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Caveat emptor takes on more meaning in Bhopal, for what you buy may not be what you get

Contrabrand Capital
Tribhuvan Tiwari
Contrabrand Capital
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
First it was Ulhasnagar, outside Bombay, which gained infamy for its booming business of manufacturing counterfeit foreign brands. Now Bhopal is fast taking its place as the fake goods capital of the country. The principal difference, however, is that in the Madhya Pradesh capital, an illegal industry is thriving which manufactures poor quality duplicates of popular Indian brands. From colas to biscuits, cigarettes to shampoo, Bhopal fakes them all—much to the chagrin of both bona fide manufacturers and consumers.

The list of products that are churned out from this faux assembly line is well-nigh endless, ranging from consumable items such as ghee, biscuits and vegetable oil, to cosmetics, electrical goods, utility products such as pressure cookers and even automobile tyres. A full-fledged cottage industry that has mushroomed along the fringes of the city's residential areas has turned out to be the source of much embarrassment and despair for the local police.

It's not a simple affair of doing rip-offs of popular products—which some like to see as a mark of pesky but harmless local ingenuity. Some of those involved in the racket also adulterate branded products in their quest for that fast buck. The scam first hit the headlines when the city police raided a godown in the busy trading area of Kotwali this January. The raid yielded 15 truckloads of adulterated skimmed milk powder from a manufacturing unit that faked brandnames such as Indana and Nestle. The accused, six of them, were using starch and powdered sugar to adulterate the original product before supplying it to markets all over the state through their dealers. The seizure, including that of sophisticated milk powder packaging machinery, amounted to goods worth over Rs 45 lakh.

Within a week, four separate cases of adulteration of ghee was exposed in Kohe Fiza, Mangalwara, Hanumanganj and Kabadkhana localities of the city. In all the cases, the accused were adulterating branded ghee and vegetable oil and repackaging and selling the product as the original brand. The substandard "quality" products palmed off are estimated to have been worth Rs 10 lakh. This was closely followed by yet another swoop on a small-scale bottling plant in the city, which was found to be manufacturing aerated drinks under such brandnames as Coke and Pepsi.

Since then, the police have stumbled upon fake beer (Royal Challenge, Kingfisher), counterfeit 5-rupee coins, spurious audio cassettes and substandard underclothes bearing fake labels (Roopa, Peter Pan). The extent of the thriving business can be gauged by the fact that the police has confiscated hundreds of tonnes of fake consumer products which it is finding hard to store. Many of the police stations in Bhopal are looking for extra space to store the seized goods.

For example, the Kotwali police station is struggling to manage the 15 truckloads of adulterated skimmed milk powder, apart from two truckloads of fake ghee and vegetable oil recovered in recent months. The total stock—weighing a few hundred tonnes—now awaits legal progress, dumped in a dilapidated haveli of a former nawab adjacent to the police station. Says additional superintendent of police Balbir Singh, "This is the part of the evidence and we cannot dispose of it until the case is settled."

But the police hasn't had much luck on that front either. None of the cases has seeen any convictions so far and the accused—chargesheeted under various sections of the ipc and the Trade and Mercantile Act for offences such as fraud, adulteration and counterfeiting—have all managed to procure bail.

According to the police, low production costs and hence high profit margins is what is luring many small-time traders to the fake goods industry. Says Vivek Chand Tahilyani, a trader in Bairagadh in the city: "We make pickles at home and brand them as Nilon's, which is a popular brand. This helps in sales. We have a vast market in all northern states. We have regular bulk buyers in Delhi and Punjab. The food and drugs department inspectors make routine visits. We have to keep senior officials in good humour. But our product is as good as original."

According to a senior police official, there are two distinct types of fake products in the market—counterfeits and "pass-offs". Counterfeit products are fake and bear the identical name and packaging of a branded product. These are produced to look exactly like the originals and are supplied to the urban markets. On the other hand, there are pass-off products that are look-alikes and cleverly make use of similar names, colour schemes, logos and designs to mislead the ordinary consumer. These are often priced far cheaper than the original brand and find a ready outlet in the vast swathe of rural markets.

At the crowded trading markets of Old Bhopal city like Ghoda Nakkas, Loha Bazar and Jumme Rati, the shelves of the neighbourhood shops are well stocked with both counterfeits and pass-offs. Clinic shampoo's look-alike is named 'Clinik'. Keo Karpin has got itself a 'Kesh Karpin' doppelganger and Liril soap has metamorphosed into, flatteringly, 'Thrill'.

The shopkeepers make no bones about the fact that they sell fakes. "True, these products are fake. But we sell it at half the price as there is no sales tax. The quality is also good and, don't forget, people do buy them," says a confident Shahnawaz Ali. Adds Jitender Mansukhani, who manufactures pass-offs of renowned talcum powder brands, "We do not claim it is the original product and sell it at very low price. Our product is not bad in quality and it is aimed at the poor population all over the country that cannot afford the original products due to their high price tag."

Obviously, not all agree. Complains Diwakar Singh, a consumer, "From cigarettes, soft drinks, pens to Vicks Vaporub...everything is fake in Bhopal. Even after paying the retail price, we do not get the original product."

While the counterfeits and look-alikes do brisk sales, the original brands are suffering. An estimate reported in fake-busters.com, a website supported by ficci to address this problem, says that counterfeiting and similar illegal activities in India results in losses to the tune of Rs 2,500 crore annually to the original brands and a gross revenue loss of Rs 900 crore per year to the government as no taxes are recoverable from this illegal trade.

However, more than its nuisance value in terms of economic statistics, what is perhaps really disturbing is the lack of quality control and the possible health consequences of fake consumables. But oblivious to such niceties, in the bustling industrial backlanes of Bhopal, it is business as usual.

Davinder Kumar in Bhopal
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