Consumer the King
The consumer protection in India is not a post modern thought, it has evolved through centuries. Its roots can be found in Manu Smiriti. Consumer Protection has had relevance since the existence of consumers in India. Manu smriti lays out a charter of ethics for sellers on how to sell consumer products to consumers. It also specifies the penalties that must be handed out to sellers who are unethical in their actions. Manu Smriti prohibits the mixing of one commodity with other. It also mandates proper disclosure of quantity and quality. In itself Manu Smriti does not focus on consumer protection but does show the concern of ancient society on consumerism matters.
Every year 15th of March is celebrated as National Consumer Rights Day marking the day when Bill for Consumer Rights was moved in the US Congress. The Consumers International (CI), recognises eight rights, which in a logical order reads:
1. Basic Needs
7. Consumer Education and
8. Healthy Environment.
However the Consumer Protection Act (COPRA) in 1986 in India recognises only six of these eight rights:
1. The right to be protected against marketing of goods and services which are hazardous to life and property i.e. Right to Safety;
The Consumer Protection Act 1986 defines this right as the ‘right to be protected against marketing of goods and services which are hazardous to life and property’. The right are significant in areas of healthcare, food processing and pharmaceuticals and spans across any domain that could have impact on consumers health or well being. Violation of this right is mostly in medical malpractice lawsuits in India. Every year in India not less than millions of Citizen are killed or severely hurt by unscrupulous practices by hospitals, doctors, pharmacies and the automobile industry yet the Indian Government due to its callousness fails to acknowledge this fact or make an attempt at maintaining statistic of these mishaps. The Government need to have world class product testing facilities to test drugs, cars, food, and any other consumable that could potentially be life threatening.
In developed countries such as the United States, stalwart agencies oversee the safety of consumer product. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for food and drugs, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for automobiles and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) for all other consumer products, just to name a few. This right requires each product that could potentially endanger our lives to be marketed only after sufficient and complete independent verification and validation. With respect to empowering this right completely and adequately, India is about 50 years away.
2. The right to be informed about the quality, quantity, potency, purity, standard and price of goods or services, as the case may be, so as to protect the consumer against unfair trade practices;
This consumer right is defined as the ‘the right to be informed about the quality, quantity, potency, purity, standard and price of goods or services, as the case may be so as to protect the consumer against unfair trade practices’ in the Consumer Protection Act of 1986. In the Indian market place, consumers get consumer information through two popular, yet unreliable means, namely advertising and word of mouth. Due to this, the consumers in India seldom have accurate and complete information to assess the true value, suitability, safety or reliability of any product. Mostly we find out hidden costs, lack of suitability, safety hazards and quality problems only after we have purchased the product. Another right again trumpeted by our government on paper, this right should ideally ensure that all consumable products are labelled in a standard manner which contains the cost, the ingredients, quantity, and instructions on how to safely consume the product. Unfortunately, even the medicines in India do not follow a standard labelling convention. Unit price publishing standards need to be established for consumer market places where costs are shown in standard units such as per kilogram, or per litre. We, as consumers, should be informed in a precise yet accurate manner of the costs involved when availing a loan. For benefit to the society from this right, advertisers should be held against the product standards in the advertisements, pharmaceuticals need to disclose potential side effects about their drugs, and manufacturers should be required to publish reports from independent product testing laboratories regarding the comparison of the quality of their products with competitive products, just to name a few.
3. The right to be assured, wherever possible, of access to a variety of goods and services at competitive prices;
Consumer Protection Act 1986 defines this right as ‘the right to be assured, wherever possible, to have access to a variety of goods and services at competitive prices’. Competition, invariably, is the best regulator of a market place. Existence of oligopolies, cartels and monopolies are counterproductive to consumerism. Our natural resources, telecommunications, liquor industry, airlines have all been controlled by a mafia at some point. Coming from a socialistic background, tolerance of monopolistic market forces are ingrained in the blood of Indian Consumers. It is not very often we can say we are going to switch the power company, when we have a blackout at home! Interestingly, even micro markets such as the fish vendors in particular cities have known to collude to drain the bargaining power of the consumers. In any size, any form, or any span, collusion of companies selling a similar type of product is unethical, less illegal. India has about 20 years more of stride to empower our citizens fully in this right.
4. The right to be heard and to be assured that consumers' interests will receive due consideration at appropriate forums; According to the Consumer Protection Act 1986, ‘the right to be heard and to be assured that consumer's interests will receive due consideration at appropriate forums’ is referred to as the right to be heard. This right is supposed to empower Indian consumers to fearlessly voice their complaints and concerns against products and companies to ensure their issues are handled efficiently and expeditiously. However, to date the Government of India has not created a single outlet for the consumers to be heard or their opinions to be voiced. If a consumer makes an allegation about a product, the onus is on the dealer, manufacturer or supplying company to disprove that the allegation is false. In other words, the consumer is heard, and the burden of proof rests with the company. Feeble attempts have been made by the government to empower our citizens with this right.
5. The right to seek redressal against unfair trade practices or restrictive trade practices or unscrupulous exploitation of consumers;
The right ‘to seek redressal against unfair trade practices or restrictive trade practices or unscrupulous exploitation of consumers’ is defined as the right to redressal in the Consumer Protection Act 1986. The Indian Government has been slightly more successful with respect to this right. Consumer courts such as District Consumer Disputes Redressal Forums at the district level, State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions and National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions have been established through the consumer protection act. Each of these consumer grievance redressal agencies has fiduciary and geographical jurisdictions to address consumer cases between consumers and businesses. Consumer cases less than 20 lakhs are heard in the district consumer forum, between 20 lakhs and one crore are heard in the state consumer court and cases more than one crore are heard in the national consumer court. On paper these sound nice; but hold on before you rejoice. Once started as the guardians of consumer protection and consumer rights in India, these courts have today been rendered ineffective due to bureaucratic sabotages, callousness of the government, clogged cases and decadent infrastructure. Very few of the district forums have officials appointed in a timely manner, and most of them are non-operational due to lack of funding and infrastructure. Estimates put the open legal cases in India at 20-30 million, which will approximately take 320 years to close. With the legal system in this manner compromised, consumer cases that form mere civil litigations will be pushed down the bottom of the priority list. As per the estimate India is 10 years behind in effectively ensuring this right to every Indian consumer.
6. The right to consumer education;
The right of each Indian citizen to be educated on matters related to consumer protection and about his/her rights is the last right given by the Consumer Protection Act 1986. This right simply ensures that the consumers in India have access to informational programs and materials that would enable them to make better purchasing decisions. Consumer education may mean both formal education through school and college curriculums and also consumer awareness campaigns run by both governmental and non governmental agencies (NGO). Consumer NGOs, with little support from the Indian government, primarily undertake the ardent task of ensuring this consumer right around the country. India is 20 years away from ensuring this right empowers the common citizen consumer.
The procedure involved in grievance redressal is:
· The consumer can approach court when there is any deficiency in goods or services. Even if goods are brought on instalments the complaint for defective goods and services can be filed.
• The consumer or his authorized agent.
• Any voluntary consumer association.
• The government (Central or State).
• A group of consumers, when there are numerous consumers having the same complaint can approach court.
· The Consumer Protection Act, 1986, has created three-tier quasi-judicial machinery, in case of disputes you can approach consumer courts at the national, state or district levels
If the cost of goods or services and competition one seeks is:
• Upto Rs.20 lakh (earlier 5 lakh) one can approach the District Forum.
• Above Rs.20 lakh up to Rs. One crore one can approach the State Commission.
• Above Rs. One Crore one can file the complaint before the national Commission in New Delh
Complaint can be filed at the district forum where the cause of action has arisen or where the opposite party resides. A complaint can also be filed at a place where the branch office of the opposite, party is located.
· Fee for filing complaint
The prescribed fee is detailed under:-
1. Up to Rs. 1,00,000/- For Complainants who are under the Below Poverty Lines holding Antyodaya Anna Yojana cards
2. Up to Rs. 1,00,000/- For Complainants other than Antyodaya Anna Yojana cardholders.
3. Above PvS. 1,00,000/- and up to Rs. 5,00,000/-
4. Above Rs. 5,00,000/- and up to Rs. 10,00,000/-
5. Above Rs. 10,00,000/- and up to Rs. 20,00,000/-
1. Above Rs. 20,00,000/- and up to Rs. 50,00,000/-
2. Above Rs. 50,00,000/- and up tc Rs. 1,00,00,000/-
1.Above Rs. 1,00,00,000/-
Every complaint shall be accompanied by a fee, as specified in the table, in the form of cross demand draft drawn on a Nationalized Bank or through a crossed Indian Postal Order drawn in the name of the Registrar of the State Commission. This is applicable for the District and its respective State Commission. However, various District and State Commissions accept D.D only. A complainant must check at the time of filing of the complaint to avoid any inconvenience.
· The time limit for filing a complaint.
The complaint is to be filed within two years from the date on which cause of action has arisen unless it can be proved that there was a good enough reason for filing a complaint after the lapse of two years.
· The procedure to file a complaint.
One can either personally or through authorized agent or consumer association file the complaint at the appropriate District Forum / Commission. Your complaint should contain the following information:
• Ones name, description and the address.
• The name, description and address of the opposite party / parties.
• The facts relating to complaint and when and where it arose.
• Documents, if any, in support of the allegations contained in the complaint. (Copy of the invoice, receipt, warranty card, correspondence / complaints made in writing).
• The relief (compensation) that you are seeking.
There should be 4 copies of the complaint on plain paper plus a copy each for the opposite party. A stamp paper is not required but you must sign the complaint papers. Try and first talk to the retailer, manufacturer or service provider and check if your problem can be solved before approaching any consumer guidance society or forum.
· Kind of relief available
Depending on the nature of relief one seeks and the facts, the consumer courts may give orders for one or more of the following relief:
a) Removal of defects from the goods
b) Replacement of the goods
c) Refund of the price paid
d) Award of compensation for the loss of injury suffered
e) Removal of defects or deficiencies in the services.
f) Discontinuance of unfair trade practices or restrictive trade practices or direction not to repeat them.
g) Withdrawal of hazardous goods from being sold h) Award for parties based on costs.
Another important thing Consumer Protection Act, 1986 has brought in is judicial reforms by providing quasi-judicial courts solely for redressal of consumer grievances within a time frame of 90 to 150 days. Justice D.J. Kapoor former president of State Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission of Delhi in an interview with financial express said that the act says for disposal of cases within within 90 days which is seldom a reality.
The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org