Twenty-two years ago when I started writing my column, many men would tell me that they don’t read it because they were not consumers, only their wives were. I didn’t entirely blame them for their ignorance ' that was the time when consumers in India knew so little about their rights and believed that only purchasers of goods were consumers.
About five years later, I was attending a conference called by a consumer organisation to determine its areas of action. When one of the delegates talked about high infant and maternal mortality rates, the head of the organistion immediately drew himself up and said those were issues to be taken up by women’s groups and not consumer organisations. A similar attitude existed when it came to environmental issues, but today, the right to safe environment and sustainable consumption are some of the issues that the consumer groups have taken up in earnest. Similarly, empowerment of women form part of many consumer groups’ work.
And now, more barriers are falling and the consumer movement is indeed undergoing a metamorphosis. And the transformed movement will look more towards the rural areas. In fact, the consumer groups’ energies would be concentrated on issues like eradication of poverty and hunger, empowerment of women, universalisation of primary education, ensuring universal health care and environmental sustainability. In short, the millennium development goals (MDG) set by the United Nations, to be achieved by 2015.
There are, of course, consumer groups, which are rooted in the villages and are doing considerable amount of work in empowering the rural poor. But this time, not one or two but all the consumer groups in Asia who are members of ‘Consumers International’, took a pledge to work towards achieving the MDGs. And this happened at the Asian Conference on “MDGs and the Consumer Movement”, called by the Consumers International Regional Office of Asia & Pacific (CIROAP) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on August 23. Some may argue that with these goals, consumer groups will lose their original identity.
But then in today’s context, these distinctions are anyway going to be blurred and all NGOs will eventually have to come under one umbrella, as their work, though diverse, are inter-linked. So the CIROAP conference marks the birth of a new, vibrant consumer movement, that is much closer to the people whom it serves. And its new slogan' Pro-poor, pro-women, pro-rural and pro-health. Let’s hope it keeps up this promise.