Call to give labels a regional touch

K.V. Aditya Bharadwaj

Growing demand for information on consumer products in all local languages

As the founder of a translating firm in Chennai, Aazhi Senthil Nathan spends the better part of the day translating brochures and other consumer materials from English to Tamil for clients in Singapore, Malaysia and occasionally in some cases, even Sri Lanka. However, his firm has never had to cater to demand for translations of consumer goods information into Tamil in Tamil Nadu.

“At home, when I buy medicines, packaged food or even electronic equipment, the manual and label information is usually in English and in some cases in Hindi, but rarely in Tamil,” said Mr. Nathan.

 ‘Linguist activist’

As the years passed, this lack of demand and seeming government apathy to promote communication in Indian languages gnawed at him.

Finally, in September 2015, he became a ‘linguistic activist’, joined hands with like-minded people from across the country and helped launch the Campaign for Language Equality and Rights (CLEAR).

The organisation is fighting to ensure that all the 22 languages listed in the eighth schedule of the Constitution are termed official languages, a status now enjoyed only by Hindi and English. CLEAR has members representing 40 languages in the country.

When the nascent linguistic consumer rights movement reached out to fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) behemoths, they learnt that there was lacuna in the existing laws. “Our correspondence with firms like Procter & Gamble and Nestlé India in 2015 revealed that they had indeed been complying with the law of the land. Central laws governing the packaging and labelling of several products stipulate the use of only English and Hindi, with scant regard for State languages,” said Arun Javgal, of the Kannada Graahakara Koota (Consumers Forum).

For instance, the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, 1945, which regulates the sale, packaging and labelling of drugs and cosmetics in the country, mandates that all specifications, including safety information such as the expiry date, must be in English. The use of other languages is left to the discretion of the manufacturer.

Statutory cautionary warnings on labels have to be in both English and Hindi only for ayurveda, siddha and unani medicines. Similarly, food packaging regulations mandate that every package must specify the required declarations in Hindi or English. While the regulations do not prevent the labels from carrying information in other languages, the practice is never followed.

The Union government has also been found wanting in providing services in regional languages.

For instance, the demand for in-flight air safety announcements in the State languages of the destinations along with English has been long-standing but unfulfilled. The airlines and railway ticketing policy says that tickets need to be printed in Hindi, a regional language and English only for the lowest class of carriage, and in Hindi and English for other classes. This differentiation is a telling comment on both class and language.

RBI norms

The Master Circular on Customer Services in Banks by the Reserve Bank of India, while stressing on services in regional languages, says cheque forms should be printed only in Hindi and English.

“Not providing consumer services and information in a language people understand is a clear violation of consumer rights, and often a blind spot in consumer laws in the country,” says Ashok R. Patil, Chair on Consumer Law and Practice, National Law School of India University, Bangalore.

But is it practical to provide consumer information in all Indian regional languages? Naysayers only need to look to the European Union’s model, which makes space for information in the languages of each country, say consumer rights activists.

“The same multinationals that argue against State languages in labelling in India provide services in the country’s local language in Europe. Sweden, which has a population of less than Bengaluru, mandates consumer information in Swedish. In comparison, the market size of Karnataka or Maharashtra is relatively huge,” argues Prasanna Kulkarni, convener of Marathi Bol Chaluval, who runs a foreign language institute in Satara, Maharashtra.

If separate packaging is not cost-effective, linguistic activists suggest that producers print a manual in all State languages and provide it to consumers.

“For example, if you buy a laptop, the manual is often in Chinese or Korean along with English. In some cases, even Hindi speakers are being denied their linguistic rights in many arenas. A manual with all State languages can be printed instead,” said Vallish Kumar, also with the Kannada Graahakara Koota.

GST hurdle

Though consumer affairs are on the concurrent list, no State has taken the initiative to mandate its own language for products entering its markets. For instance, the planned implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime has effectively closed the existence of State borders for trade.

“This leaves the linguistic consumer rights movement at the mercy of the Union government, which is often accused of imposing Hindi,” said Garaga Chatterjee, associate professor, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, who also works with CLEAR.

 Report pending

An attempt to correct this blind spot in consumer-related laws is addressed in the ‘Comprehensive Language Policy for India’, a report readied by a 20-member language experts’ committee, headed by linguistic scholar Kapil Kapoor. The report, submitted in August 2016 to the Union Human Resource Development Department, is still pending.

Prof. Kapoor said the report recommends that all labelling and consumer services be provided in four languages — State language, cluster language (a regional language understood by a group of States), the official language, which is Hindi, and associate official language, English.

While the movement is still largely in the realm of awareness, groups like CLEAR are fast moving into lobbying with regional political forces to demand their rights from the Centre.

The groundswell has begun to acquire critical mass as people across the nation, speaking in different languages, unite under a common banner.