In order to spread consumer awareness to rural areas, Anant Sharma plans to train and create a network of 1,000 local consumer consultants/activists in the villages and small towns of Rajasthan who will make it their profession to help consumers get their complaints resolved through consumer or legal action.
The New Idea
As an undergraduate studying in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, Anant founded and led what ultimately became an influential, statewide, nonpolitical student group. In the course of representing student interests, he had an experience that left him enormously impressed with the potential of consumer protection. With the help of the Consumer Unity and Trust Society, he lodged a complaint against what he regarded as the highly misleading advertisements extolling the sure-fire prowess of certain exam guides to assure top grades to worried students for a fabulous price. The complaint led to notice being issued against the publishers. The advertisements were stopped and the prices were lowered--and Anant's plans began taking shape.
As consumer protection has remained largely an urban phenomenon, it seemed clear to Anant that the movement's most important challenge was to find ways to spread consumer awareness and action in the rural areas, still 80 percent of India. He thinks that the key to doing so is building up and getting a paraprofessional class of local consumer champions in place all across the state. This entails projecting consumer consultancy as an attractive career.
Such local "Consumer Friends" would serve as a bridge allowing wronged and frustrated villagers practical access to the remedies promised by the new Consumer Protection Act and other laws.
A small farmer buys seed for the next year's crop. His family's income rides on those seeds germinating and growing well. However, what if they do not? Farmers have little recourse in these cases. Anant's goal is to change that.
Because rural consumers have not had practical means to complain, they have not learned to do so effectively. Their continuing silence in turn has invited suppliers to continue their sloppy, corner-cutting -- if not outright fraudulence.
This inaction and lack of enforcement threatens to undermine the Consumer Protection Act of 1986. The act instituted a series of simple, low-cost complaint and response mechanisms, but it cannot work unless people are empowered to lodge complaints and help themselves.
The issue has broader ramifications than simply engaging and motivating consumers to stand up for their rights; once citizens learn that they can spur social change, maybe they will do more than complain.
Anant plans to recruit and train 1,000 consumer activists/consultants in Rajasthan over a period of three years. This network, in turn, will be able to help consumers in getting their complaints resolved through consumer action and courts, in addition to generating awareness about consumer rights.
The first stage will involve the selection of candidates (at least graduates) through newspaper advertisements, government and non-government channels. An independent selection panel will review applications and at least three candidates from each tehsil will be selected. At the second stage, the selected candidates will be sent the course materials and will be invited for training sessions. These will be conducted by experienced activists/academicians with common printed and audiovisual aids. Practical aspects will be stressed as the students work through simulated situations.
As these Consumer Friends begin their work, Anant will work to draw them together into a mutual support network. By encouraging several to start work in each tehsil, by creating larger circles of relationships, and by providing a variety of backups, Anant hopes to bring these new advocates into a community so that they will have resources and a sense of being supported when they later run into snags or are challenged. The network will also allow them to get together to challenge regional as well as local problems.
Anant is putting in place a number of institutionalized but not centralized supports for this network. A regular newsletter will bring ideas, techniques, contacts, and encouragement. Once the Consumer Friends begin work, he will ensure that regular refresher courses and training meetings keep their skills and confidence strong. Gradually the newsletter and these training sessions will also expose them to issues closely related to consumer concerns including health, human rights, and the environment.
Anant also plans to link these local workers to a number of the best consumer, environment, and other specialized private voluntary organizations (PVOs) in the state and beyond. The local advocate will gain access to the information, contacts, skills, and ongoing support capacities of these more urban groups, while these PVOs gain the capacity to spot, understand, and assist with the issues of greatest concern to most people in the state. Anant prefers this strategy to building one centralized structure, which he feels could never provide as varied or extensive support as could five or ten of the strongest PVO's in the state.
Anant grew up in Jaipur, where his father helped organize the practice of traditional Indian medicine. Anant's talent as an organizer and leader became apparent quickly. At university he felt that the many talented students were not given enough opportunity to develop and demonstrate their abilities. He consequently organized a student group that sponsored extracurricular activities and contests to give those with extraordinary talent and energy better opportunities to capitalize on their strengths. Intentionally unaffiliated with any political party, this organization grew to 40,000 members across the state and won the student elections in 1986.
After graduating, Anant went to work for the leading consumer organization in the state and quickly emerged as a force within it. Recently he co-authored a book on the new Consumer Protection Law.
His idea of creating a new type of rural paraprofessional, the Consumer Friend, taps into both his organizing talent and his experience with and belief in consumer advocacy. This new idea is a marriage of his diverse skills and promises to give voice to the hitherto endlessly put-upon, too-long-silent majority of rural India.