Consumer Rights: worrying apathy

The Lok Sabha passed the Consumer Protection Bill (CPB), 2018, in December last to replace the three decades-old Consumer Protection Bill. CPB was first tabled in 2015. Unfortunately, the Rajya Sabha, where the NDA does not have a majority, did not find it important to take it up. Some opposition parties raised issues, pointing out the hardships likely to be faced by the entire medical profession, e-portals and small traders dealing with false charges. No act can be perfect and most of these non-issues were raised to delay the passage of the CPB. Now, CPB has lapsed. When the new Parliament meets, it has to take it up afresh. The CPB 2018 may be reintroduced or a fresh exercise of law-making begin.  

The CPB 2018 had a number of consumer-friendly provisions to improve upon the earlier Consumer Protection Act (CPA). These are: setting up of a Central Consumer Protection Authority; setting up of Mediation Centres in Consumer Courts; widening the jurisdiction of Consumer Courts; dealing with unfair terms of contract; jail for false and misleading ads, sale of spurious products and adulterated food; product liability; and, penalty on celebrities for endorsing false and misleading advertisements. 

To put pressure on the political parties to include consumer protection in their election manifestos and also to convey the importance of passing a progressive act like CPB 2018 soon after the new Parliament meets, Consumer Voice started a petition drive. Even after two weeks, less than 350 have signed the online petition. This is despite the efforts made by Consumer Voice, some consumer NGOs and activists. Several websites from Mangaluru, Bengaluru, Mysuru, and Delhi have articles urging consumers to sign the petition. 

The petition website prominently showed the support from former Lokayukta Justice Santosh Hegde. More than 35,000 IIT/IIM graduates were urged to sign the petition. 

Consumer Voice (CV) is a Delhi-based, nationally-known consumer protection NGO. CV publishes a monthly magazine to provide independent and unbiased reviews of food items, consumer durables and financial and banking services after getting comparative testing done, and has thousands of subscribers. Still, there were few participants in the petition drive. 

We need to ask some inconvenient questions about the state of the consumer movement in India. Usually, during the World Consumer Rights Day, which we observed on March 15, we chant the mantra of how “consumer is the king”. But it does not reflect ground reality. Often, we recall the famous quote of Mahatma Gandhi that, “A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him.” In many places, these meetings are presided over by the consumer court judges, who are not often familiar with the actual philosophy of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA). They have systematically converted these courts into civil courts, though it was not the intention. They give speeches on the speedy judgements given by their courts with minimum number of adjournments, which again is not true. 

4.5L pending cases

According to the CPA, consumer complaints should be resolved in less than 90 days with minimum number of adjournments. In reality, very few meet that benchmark and most take more than a year. Judges presiding over the consumer courts are not influenced by the dictum that “justice delayed is justice denied”, especially in most consumer cases which are simple to adjudicate. Currently, there are about 4.5 lakh cases pending in consumer courts. 

One of the reasons for the poor implementation of CPA is the absence of a strong and vibrant consumer movement in India. We, the consumers, have also been tolerating the inefficient and often irresponsible implementation of CPA and did not find time or concern to protest. The same seems to be happening now, with the latest petition drive of consumer activists to put pressure on the political parties to pass the CPB 2018. 

We all know how, in this digital age, some recent protests like the opposition to Coorg Railway have attracted thousands to participate, thanks to social networking. In the past, when Consumer Voice had a similar petition, it attracted about two lakh participants. Even that level of participation is insignificant to make a difference. In a country like India, where more than 500 million have access to the internet, it is not too much to expect that at least a million should sign in less than a month if there is interest in the consumer movement. 

Why is it then there are less than 350 participants for a cause which affects all Indian consumers? Have consumers lost faith in the government and judicial system to deliver justice? Is it that we, the consumers, do not like to get involved to promote a strong consumer movement? Or, is it that we are acting like the people in the famous Tenali Rama story in which people think that others will pour milk into a pond while they pour water? We need to reflect on these issues. 

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