Consumer Protection

Narendra M Apte

Consumers, particularly those who live in metros, cities and even in smaller towns, are in a position to use new technology to get detailed information about goods and services they buy. Question is whether techno savvy consumers are awakened consumers. I think this may not be the case. There is apparent increase in what is called ‘impulsive buying’, which is taken advantage of by online business firms. Such impulsive buying may not always be informed buying.

Even if today’s consumers are better educated and well-informed, are they really protected from over-charging, poor service and other unfair business practices?

Consumers may have different grievances, about poor quality of goods and services purchased by them as also about after-sales service in case of durable products like refrigerators, TV sets washing machines etc., and about prices too. Though there are millions of consumers, they are not an organised lot and very few of them have energy and resources to take legal action against delinquent sellers.

Consumers of public utilities like public transport, electricity and water supply in urban areas of our country often face many inconveniences but they are simply helpless. They suffer silently.

Citizens living in all our metro cities pay taxes to Municipal Corporations or Municipal Councils but as users of roads and other infrastructure they often suffer many inconveniences as roads are in poor condition, water supply is erratic and garbage management is unsatisfactory.

Then there are other sectors of our economy where service providers often get away with unfair business practices as consumers have no real choice. Real estate and housing construction, health care services, (both private and public), Banks (both public sector & private sector), direct to home (or DTH) telecast service- these are some sectors in which consumers have grievances about quality of service as also pricing issues. Consumers often find that procedure to file a complaint against the service provider and get the grievance redressed is not at all simple; in fact it is time-consuming procedure. That the government has to play a proactive step to protect consumers is now an accepted principle.

Role of government and its duty to intervene in consumer affairs was first articulated by late American President J F Kennedy when he delivered his famous speech on the four rights of consumers. In his speech Kennedy mentioned rights of consumers: to be secure, to be informed, to choose, and to express. Observing that the consumer is the only citizen in the economy “without a high-powered lobbyist” late President decided to be that lobbyist, and created the Consumer Advisory Council in USA.

Consumers in our country too had grievances. Government stepped in only when consumer activists demanded a law to protect interests of consumers. Parliament enacted the Consumer Protection Act in 1986. (This Act will soon be replaced by a new law in coming months, as relevant bill is before Parliament.)

Consumer movement in our country was strengthened after the Consumer Protection Act was enacted. Today, there are many Non-government organisations (NGOs) who do work for empowerment of consumers, through research, education, dissemination of information and training of consumer activists. Some NGOs are even offering legal guidance and assistance to consumers who wish to fight for their rights in consumer courts.

In this context mention must be made of media campaign “Jago Grahak Jago’ of the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs. It is an interesting campaign and hopefully it will succeed in creating awareness about fraudulent practices of suppliers of goods and services.

My view is that not all State governments and their officials are proactive as regards consumer empowerment. There is obvious need to educate the lower and middle bureaucracy about its role in consumer protection. Then only the Consumer Protection law in its new avatar will be effective.

(Narendra M Apte, a qualified chartered accountant, is a free lancer.)