Need a new movement to promote 'masters, not servants'

Consumer Day: Need a new movement to promote 'masters, not servants'

Representative image. Credit: iStockPhoto

Every year, December 24 is celebrated as ‘National Consumer Day’ in India in a ritualistic manner. This year, we should take a different approach. It was the day when parliament adopted the Consumer Protection Act (COPRA) in 1986. The law has since been amended and improved over the years. 

In 2019, it was amended comprehensively to bring about several consumer-friendly reforms like the concept of product liability, filing complaints electronically, alternate resolution mechanism, action against unfair trade practices and misleading advertisements, and providing consumer protection while purchasing online. 

The overarching goal of COPRA is to provide effective safeguards to consumers from exploitation against defective goods, unfair trade practices and deficiency in services. While there is much interest to achieve the first two goals, there is hardly any attention paid either by the government while amending COPRA or by NGOs to promote consumer rights when they seek government services. 

In a democracy, we, the people, are supposed to be the ‘masters’ and the government employees are supposed to be the ‘servants’. Unfortunately, even after 73 years of Independence, the public is exploited far more by the government employees than by private shop-owners or service providers or companies. Despite knowing this sad truth, only lip service is given to solving public grievances. Rampant and shameful deficiency in services in all the government offices is the norm. 

While most civil servants of the IAS/KAS type are arrogant, there are some who do want to solve public grievances and conduct public interactions to that end. Unfortunately, again, such events were opposed by MLAs in Mysuru recently. Worse, the Revenue Minister forced the Deputy Commissioner to suspend such citizen-friendly events. 

How often are you treated with respect and dignity in police stations, unless you are some VIP? For many, filing FIRs or seeking police help is not easy. Even when some people violate laws, police are expected handle the guilty bearing in mind their human dignity and not treat them in an inhuman way. Police should be strict but gentle even with the guilty. Rude behaviour is deficiency in service and guilty officials have been fined by the consumer courts. 

It is difficult to believe that doctors in government hospitals demand bribes to release dead bodies. As an activist in Mysuru, I had received several such complaints from grieving family members of the deceased. Government hospitals and clinics are expected to give the best possible treatment to patients and treat them with dignity, in life and in death. In reality, it is an exceptional government hospital/clinic where patients are treated with kindness and concern. 

Road Transport Offices (RTOs) are well-known as cesspools of corruption. The situation is worsened by the need to use middlemen, despite several attempts to stop such practices. Even when all papers are in order, or one can drive without committing any error, it will be short of a miracle if one succeeds on the first attempt to get the registration or driver’s licence. However, if one is prepared to pay a bribe, driver’s licence can be obtained even without going to the RTO. 

A former president of a leading consumer protection NGO had to approach Mysuru City Corporation more than a hundred times to secure a building permit even when he could meet all the conditions. His only fault was that he refused to pay a bribe. This is in a city where 90% of the buildings are not in compliance with building by-laws as per several commissioners.

The Public Distribution System was developed to assist the poor to get essential food items like rice, sugar, kerosene, etc., at highly subsidised prices. While those who do not need ration cards can easily get them, for the really deserving, it is a nightmare trying to get one. Here again, either connections/influence or paying bribe can facilitate the process. Getting a ration card is only the beginning. Getting actual rations on a timely basis is another huge problem. As for the quality of the rations, the less said the better.

Anyone who can get a sales deed registered in the sub-registrar’s office without paying a bribe should be honoured. Most of the time, it is also the fault of the public since most want to cheat. However, even those who are honest are treated the same way. 

Since the above corrupt practices and harassment of the public has become the norm, the media has also lost interest in exposing them. Even progressive political leaders, instead of trying to find ways to fight these deficiencies, argue that nothing can be done. At best, they try to help individuals who approach them, but make no effort towards institutional or systemic change. 

In this digital age, it is relatively easy to bring about the needed reform if there is political will. Residential LPG has been streamlined to reduce corruption, thanks to the use of the aadhaar platform. Earlier, there was a lot of leakage and it was often a tedious task to secure replenishment.

Similarly, a digital platform can be developed for each government office where the service seeker is given a number that is entered into the system. There should be systematic follow up to find out if the promised service was provided and when. When there is an unexplained delay, officials responsible should be taken to task and penalised.  

‘Sakala’ was a well thought out programme. So also, the RTI. Neither of these have come up to expectations because the punishments provided by the laws are not implemented. Also, either the people themselves do not take it seriously (often they are ready and willing to bribe) or do not support NGOs who fight such deficiencies. 

In the case of the private sector’s deficiencies, it is not COPRA which has helped consumers but competition that makes “consumer the king”. However, in the case of government services, where we face a monopoly, we need a different strategy. 

Only when people start strongly demanding their rights, hold elected leaders and bureaucrats accountable, and take active part in democracy will we, the people, become the “masters”. Until then, we will continue to be treated as “servants”. 

(The writer has been a consumer rights activist for over three decades)