Sunday 30 September 2018

Putting Consumers First: Essays in honour of Pradeep Mehta. (CUTS 2018) Book Review by Ajay Singha former Head of AmCham India and former Deputy DG Indo-German Chamber.

Celebrating the 70th birthday of Mr. Pradeep Mehta, Founder of CUTS International.
  Written by prominent personalities who have shaped economic policies in the global trading regime, the authors represent a lot for those engaged in international business and multilateral institutions. Prof. Jagdish Bhagwati outlines the range of activities undertaken by CUTS and concludes his foreword by regarding Pradeep Mehta as a “Living Treasure”. Views expressed appear personal but in fact reflect a lifetime of experiences in each writers’ career and their own interaction with the CUTS movement. Noted political economist Dr Sanjay Baru has edited the book along with Abhishek Kumar and refers to Pradeep as a great advocate for competition reforms in the developing world. He goes on to add that he was best Chairman that the Competition Commission of India never had.

Consumer interest is central to the book and essays reflect the critical nature of this subject in the well being of functioning democracies globally. There is common understanding that better governance, effective regulations and rules based trade nurtures and protects consumer interest across continents.  The essays collectively reflect the core ethos of CUTS, namely: Creating value for the People.
The book confirms that across nations there is a basic convergence on issues which promote the concept of: “Putting Consumers First”.

The power pendulum has now shifted from the West to the East. Distrust caused by the North South divide has perhaps led to the present state of affairs in the global trading order. Multilateral trading systems are stressed like never before and likely to give way if further deterioration goes unchecked. The WTO and other global organisations have come into existence after tremendous deliberations between nations over a sustained period of time. Nations realize that at the core of each country’s democratic values lies consumer interest of their ordinary citizens. The Nation State has come a long way from the policy of “Caveat Emptor” to multiple regulations protecting not only individual consumer interest but collective national issues relating to competition and freedom of choice.

Global trading and regulatory organisations reflect the realities of the time when they were created and may no longer be relevant to the present world order. An important reality pointed out by C Raja Mohan is that today no region in the world can be an exclusive area of influence. Greater collaboration is the need of the hour, when in fact the world is moving away from multilateralism. Suresh Prabhu’s efforts at converting railway passengers to active consumers and co-creators is a welcome initiative. It should be replicated in other spheres where consumers interact with government.

Ashok Ganguly rightly states that every aspect of Globalisation was not necessarily positive. The liberalisation of banking regulations generated a sense of unnatural exuberance which led to the banking crisis of 2008. Unprecedented growth of wealth in advanced countries rewarded a small fraction of the already well to do. The bulk of the population received only the dregs and there was no significant impact on the health, nutrition and poverty levels of the people. Globalisation also witnessed the Arab Spring which soon became a nightmare, terrorist attacks in New York and war with Iraq were other notable setbacks.

Some of the authors have suggested specific solutions emanating from their individual area of expertise in order to address larger socio-economic challenges. Isher Judge Ahluwalia projects Cities as engines of growth, Shakti Sinha emphasises Green power and Pawan Munjal suggests housing as a great multiplier. What all should be included in the ambit of consumer welfare remains debatable and offers a wide scope for discussion. Signals suggest that the world might be slipping from the lofty goals of globalisation into a period of disorder and uncertainty. UK’s Brexit, political developments in Europe and the American position on WTO are key pointers in this direction.

Pradeep Mehta’s favourite line: “There are no failures only deferred success” gives hope for succour to the multilateralists.  Pradeep’s life story of showing the way when odds confront progress could do its bit in motivating many of us. His advice of “Converting every setback into an opportunity” is most relevant for addressing the unfolding global economic challenges today. The book is recommended for scholars of economics, development studies and international relations as well as officials engaged in trade and economic diplomacy.

September 2018, Jaipur-India.

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