Celebrating World Consumer Rights Day: Time to worry on the Apathy of Indian consumers
Lok Sabha passed Consumer Protection Bill (CPB), 2018 on December 20, 2018, to replace the three-decade-old Consumer Protection Bill. CPB was first tabled in 2015. Unfortunately, Rajya Sabha where NDA does not have a majority did not find it important to take it up. Some opposition 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 and when the new Parliament meets it has to take it up again. It may reintroduce the old CPB 2018 as it is or start the exercise of lawmaking from scratch.
The CPB 2018 had a number of consumer-friendly provisions to improve upon the earlier Consumer Protection Act (CPA). These are: 1. Setting up of a Central Consumer protection Authority, 2. Setting up of Mediation Centers in Consumer Courts, 3. Widening the jurisdiction of Consumer Courts, 4. Unfair Terms of Contract, 5. Jail for false and misleading ads, the sale of spurious products and adulterated food, 6. Product Liability. 7. 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 web sites from Mangalore, Bengaluru, Mysuru, and Delhi have articles urging consumers to sign the petition. Petition web site prominently showed the support by former Lokpal Justice Santosh Hegde. More than 35000 IITM 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 & banking services after getting comparative testing and has thousands of subscribers. Still, there were few participants in the petition drive.
As we get ready to celebrate World Consumer Rights Day (WCRD) on March 15th, we need to ask some inconvenient questions about the state of the consumer movement in India. Usually, during WCRD we chant the mantra of how Consumer is the King which does not reflect the 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 CPA. They have systematically converted these courts into civil courts though it was not their intention. They give speeches on the speedy judgements given by their courts with a minimum number of adjournments which again is not true.
According to the CPA, consumer complaints should be resolved in less than 90 days with a 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 approximately 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. Same seems to be happening now with the latest petition drive of consumer activists to put pressure on the political parties to adopt new CPB.
We all know how in this digital age, some recent protests like 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 consumer movement.
Why is it then there has been less than 350 participants for a cause which affects all the Indian consumers? Have consumers lost faith in the government and judicial system to deliver justice? Or 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 residents in the famous Tennali Ram’s story that others will pour milk in the pond while we put water? As we celebrate World Consumer Rights Day this year, we need to reflect on these issues.
Dr Bhamy V. Shenoy