This article examines in detail the origin, establishment and status of Consumer Rights in India today.
Consumer rights were recognized broadly in many ancient Hindu, Islamic and Christian religious scriptures; however, no literary work formalized them into a concise set until the 1960s. Consumer rights in India and the modern world owe their origin to the consumer revolution of the pre-60s in the United States of America.
On March 15, 1962, US President John F Kennedy made a historical speech about consumer rights as he introduced 'The Consumer Bill of Rights' in the US Congress. Ever since, countries all over the world have celebrated March 15 as the Consumers’ Day. However, in India December 24 is celebrated as the National Consumer Day since the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 was enacted on this day by the Indian Parliament.
Kennedy strongly believed that it is vital to United States’ National Interest to ensure the welfare of the consumers, as it is the consumer who fundamentally drives the economy. He formulated four rights for consumers, namely the right to safety, right to choose, right to information and right to be heard which, in 1985, was accepted by the United Nations (UN). The UN added to this list the right to basic needs, right to representation, right to consumer education, and right to healthy environment.
In the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 of India, the following six consumer rights have been recognized.
Right to Safety
As stated in the Consumer Protection Act 1986, this consumer right is defined as the ‘right to be protected against marketing of goods and services which are hazardous to life and property’. Specifically significant in areas such as healthcare, food processing and pharmaceuticals, this right spans across any domain that could have a serious impact on the consumers’ health or well being such as Automobiles, Travel, Domestic Appliances, Housing etc. Violation of this right is almost always the cause of medical malpractice lawsuits in India. Every year, it is estimated that thousands, if not, millions of Indian citizens are killed or severely hurt by unscrupulous practices by hospitals, doctors, pharmacies and the automobile industry. Yet the Indian government, renowned for its callousness, fails to acknowledge this fact or to make a feeble attempt at maintaining statistics of these mishaps. Indian government is required to have world class product testing facilities to test drugs, cars, food, and any other consumable that could potentially be life threatening. It is not a coincidence that Tata Nano sells in India for half of what it would cost in an industrially developed country; this being a classic case of need for a cheap product outweighing the need for safety of self and family. In developed countries such as the United States, stalwart agencies oversee the safety of consumer products; the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for food and drugs, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for automobiles and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) for all other consumer products, just to name a few. This right requires each product that could potentially endanger our lives to be marketed only after sufficient and complete independent verification and validation. With respect to empowering this right completely and adequately, India is about 50 years away.
Right to Information
This consumer right is defined as the ‘the right to be informed about the quality, quantity, potency, purity, standard and price of goods or services, as the case may be so as to protect the consumer against unfair trade practices’ in the Consumer Protection Act of 1986. In the Indian market place, consumers get consumer information through two popular, yet unreliable means, namely advertising and word of mouth. Due to this, the consumers in India seldom have accurate and complete information to assess the true value, suitability, safety or reliability of any product. Mostly we find out hidden costs, lack of suitability, safety hazards and quality problems only after we have purchased the product. Another right again trumpeted by our government on paper, this right should ideally ensure that all consumable products are labeled in a standard manner which contains the cost, the ingredients, quantity, and instructions on how to safely consume the product. Unfortunately, even the medicines in India do not follow a standard labeling convention. Unit price publishing standards need to be established for consumer market places where costs are shown in standard units such as per kilogram, or per liter. We, as consumers, should be informed in a precise yet accurate manner of the costs involved when availing a loan. For benefit to the society from this right, advertisers should be held against the product standards in the advertisements, pharmaceuticals need to disclose potential side effects about their drugs, and manufacturers should be required to publish reports from independent product testing laboratories regarding the comparison of the quality of their products with competitive products, just to name a few. Consumerdaddy is a website meant to empower the consumers with the right to information. We do not seek or expect any support from the government of India in this mission; yet, we ethically, systematically and fearlessly dissipate consumer satisfaction information to the general public in India. Without websites like Consumerdaddy.com we believe Indian citizens are about 25 years away from being fully empowered by this right.
Right to Choose
Consumer Protection Act 1986 defines this right as ‘the right to be assured, wherever possible, to have access to a variety of goods and services at competitive prices’. Competition, invariably, is the best regulator of a market place. Existence of oligopolies, cartels and monopolies are counterproductive to consumerism. How often have you noticed a conglomerate of companies that lobby the government to compromise consumer rights? Our natural resources, telecommunications, liquor industry, airlines have all been controlled by a mafia at some point. Coming from a socialistic background, tolerance of monopolistic market forces are ingrained in the blood of Indian Consumers. It is not very often we can say we are going to switch the power company, when we have a blackout at home! Interestingly, even micro markets such as the fish vendors in particular cities have known to collude to drain the bargaining power of the consumers. In any size, any form, or any span, collusion of companies selling a similar type of product is unethical, less illegal. We estimate that India has about 20 years more of stride to empower our citizens fully in this right.
Right to be Heard
According to the Consumer Protection Act 1986, ‘the right to be heard and to be assured that consumer's interests will receive due consideration at appropriate forums’ is referred to as the right to be heard. This right is supposed to empower Indian consumers to fearlessly voice their complaints and concerns against products and companies to ensure their issues are handled efficiently and expeditiously. However, to date the Government of India has not created a single outlet for the consumers to be heard or their opinions to be voiced. There are several websites that strive to do this, and the underlying mission of Consumerdaddy is to ensure that the voices of the consumers are heard by the corporate world. At the Consumerdaddy.com website, consumers can upload criticisms and file complaints. Each criticism filed will slightly lower the overall score of the product being criticized, and each complaint will be independently evaluated by an investigator from the Consumerdaddy.com website. Consumerdaddy.com gives the consumers the benefit of doubt always, in that their voice is heard over that of the company. We, at Consumerdaddy.com, strongly believe that a consumer is always right, and that customer is king. If a consumer makes an allegation about a product, the onus is on the dealer, manufacturer or supplying company to disprove that the allegation is false. In other words, the consumer is heard, and the burden of proof rests with the company. Feeble attempts have been made by the government to empower our citizens with this right, and we believe we have 10-15 years more to go on this route.
Right to Redressal
The right ‘to seek redressal against unfair trade practices or restrictive trade practices or unscrupulous exploitation of consumers’ is defined as the right to redressal in the Consumer Protection Act 1986. The Indian Government has been slightly more successful with respect to this right. Consumer courts such as District Consumer Disputes Redressal Forums at the district level, State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions and National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions have been established through the consumer protection act. Each of these consumer grievance redressal agencies has fiduciary and geographical jurisdictions to address consumer cases between consumers and businesses. Consumer cases less than 20 lakhs are heard in the district consumer forum, between 20 lakhs and one crore are heard in the state consumer court and cases more than one crore are heard in the national consumer court. On paper these sound nice; but hold on before you rejoice. Once started as the guardians of consumer protection and consumer rights in India, these courts have today been rendered ineffective due to bureaucratic sabotages, callousness of the government, clogged cases and decadent infrastructure. Very few of the district forums have officials appointed in a timely manner, and most of them are non-operational due to lack of funding and infrastructure. Estimates put the open legal cases in India at 20-30 million, which will approximately take 320 years to close. With the legal system in this manner compromised, consumer cases that form mere civil litigations will be pushed down the bottom of the priority list. We estimate that India is 10 years behind in effectively ensuring this right to every Indian consumer.
Right to Consumer Education
The right of each Indian citizen to be educated on matters related to consumer protection and about his/her rights is the last right given by the Consumer Protection Act 1986. This right simply ensures that the consumers in India have access to informational programs and materials that would enable them to make better purchasing decisions. Consumer education may mean both formal education through school and college curriculums and also consumer awareness campaigns run by both governmental and non governmental agencies (NGO). Consumer NGOs, with little support from the Indian government, primarily undertake the ardent task of ensuring this consumer right around the country. India is 20 years away from ensuring this right empowers the common citizen consumer.
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