Consumer laws: go beyond rhetoric

Consumer laws: go beyond rhetoric

In the last two and a half decades, the World Consumer Rights Day (March 15) has turned into a ‘Consumer Rituals Day’.

The same old slogans are repeated and same speeches are delivered and consumers are advised to be aware and assert their rights.

The entire responsibility is shifted to consumers. What is conveniently forgotten are the supporting structures required to insulate consumers from exploitation. Take for instance safety and information, the two crucial rights given to consumers. In Tumakuru, four students die of food poisoning and elsewhere a score are admitted to hospital for the same reason. In Puducherry, three patients undergoing kidney dialysis die due to electric surge.

Buildings collapse regularly leading to fatalities and injuries.   Adulterated food apart, hazardous products, fake and counterfeit products flood the market in the midst of crores of public money spent on maintenance of regulatory authorities and institutions.

The Food Safety and Standards Act is one of the best legislations enacted to protect consumers from adulterated and spurious food. But look at its implementation in Karnataka. Inadequate staff, outdated lab equipment, non-availability of chemicals and other materials to check food quality and above all apathy of officials clubbed with ignorant consumers.

The relevant website does not indicate statistics relating to food samples tested - it is under construction. One food safety officer has to monitor two or three districts. Over the years, consumers’ right to information is widening and overreaching into government-held information.

Information about maximum retail price [MRP] of a product, ingredients, calories, helpline etc, are mandatory under various laws. A survey by the local circles, created by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, has revealed that online marketers are inflating the MRP and then offering discounts. These are just a few instances of consumer exploitation.

The need of the day is a strong policy measure to protect consumers from market manipulations. Karnataka, a pioneer in consumer protection, should come out with a long-term Consumer Protection Policy so that the activities of the departments concerned are aligned and integrated.

While organising district level consumer camps, the Centre for Consumer Studies of the Indian Institute of Public Administration, Karnataka, has found that departments/institutions like Legal Metrology, Drugs Control, Food Safety etc have no budgetary provision for promoting consumer awareness.
Other central government institutions like Bureau of Indian Standards, AGMARK, LPG marketing companies, Banking and Insurance Ombudsman are all entrusted with protection of consumer interests. But in the absence of a structural mechanism to integrate their activities and resources, consumer is left to fend herself.

The Consumer Protection Councils at the state and district level as envisaged in the Consumer Protection Act is a mechanism through which all activities relating to consumer protection could be channeled. Though it is an advisory body, the involvement of all stakeholders could suggest policy measures to the state government.

But in Karnataka, these advisory bodies have not been formed for the past eight to 10 years. However, the Consumer Affairs Department has done a good job in setting up District Consumer Information Centres.

Working groups

The time, expertise and knowledge at the disposal of the present Department of Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs, is inadequate and hence the neglect of consumer affairs. The need to create a separate department or directorate for consumer affairs has been stressed for the past few years, with little response from the government.

The state can constitute working groups on subjects of interest to consumers, as is done by the Centre. Consumer rights experts, academics, representatives of consumer groups etc, could be asked to identify issues and come out with measures to check consumer exploitation. 

In addition to regulatory measures, consumer education needs to be strengthened. Here again, a long-term plan and vision is lacking. At present, voluntary consumers are given financial grants to set up school consumer clubs. Though this is laudable, the scheme needs to be fine-tuned. The contents of consumer education and methodology are not clearly defined. Students from Class 5 to 10 are taught law relating to consumer protection, which should not be the case.

Issues like deciphering misleading advertisements, label reading, avoiding over-consumption, home budgeting, decision making, intelligent shopping, comparative analysis of products and services, managing complaints and grievances etc, should form part of consumer education.

Lack of resource persons and teaching materials [particularly in Kannada] are to be sorted out to make consumer education effective and relevant.

(The writer is member, Central Consumer Protection Council)