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Researchers distribute soap with hidden e-chips to residents of a town in Kerala

Last month, an NGO conducting a survey in Beemapalli on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram lathered up a controversy. In the first week of December, the Socio-Economic Unit Foundation (SEUF) distributed bath soaps containing e-chips to 40 households in Beemapalli, a small Muslim-dominated seaside town. The recipients of the soap were instructed to return the bars after four days of use, and were offered Rs 400 each for their efforts.

Plans went awry when a woman stumbled upon the chip inside her bar, instantly sparking panic. “We didn’t know that a chip had been inserted. We were only told that the soap had to be returned to study the pattern of use,” says Safarulla, a Beemapalli resident, who informed the police of the chip after he prised open his own bar and struck metal.

The police took the foreign survey conductors into custody, but released them later without registering a case. Sources in the police disclose that the law doesn’t prevent a foreign institution from conducting a survey without prior approval from the authorities. “It was a survey conducted for The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine,” says Manoj Ebraham, the city police commissioner. The study was sponsored by Unilever.

 

 According to the NGO, survey participants were not denied prior information. “We have agreement papers signed by whoever participated in the survey. There was no compulsion,” says George Verghese, executive director of SEUF. He is convinced that the controversy was created by a troublemaker who wanted to attract media attention.

MJ Joseph, head of the South Indian operations of Praxis, a Delhi-based research organisation, however, believes the controversy is symptomatic of the absence of professionalism among NGOs conducting such surveys. “It’s a sign of lack of respect for the democratic rights of people who are being surveyed,” says Joseph. “Their intentions may be good, but too often, NGOs fail to effectively convey the objectives and methodology of a survey.”

 

This coastal belt is no stranger to controversial surveys. Earlier, in November 2010, a survey carried out by a US agency quizzed the local populace about whether they were admirers of Osama bin Laden.