Rights of a Consumer

 

Every year 15th of March is celebrated as National Consumer Rights Day marking the day when Bill for Consumer Rights were moved in the US Congress. The Consumers International (CI), recognizes eight rights, which in a logical order reads:

1. Basic Needs
2. Safety
3. Information
4. Choice
5. Representation
6. Redress
7. Consumer Education and
8. Healthy Environment.

However the Consumer Protection Act (COPRA) in 1986 in India recognises only six of these eight rights:


1. The right to be protected against marketing of goods and services which are hazardous to life and property i.e. Right to Safety:
The Consumer Protection Act 1986 defines this right as the ‘right to be protected against marketing of goods and services which are hazardous to life and property’. The right are significant in areas of healthcare, food processing and pharmaceuticals and spans across any domain that could have impact on consumers health or well being. Violation of this right is mostly in medical malpractice lawsuits in India. Every year in India not less than millions of Citizen are killed or severely hurt by unscrupulous practices by hospitals, doctors, pharmacies and the automobile industry yet the Indian Government due to its callousness fails to acknowledge this fact or make an attempt at maintaining statistic of these mishaps. The Government need to have world class product testing facilities to test drugs, cars, food, and any other consumable that could potentially be life threatening.

In developed countries such as the United States, stalwart agencies oversee the safety of consumer product. 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.


2. 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:
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 labelled 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 labelling 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 litre. 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.


3. The right to be assured, wherever possible, of access to a variety of goods and services at competitive prices:
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. 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. India has about 20 years more of stride to empower our citizens fully in this right.


4. The right to be heard and to be assured that consumers' interests will receive due consideration at appropriate forums: 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. 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.

5. The right to seek redressal against unfair trade practices or restrictive trade practices or unscrupulous exploitation of consumers:
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.


6. The 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.

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