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He had never been to Barcelona. Or anywhere outside India for that matter. But one fine morning the Bangalore-based businessman started receiving restaurant bills from Barcelona on his credit card. The card company acted uppity: "Do come over with your passport, sir. We have to check it out." He obliged, but may have saved himself the trouble. For nothing happened. The bills from Barcelona-getting bigger every month-continued to rain down. As did abusive calls, threats and the works from the card issuer. He withstood the assault for six months. Finally, out of sheer frustration he decided to join a consumer activist outfit.

He is not alone. There are thousands of cardholders like him across India. They tell the same lure-and-trap stories and sing the same chorus of outrage. Yet saying that the world runs on plastic today won't really be an exaggeration. Flyers, advertisements, telemarketing, spam and more, constantly bombard us with credit card offers. And there is one to satisfy your every need, from eating out to frequent flying to even pandering your social conscience. Beyond the convenience factor, is an intangible sense of wealth and power that credit cards can give. Little wonder then that India is one of the fastest-growing markets for plastic. A recent Visa International survey revealed that about 15 million credit cards are in circulation in the country, in the hands of five million people.

Only, now users are no longer playing the role of hapless victims. Theclamour for action may have picked up pace ever since the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) seemed to tilt slightly in favour of cardholders when it issued the 2005 Guideline to protect consumers' interest, but at the forefront of this consumer revolution are groups like the Credit Cardholders' Association of India (CCHAI) and the Ahmedabad based Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC).

V. VAIDYANATHAN, HEAD, RETAIL BANKING, ICICI BANK

"India needs to encourage the plastic industry. Only then will the parallel economy come down and the tax to GDP ratio go up."

CCHAI started way back in 2001 in a little office amidst the old-world charm of Bangalore's time-honoured business district. Five years down the line, it is busy wiring up the nation's plastic underbelly. There's a flurry up the supply chain-meetings, marches, memorandums, court cases, out-of-court settlements-from Bangalore to Mumbai, Hyderabad to Delhi. "Although the RBI came out with clear ground rules in 2005 to help out credit card users, issuers are still resorting to illegal methods to recover dues," points out C.V. Giddappa, general secretary, CCHAI, and a consumer lawyer by profession. Since last month, CCHAI has been setting up control rooms in cities across India to help out cardholders in distress.

If groups like CCHAI represent the aggressive face of consumer consciousness, the theoretical underpinnings of the movement came from the CERC. "Complaints had been coming in for quite some time," says Preeti Shah, the leading light of CERC and the editor of its consumer magazine, Insight, "but we took it up as a mission about two years back." It was around this time that Korea hit the headlines as a nation on the verge of bankruptcy because of credit card debts. As Shah reveals, "the average man on the street had about 20 cards". The first reports on credit cardinduced suicides in India also appeared around that time. "It was enough for us to react," adds Shah.

True to its style, CERC took up a survey. It proved to be a backbreaker, but provided the first blueprint for a dialogue between credit card users and issuers. "Our research revealed that New Zealand had the best legislation on this," says Shah. The survey, along with the recommendations for a model law for Asia, was presented first at the Consumers International, London, two years back. It was then picked up by RBI for its Guidelines, with CERC as the main consumer body on its panel.

If 2005 set the ball rolling, this year promises fresh milestones. The government of Gujarat recently used the guidelines to chalk out the consumer friendly norms "for strict adherence" by banks and credit card companies. Furthermore, credit card grievances have been brought under the purview of the Banking Ombudsman Act by RBI with effect from January 2006. Suggestions that the RBI will hand over more power to erring credit card issuers to book, are more power to ombudsmen to bring more power to ombudsmen to bring erring credit card issuers to book, are also making the rounds.
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