, like real estate, which need to be fenced in by many more rules to control the kind of information they provide to attract clients.
l Then, there’s the issue of creating awareness among consumers about their right to procure information before making a purchase, which is a challenge in India where vast swathes of the population are unlettered. Consumer organisations and mass media can step in to make a difference.
l Stricter administration (which is like an eternal requirement) to ensure rules are adhered to.
In the absence of these, the only words for the Indian customer, floundering around in a market where misinformation and lack of information lurk in many corners is: Caveat Emptor or Buyer Beware.
Vandana Vasudevan is a Delhi-based writer on urban consumer and civic experiences.