Grievance forums need ‘surgical strike’

It is said that justice delayed is justice denied. But in the case of consumers, justice is not only denied but derailed. The Consumer Protection Act (CPA), 1986, envisaged setting up of a Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (CDRC) at the state level and Consumer Grievance Redressal Forums (CGRF) at the district level.

Disposing of consumer complaints within 90 days is the primary job of these agencies. Yet, the poor performance of these redressal forums has been a matter of concern. A cursory look at the functioning of the Karnataka State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (KSCDRC) and CGRF indicates that they are in need of a ‘surgical strike’ on them.

The KSCDRC is the nodal agency for consumer-related grievances in the state. Forget about delay in disposal of complaints, there is delay even in updating its website. The latest statistics — accessed on December 18, 2018 — on it relate to March 2018. The KSCDRC, established in 1989, has received 58,102 complaints since inception, out of which 48,559 complaints and appeals have been disposed of. While this looks rosy, the devil is in the detail.

The KSCDRC has rejected 13,478 complaints on technical grounds, a number that forms part of the complaints disposed. The CPA envisages that complaints are to be disposed of, as far as possible, within 60-90 days. However, the KSCDRC has been able to adhere to this time limit in only 26% of the cases. It has disposed 12,391 complaints within the time limit set by the CPA.

The CPA requires the government to establish at least one CGRF in each of the districts. Though there should be at least one CGRF for each district, clubbing of two or more districts is allowed. Similarly depending on the number of complaints, additional CGRFs may be established within the same district. In Karnataka, with 30 districts, there are 31 CGRFs, with Bengaluru having four of them. Chikkaballapura and Ramanagara districts, which were formed in June and August 2007, respectively, are yet to get a CGRF of their own.

The performance of CGRFs is better than that of KSCDRC. Since their inception, the CGRFs have received 1,99,554 complaints, of which 1,90,795 (95%) had been disposed of as on March 31, 2018. However, in terms of adhering to the specified time limits, the performance of CGRFs is as bad as that of KSCDRC. Only 62,404 complaints (24%) have been decided within 60-90 days. The CGRFs have rejected 30,493 complaints on technical grounds.

Pendency

One of the objects of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, is to provide speedy justice at the least cost to consumers. It was with this intention that the grievance redressal machinery under the CPA was constituted without the trappings of ordinary civil courts. However, over the years, the State Commission and CGRFs have all the procedural delays, adjournments, etc., of the courts, thereby defeating the very purpose of the CPA.

As a result, complaints are piling up. Of the 9,543 complaints pending in KSCDRC, a majority of them are over 90 days. There are at least 1,000 cases pending for more than 2-5 years. The CGRFs have over 8,800 complaints, of which 5,884 are more than 90 days to an year old. If 35 complaints are pending for more than 5-8 years, you can understand how fast the CGRFs are delivering consumer justice.

Staff Position

Speedy disposal of complaints and appeals requires sufficient number of judicial and non-judicial officers, besides supporting office staff. As per the provisions of the CPA, the State Commission and CGRFs should have one president and two non-judicial members, out of which one shall be a lady. It is the responsibility of the state government to ensure that the posts are filled up and ensure smooth functioning of the State Commission.

Further, the government should start in advance the process of identifying, selecting and appointing suitable persons for the post before it falls vacant. Any delay in filling up the posts will lead to backlog of complaints and appeals, thereby delaying delivery of justice to consumers. In KSCDRC, the post of one lady member is vacant since February 2018.

In respect of CGRFs, though the posts of presidents are filled up, 27 posts of members are vacant. This includes 14 posts of lady members, some posts lying vacant since 2016. According to KSCDRC’s explanation, selection of members is under process. It is understood that the government has directed the KSCDRC to postpone the selection process till the relevant rules are framed. The KSCDRC has submitted the draft rules to the government and approval is awaited. The sanctioned strength of office staff of KSCDRC and CGRF is 439, of which 130 are vacant.

The Department of Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs, which is the nodal agency for consumer protection, and the KSCDRC have to address these issues if they want to serve the interests of consumers.

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Grievance forums need ‘surgical strike’

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