Charging consumers for carry-bags is illegal

Consumers form an integral part of a market driven economy and therefore, consumers deserve to be treated with honesty and sincerity by the sellers. It is imperative to increase consumer awareness. Of late, customers are charged for carry bags. These charges range from Rs 5 to Rs 10 and even higher in some cases. Many consumers without understanding the legal rationality and logic behind this, end up paying money for the carry-bags. In this context, it is important to discuss this issue for enhancing the consumer awareness.

As customers we need to know whether we are supposed to pay these plastic or paper carry bags? Sometimes the shop owners or shop managers resort to the unfair tactics of confusing customers. They validate their carry bag charging policy by differentiating between paper or jute and polythene carry bags and also falsely referring to the size of the carry-bags.
Can retailers charge you for these bags, even if they are eco-friendly?

This practice of charging customers for carry bags is relatively new. Until a few years, many brands accounted for the cost of the carry bags (at that time, most bags were made from plastic) as “overhead expenses,” and provided them free.

However, post 2011 when the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) issued the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) rules, which states that, “No (plastic) carry bags shall be made available free of cost by retailers to consumers.”  The real intention behind this move was to discourage the consumers from using plastic bags as plastics are non-biodegradable and are hence a threat to the environment. 

Unethical trade practices

Soon, retailers began switching to the more expensive paper and cloth carry bags, but for a fee. Rather than discouraging the use of plastic bags, making carry bags available to buyers has now become a commercial exercise. Shop-owners are abusing the government rule and charging the customers for the paper carry bags and making money out of it. Also these bags are not durable unlike the old plastic bags. Brand logos are printed on these bags, which advertises the company. Retail stores cannot be advertising their brands at the consumers cost. As a result, many customers have expressed unhappiness at this purported malpractice and have also filed innumerable complaints at various levels of consumer dispute redressal forums for causing unwanted mental harassment and resorting to unethical trade practices.

Let us explore the legal standing on this contentious issue so that as aware consumers, we are able to grasp the finer points in detail. The Chandigarh Consumer Commission recently ordered Bata India Ltd to pay Rs 9,000 in fine for charging a customer Rs 3 for a paper bag to carry a shoebox. Legal experts have opined that the order is legally valid across the country and the stores cannot charge consumers any additional charge for the bag if the product is purchased from the same store. The Consumer Commission further added that if the companies were providing environment friendly bags so as to protect the environment, they should provide free environment-friendly bags to the customers.

Moreover, under the existing laws, the shopkeepers are not allowed to charge consumers for carry bags, as they the bags have with their logo and name, so it becomes part of their advertisement. In fact, giving the carry-bags for free to the consumers for carrying the goods purchased from the same store forms an intrinsic part of the customer-satisfaction criterion under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986.

The orders of the Consumer Commission are valid throughout the territory of India and the consumers can cite this order for redressal of their grievances on the same issue elsewhere.

The current scenario requires a stricter enforcement of the related rules and regulations in the wider interest of the consumers under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. The Ministry of Consumer Affairs needs to play a proactive role on this important issue as the deficiency in service and unfair trade practices have no place in today’s era of knowledge driven economy and heightened consumer awareness. Stern action, check on sellers, dedicated helpline to lodge plaints and creating awareness can end the malpractice.

(The writer is a senior police officer of Punjab State and an author)

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