The above collage contains some news clippings of consumer court verdicts. These verdicts came about because some people persisted and struggled to get justice.
- Why did the people go to the consumer court in these cases?
- In what ways were they denied justice?
- What are the ways in which they can exercise their rights as consumers to get a fair deal from the sellers when they felt they had been denied a just treatment?
THE CONSUMER IN THE MARKETPLACE
We participate in the market both as producers and consumers. As producers of goods and services we could be working in any of the sectors such as agriculture, industry, or services. Consumers participate in the market when they purchase goods and services that they need. These are the final goods that people as consumers use.
Rules and regulations are required for protecting the market environment.
For example, moneylenders in the informal sector adopt various tricks to bind the borrower: they could make the producer sell the produce to them at a low rate in return for a timely loan; they could force a small farmer to sell her land to pay back the loan. Similarly, many people who work in the unorganised sector have to work at a low wage and accept conditions that are not fair and are also often harmful to their health. To prevent such exploitation, we need rules and regulations for their protection. There are organisations that have struggled for long to ensure that these rules are followed.
Likewise, rules and regulations are required for the protection of the consumers in the marketplace. Individual consumers often find themselves in a weak position. Whenever there is a complaint regarding a good or service that had been bought, the seller tries to shift all the responsibility on to the buyer. Their position usually is – “If you didn’t like what you bought, please go elsewhere”. As if the seller has no responsibility once a sale is completed! The consumer movement, is an effort to change this situation.
Exploitation in the marketplace happens in various ways. For example, sometimes traders indulge in unfair trade practices such as when shopkeepers weigh less than what they should or when traders add charges that were not mentioned before, or when adulterated/defective goods are sold.
Markets do not work in a fair manner when producers are few and powerful whereas consumers purchase in small amounts and are scattered. This happens especially when large companies are producing these goods. These companies with huge wealth, power and reach can manipulate the market in various ways. At times false information is passed on through the media, and other sources to attract consumers. For example, a company for years sold powder milk for babies all over the world as the most scientific product claiming this to be better than mother’s milk. It took years of struggle before the company was forced to accept that it had been making false claims. Similarly, a long battle had to be fought with court cases to make cigarette manufacturing companies accept that their product could cause cancer. Hence, there is a need for rules and regulations to ensure protection for consumers.
The consumer movement arose out of dissatisfaction of the consumers as many unfair practices were being indulged in by the sellers. There was no legal system available to consumers to protect them from exploitation in the marketplace. For a long time, when a consumer was not happy with a particular brand product or shop, he or she generally avoided buying that brand product, or would stop purchasing from that shop. It was presumed that it was the responsibility of consumers to be careful while buying a commodity or service. It took many years for organisations in India, and around the world, to create awareness amongst people. This has also shifted the responsibility of ensuring quality of goods and services on the sellers.
In India, the consumer movement as a ‘social force’ originated with the necessity of protecting and promoting the interests of consumers against unethical and unfair trade practices. Rampant food shortages, hoarding, black marketing, adulteration of food and edible oil gave birth to the consumer movement in an organised form in the 1960s. Till the 1970s, consumer organisations were largely engaged in writing articles and holding exhibitions. They formed consumer groups to look into the malpractices in ration shops and overcrowding in the road passenger transport. More recently, India witnessed an upsurge in the number of consumer groups.
In 1985 United Nations adopted the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection. This was a tool for nations to adopt measures to protect consumers and for consumer advocacy groups to press their governments to do so. At the international level, this has become the foundation for consumer movement. Today, Consumers International has become an umbrella body of 240 organisations from over 100 countries.
Because of all these efforts, the movement succeeded in bringing pressure on business firms as well as government to correct business conduct which may be unfair and against the interests of consumers at large. A major step taken in 1986 by the Indian government was the enactment of the Consumer Protection Act 1986, popularly known as COPRA.
Safety Is Everyone’s Right
Reji Mathew, a healthy boy studying in Class IX, was admitted in a private clinic in Kerala for removal of tonsils. An ENT surgeon performed the tonsillectomy operation under general anaesthesia. As a result of improper anaesthesia, Reji showed symptoms of some brain abnormalities because of which he was crippled for life.
His father filed a complaint in the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission claiming compensation of Rs 5,00,000 for medical negligence and deficiency, in service. The State Commission, saying that the evidence was not sufficient dismissed it. Reji’s father appealed again in the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission located in New Delhi. The National Commission after looking into the complaint, held the hospital responsible for medical negligence and directed it to pay the compensation.
Reji’s suffering shows how a hospital, due to negligence by the doctors and staff in giving anaesthesia, crippled a student for life. While using many goods and services, we as consumers, have the right to be protected against the marketing of goods and delivery of services that are hazardous to life and property. Producers need to strictly follow the required safety rules and regulations. There are many goods and services that we purchase that require special attention to safety. For example, pressure cookers have a safety valve which, if it is defective, can cause a serious accident. The manufacturers of the safety valve have to ensure high quality. You also need public or government action to see that this quality is maintained. However, we do find bad quality products in the market because the supervision of these rules is weak and the consumer movement is also not strong enough.
Information about goods and services
On any commodity packing, certain details are always given. These details are about ingredients used, price, batch number, date of manufacture, expiry date and the address of the manufacturer. When you buy medicines, on the packets, you might find ‘directions for proper use’ and information relating to side effects and risks associated with usage of that medicine. When you buy garments, you will find information on ‘instructions for washing’.
Why is it that rules have been made so that the manufacturer displays this information? It is because consumers have the right to be informed about the particulars of goods and services that they purchase. Consumers can then complain and ask for compensation or replacement if the product proves to be defective in any manner.
For example, if we buy a product and find it defective well within the expiry period, we can ask for a replacement. If the expiry period was not printed, the manufacturer would blame the shopkeeper and will not accept the responsibility. If people sell medicines that have expired severe action can be taken against them. Similarly, one can protest and complain if someone sells a good at more than the printed price on the packet. This is indicated by ‘MRP’ — maximum retail price. In fact consumers can bargain with the seller to sell at less than the MRP.
In recent times, the right to information has been expanded to cover various services provided by the Government. In October 2005, the Government of India enacted a law, popularly known as RTI (Right to Information) Act, which ensures its citizens all the information about the functions of government departments. The effect of the RTI Act can be understood from the following case.
Amritha, an engineering graduate after submitting all the certificates and attending the interview for a job in a government department, did not receive any news of the result. The officials also refused to comply with her queries. She therefore filed an application using the RTI Act saying that it was her right to know the result in a reasonable time so that she could plan her future. She soon got her call letter for appointment.
When choice is denied
Abirami, a student of Ansari Nagar, joined a two-year course at a local coaching institute for professional courses in New Delhi. At the time of joining the course, she paid the fees Rs 61,020 as lumpsum for the entire course of two years. However, she decided to opt out of the course at the end of one year as she found that the quality of teaching was not up to the mark. When she asked for a refund of the fee for one year, it was denied to her.
When she filed the case in the District Consumer Court, the Court directed the Institute to refund Rs 28,000 saying that she had the right to choose. The Institute again appealed in the State Consumer Commission. The State Commission upheld the district court’s direction and further fined the institute Rs 25,000 for a frivolous appeal. It also directed the institute to pay Rs 7000 as compensation and litigation cost.
The State Commission also restrained all the educational and professional institutions in the state from charging fees from students for the entire duration of the course in advance and that too at one go. Any violation of this order may invite penalties and imprisonment, the commission said.
What do we understand from this incident? Any consumer who receives a service in whatever capacity, regardless of age, gender and nature of service, has the right to choose whether to continue to receive the service.
Suppose you want to buy toothpaste, and the shop owner says that she can sell the toothpaste only if you buy a tooth-brush. If you are not interested in buying the brush, your right to choice is denied. Similarly, sometimes gas supply dealers insist that you have to buy the stove from them when you take a new connection. In this way many a times you are forced to buy things that you may not wish to and you are left with no choice.
Where should consumers go to get justice?
Reji Mathew and Abirami cases above are some examples in which consumers are denied their rights. Such instances occur quite often in our country. Where should these consumers go to get justice?
Consumers have the right to seek redressal against unfair trade practices and exploitation. If any damage is done to a consumer, she has the right to get compensation depending on the degree of damage. There is a need to provide an easy and effective public system by which this can be done.
The consumer movement in India has led to the formation of various organisations locally known as consumer forums or consumer protection councils. They guide consumers on how to file cases in the consumer court. On many occasions, they also represent individual consumers in the consumer courts. These voluntary organisations also receive financial support from the government for creating awareness among the people.
If you are living in a residential colony, you might have noticed name boards of Resident Welfare Associations. If there is any unfair trade practice meted out to their members they take up the case on their behalf.
Under COPRA, a three-tier quasi-judicial machinery at the district, state and national levels was set up for redressal of consumer disputes. The district level court deals with the cases involving claims up to Rs 20 lakhs, the state level courts between Rs 20 lakhs and Rs 1 crore and the national level court deals with cases involving claims exceeding Rs 1 crore. If a case is dismissed in district level court, the consumer can also appeal in state and then in National level courts.
Thus, the Act has enabled us as consumers to have the right to represent in the consumer courts.
LEARNING TO BECOME WELL-INFORMED CONSUMERS
When we as consumers become conscious of our rights, while purchasing various goods and services, we will be able to discriminate and make informed choices. This calls for acquiring the knowledge and skill to become a well-informed consumer. How do we become conscious of our rights?
The enactment of COPRA has led to the setting up of separate departments of Consumer Affairs in central and state governments.
ISI and Agmark
While buying many commodities, on the cover, you might have seen a logo with the letters ISI, Agmark or Hallmark. These logos and certification help consumers get assured of quality while purchasing the goods and services. The organisations that monitor and issue these certificates allow producers to use their logos provided they follow certain quality standards.
Though these organisations develop quality standards for many products, it is not compulsory for all the producers to follow standards. However, for some products that affect the health and safety of consumers or of products of mass consumption like LPG cylinders, food colours and additives, cement, packaged drinking water, it is mandatory on the part of the producers to get certified by these organisations.
TAKING THE CONSUMER MOVEMENT FORWARD
India has been observing 24 December as the National Consumers’ Day. It was on this day that the Indian Parliament enacted the Consumer Protection Act in 1986. India is one of the countries that have exclusive courts for consumer redressal.
The consumer movement in India has made some progress in terms of numbers of organised groups and their activities. There are today more than 700 consumer groups in the country of which only about 20-25 are well organised and recognised for their work.
However, the consumer redressal process is becoming cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming. Many a time, consumers are required to engage lawyers. These cases require time for filing and attending the court proceedings etc. In most purchases cash memos are not issued hence evidence is not easy to gather. Moreover most purchases in the market are small retail sales. The existing laws also are not very clear on the issue of compensation to consumers injured by defective products. After 20 years of the enactment of COPRA, consumer awareness in India is spreading but slowly. Besides this the enforcement of laws that protect workers, especially in the unorganised sectors is weak. Similarly, rules and regulations for working of markets are often not followed.
Nevertheless, there is scope for consumers to realise their role and importance. It is often said that consumer movements can be effective only with the consumers’ active involvement. It requires a voluntary effort and struggle involving the participation of one and all.