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STANDARDS : TOOL FOR CONFIDENCE BUILDING OR FOR DOMINATION?

Twenty First Century Mission : Living with Nature in the Modern Form TECHNOLOGY for CONSERVATION, DIVERSIFICATION and GROWTH 

STANDARDS : TOOL FOR CONFIDENCE BUILDING OR FOR DOMINATION? 

Appeared in KISAN WORLD June 2011 Vol 38 No.6 

Y.S.RAJAN

BEGINNINGS OF STANDARDS

 As long as we self – produce and consume, we have very little to worry about quality. Amongst our ancestors, the early food gatherers belonged to this category. But when the specialisation in production and division of labour began in human societies which adopted agriculture about 10,000 years ago, human transactions became complex. Producers and consumers were different. In the early societies, mostly all were producers of some or other products and there was barter deals. There was a mutual confidence between them about the products they exchanged.

When societies grew larger and more complex, producers and consumers did not see each other and often did not know each other as well. It is the trading community which was the channel of ‘communication’. Even in those times, there were many forms of products differentiation and competition. The quality assurance was through the traders and through the sources (some forms of geographic indicators of origin) ranging from Chettinad chicken to Aligarh bocks hotel or Kancheepuram sarees. Many fruits, vegetables, and artisanal products carry their brands of quality through the geography, names of producers etc. Even in services like music such sharp differentiations occurred.

In the modern industrial world it is not just adequate to know the origin and the names of producers. No doubt even now such brands are very important Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) through Geographic Indicators (GI) and Trade marks and Brand Logos. But these are limited to a relatively a small percentage of producers who often get a much better price for the confidence they provide to their consumers for the consistency of their qualities.

But there are many other products and services which are sold in market. Even in the developed countries there are large amounts of non – branded, ordinary generic types of products. Many of them are as good as branded products in terms of meeting technical specifications and consumer satisfaction. Some of them get a ‘standards certification’. In India it is ISI marking (Indian Standards Institution) now called Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). Without any special GI or Trade Mark or Brand Logo, the customers can be satisfied about minimum assured quality of the product, with such certification. Nowadays there are several other marking for export quality or for several other ‘niche’ quality assurances.

In addition, many food products nowadays print about their contents, as a part, ‘quality assurance information’ to the consumers.

Arrival of standards by BIS is a fairly complex process, as it is so in various international standards. BIS has many committees of experts to arrive at a nationally acceptable minimum specifications. There are various factors that need to be accounted for. It is easy to draw up specifications for ‘highest’ quality standard; but it can push the costs of products. In countries like India such standards can wipe out whole range of micro and small – medium – enterprises (MSME’s) causing severe dislocation to the economy and society. Therefore the process of drawing BIS specifications carefully balances several such considerations. 

COMPETITIVE POLITICS AND STANDARDS

Many common persons and even many persons in elite circles, are not fully aware of various competitive commercial politics and geopolitical pressures that enter to standards making. Such pressures were there earlier too. But sovereign countries could fairly well balance these. But modern democratic States are under various other forms of global competitive trade and commercial pressures, because of the use of electronic and print media as well as through activist groups. While there are some positive elements in such pressures such as keeping the governance systems agile and away from stagnating lethargy, injecting greater care for public accountability etc, there are a number of negative elements, as well.

For example many advertisements go beyond the usual highlighting the positive features of the products or services and also informing the public of authentic comparative advantages against competitors. Big companies spend lots of money (often more expenditure than for research and development – R & D) for advertisement. It is difficult for smaller companies to go to court against superlative claims against “other” products.

In addition to the advertisements there are many planted articles which look “scientific” – as ultimate truths, preferring their products.

A recent phenomenon especially after globalisation has spread to all countries, is to use many activist channels – a number of them funded directly or indirectly by companies to further their commercial interests. All use scientific jargons and cite some studies!

Thus there is a multipronged attack to capture the minds of middle class consumers and to create scar about all products which are not of “their” specifications.

As long as these are merely in terms of advertisements, articles and lectures, one need not be unduly worried. But nowadays the increasing tendency is to presswise through activism and scaremongering, the channels of standards making processes. For each and every item, pressures are built up to ban an item or enact a new law to introduce a new set of stringent specifications. Such activism has become an industry or business!

Pressures t adopt Euro standards for all automobiles were one such example. Similarly there are pressures to ban most chemical fertilisers and pesticides from the agricultural field. There are some activist groups which would like to abolish all street hawkers of food from cities and towns in order to have better hygienic standards for “Indian people”.

BULK OF INDIA JUST SURVIVES – REMEMBER THIS FACT!

A number of those who promote such activist ideas, think only about their surroundings and assume that India has already become a developed nation which should eradicate such ‘dirty’ ‘low quality cheap’ things from being seen. Then there will be a shinning India, at a stroke of a pen, by enacting a new ban, or a new law for different quality standards.

It is good to remember that out of the 1.2 billion Indians now about 100 million are rich / super rich; about 400 million are middle class (upper, middle and lower); if India grows fast with 9 to 10% GDP growth, some 40 – 50 million may get added to this 400 million every year; rest 700 million (BULKY BASE) are too poor for the modern world; they don’t have famine now; no major epidemic. But they live with scarcity, uncertainty of tomorrow, and many endemic diseases. Every year we add 20 million Indians for all of the 1.2 billion total.    

If we grow well in 5 years from now say 2017, we will have 100 million rich, 720 million middle class and 500 million in BULKY BASE. Total 1.32 Billion.

If we use strict standards of quality as in Europe or USA or Japan, of the 400 million middle class now, more than half cannot afford to buy the products or services. They will join the bulky base!

For example, most of the drinking water available in India is not of a very high standard. Suppose we enact a law that all Indians should be given a drinking water to a standard available in the bottled water, most urban water supply systems will collapse. Similar will be the fate of Indians, if we place European phytosanitary standards for our agricultural products, meat poultry etc.

The list is endless.

This is one area in which the political system and the bureaucracy have been sensible and have been striking a reasonable balance between affordability and ‘better’ quality. An example was in slow withdrawal of DDT, which was needed to fight malaria, etc.

India and China and many developing countries are trying to bridge the developments which were denied to them through a normal evolutionary economic process. They are catching up. How was Europe or USA, 100 years ago? No body asks these questions. 

NEW STANDARDS MEANS MORE COSTS

I am all for adopting the most advanced technology which are emerging and which have imbedded newer knowledge about the earlier deficiencies or ill effects learnt through years of applications. (When introduced decades ago, such deficiencies were not well known or alternatives did not exist.)

But ask a question: are these new technologies available in the market place (not free but at a reasonable price so that the costs of production does not go up)?

Let us look at the endosulfan case. Currently it is immensely useful to the farmers to fight a whole range of pests effectively. Leave out, for a moment, the controversies about the studies which the activists claim to be final proofs of human impact.  Let us opt for a ban. But the alternates are all under the IPR protection and the European companies will not give away the technologies ‘free’ or at a ‘reasonable price’. They would like to see a law first and that helps their monopoly sales! Well this is also a part of competitive market economy, as in love or war!

Thus standards are being used for TRADE AND TECHNOLOGY domination. I have several examples in all fields.

Can we then use the compulsory licensing route to force the production of the alternates by others in India? Is there a political will and courage? Also what are implications on international forums and further investments? Another set of activist groups will work for protection of IPR’s! Also how far India can succeed in WTO (World Trade Organisation) forums, because the current IPR owners will go to WTO against such infringement.

Thank God, there is a provision for 1+5+5 = 11 years in which period Indian authorities can help our manufactures to go to alternates, in an affordable manner.

We need transition time for many such items.

 Extremism of do-gooders while may be well intentioned (through not always well informed) will affect the bulky base and the lower and middle classes. We need to enable them grow up faster, not slip down through the ladders of new standards.

AN EXAMPLE OF ENVIRONMENTAL EXTREMISM

Most of the readers will be familiar with inhalers for asthma control. It has CFC, a global warming chemical. The total of the CFC’s emitted through use of such inhalers will only be a small fraction of one per cent. Activists worked on to ban it. After several scientific committees studied and reported, the USA’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave a three year period to ban the use of CFC in asthma inhalers. It was noted that an alternate was available. A few months before the last date, some persons started realising their mistakes. First the alternates were not easy use; they get sticky. More importantly, the cost of the new type inhalers were substantially costlier, affecting the poorest of the Americans who needed them the most.      

A top scientist who was in the Committees (who had agreed earlier) came out against the ban, saying that he was not aware of these. A good person! But it was too late because units producing such pharma grade CFC’s closed down!

For A full report please refer to “Scientific American India”, Aug 2008, p.12 – 13, Newscan Health Policy Section “Change in the Air”, www.sciam.co.in 

LET US USE STANDARDS WISELY

A peculiar mix selective media reporting, one – point activism without looking at the totality of all Indians, commercial vested interests and nowadays some political interests, have joined up to work against something or another. Sometimes courts enter the scene. Some oppose new technologies like biotechnology which can help a lot of Indians; some want to ban all old type chemicals just because some developed countries advocate the ban. By all means, let us remove dangers to people. But let the issues be studied carefully without prefixed biases and media induced scare. Also let us balance cost aspects, IPR aspects, affordability for all sections of persons. Let us prepare our industry, consumers, people, etc for a change in a systematic manner. Let us also remember that there is nothing like ‘zero defect’ in any human endeavour.

Use standards to build confidence for people. Those who want the newest of the newest for their consumption because they can afford and want to be different, let them have their deluxe standards. Let it not affect lives of others.

Let us help all Indians to reach reasonable quality of life – which requires faster economic growth and mass consumption by people in the bulky base and in the lower middle class, who have low incomes.

Otherwise we may end up as a deeply divided India, the top of which under the technological and intellectual domination of the commercial and geopolitical interests of the developed world, and the bulky base eternally slipping down the ladders of newer changes introduced in the developed world.      

 

Y.S.Rajan

05/05/2011