The recall of Mattel toys made in China, because of their lead component, should ring several alarm bells in India. No, it isn’t a ‘ban Chinese products’ uproar that we need here but a serious look at the complete lack of standards governing the manufacture of toys in India itself. It is all very well to point fingers at China for its lax standards but it only takes a cursory glance at Indian-made toys to realise that things are far from satisfactory here. After all, how would we know anyway whether that pink rattle or the pacifier could harm the child? Forget definitive standards, toy manufacturers aren’t governed by any quality regulations whatsoever, thriving mostly in the ambit of the ‘unorganised sector’.
According to one estimate, the volume of India’s toy industry is nearly $ 1.5 billion in the unorganised sector. But so far, we can’t hope for the enforcement of even rudimentary standards of safety. In fact, when was the last time you heard anyone raise this issue in any public forum?
Cynicism aside, to an extent, there is nothing terribly unusual about this. For whether it is the food we eat or the medicines we take, the fertilisers and seeds farmers use, or the toys our children play with, we, in India, have ceased to expect that they will be of acceptable quality. Those who know better simply source whatever they need elsewhere, the rest of India has no choice but to live with being shortchanged. This is as good a time as any to review the appalling status of standards for most of everything in our country. The most horrific by far is the widespread availability of fake drugs. While counterfeit drugs pose their own problems, it’s the easy availability of spurious medicines, estimated to be worth at least Rs 4,000 crore, that is extremely worrying. Worse, there has been no attempt to study the impact of how many people may be affected, or may have died, as a result of consuming fake drugs. Worse still, even the Bill meant to punish those engaged in this trade has been stuck in Parliament since May 2005. The Drugs and Cosmetics Bill aside, the Food Safety and Standards Bill may have been signed into law, but its impact, if any, is yet to be felt. Following the adulterated mustard oil scam some years ago, a few raids and shutdowns comprised the sum total of action taken against the manufacturers. We still operate in that typical ‘let-the-dust-settle-down-to get-back-to-business’ mentality. There’s no fear of getting caught and even less fear of punishment. Why, even the water that you drink could cost you dearly in terms of health. For the better-off who think they are safer with bottled water, forget it. Many leading brands have been found to be spurious. After the initial hue and cry when this was exposed, we are probably still downing all sorts of contaminants in our bottled water.
It is little wonder then that the mantra in India continues to be ‘Ram bharose’, no matter how fatalistic that is. And clearly, that is not the way ahead for a 60-year-old democracy. It is one thing to be wary of products of dubious standards that come in from China, and quite another to be oblivious to the standards of products that are ‘Made in India’. Mattel’s recall is only a warning bell. We need to get over our penchant to cut corners. Safety must begin at home.