Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Times – ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members

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As India looks to claw out of the vice-like grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, multifarious stakeholders are looking at ways in which the economic despondency that followed the contagion can be dispelled.

And while we ruminate on how to kickstart an economic recovery buoyed by positive indications such as pent-up demand, revised rating from international agencies, and new policies such as the PLI scheme, there is a case to be made for consumer freedom as experts claim that India’s true growth potential lies in being a better buyer’s market by offering more choice for consumers.

A story in numbers

Statistics show that India’s consumer spending as a nation has increased exponentially, continuing its upward trend before the pandemic. According to World Bank data, India’s total consumption has increased from $353.513 billion in 2000 to $2.07 trillion in 2019.

Another report from Statista shows that consumer spending in India rose from Rs 16.585 billion in July 2016 to a high of Rs 21.662 billion in January 2020 before sharply falling due to the pandemic. The most recent report shows that consumer spending had soared again in October, hitting Rs 17.962 billion.

And one of the upshots of this continued expansion of choices is that the consumer is more aware and educated. They are making many more complex decisions today than what the simple proliferation of brands would suggest. However, there might be many impediments to consumer freedom, which could include regulations of consumer protection along with anti-competition practices.

A unique industry platform

With this as the backdrop, The Economic Times presented The Conference Series for Consumer Freedom, an effort to impress upon decision-makers the need to press pause and take a long-term view of the social and economic impacts of legislations that look to simply ban and not regulate different products in the free-market.

Speaking from the perspective of consumer protective legislation, ex-member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha, Professor M.V. Rajeev Gowda, said that the government and other stakeholders need to ensure the balance of power between consumer and sellers, and ensure product quality so that consumer is informed, not harmed, or not taken advantage of.

Dhanendra Kumar, former Chairman, Competition Commission of India and Chairman of Competition Advisory Services India LLP, speaking on the role of the Competition Commission going forward also backed Gowda’s comment and said that the consumer is the king, and they should be allowed to buy whatever they want, given that the products standards are maintained.

Weighing in with his thoughts, Amrit Kiran Singh, Executive Chairman, International Spirits & Wines Association of India, Vice Chairman World Spirits Alliance, Brussels, said, “Banning a product adds a mystique to a product that it doesn’t deserve,” explaining that the legal age of drinking is so late in countries such as India that people don’t know how to manage alcohol or consume it in a moderate fashion. In contrast, he gave the example of European families who in his opinion are better at inducing moderate consumption habits, who introduce the idea of alcohol on special holidays or the festive season to teenagers.

Speaking specifically on tobacco products, Samrat Chowdhery, Director, Association of Vapers India (AVI) and President of International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organisations (INNCO), gave an example of how bans can go awry, Chowdhery pointed out that when cigarettes were banned during the initial lockdown, the country witnessed smuggling, which led to consumers paying higher prices and also opened up avenues for counterfeiters.

Speaking on the impact of curbs or bans on consumer freedom, David T. Sweanor, J.D.Chair of the Advisory Board, Centre for Health Law, Policy & Ethics, University of Ottawa opined, “In fact, what a ban is, is an obligation of your responsibility to regulate. Because it doesn’t get rid of the product, it just forces product behavior into the black market, on which we have very little control.”

Speaking on the consumer freedom and what it means to new age digital content creators, Prajakta Koli, Digital Content Creator, Ambassador- YouTube’s Global Program, said, “We have enough freedom as consumers and have responsivities as creators since a lot of people are getting impacted by us. I’m not very different as a consumer as I’m a creator. We have the freedom of choice more than anything than before.”

“As a consumer, I’m glued to content. I feel we have enough freedom of choice on what content we want to watch/ choose. There are ample of options out there,” added Masoom Minawala Mehta, Fashion blogger & Entrepreneur, CEO Miss Style Fiesta.

The discourse explored the freedom of choice for consumers, and what it means in new-age India, and how the social control of business could stall not just the engine of growth, but the fabric of democracy that lies at the heart of the Indian way of life.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Times – ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members

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