The Telegraph, April 09, 2012

The year 1986 is considered a watershed point in our judicial history. This was when the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) came into being to fortify consumers with rights to seek redress of their grievances. The CPA, as the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission puts it, was a legislation that turned the dictum of “caveat emptor” (a principle in commerce whereby buyers take responsibility for the goods they buy) into “a thing of the past”.

As might be expected, the Centre has just approved issuing a commemorative postage stamp to mark the act’s 25th anniversary, and several consumer groups have been organising a plethora of events across India to deliberate on the CPA’s achievements. The key question that is being asked in various fora: How far has the law been able to deliver justice in cases of consumer grievance? After all, it took years of mass awareness campaigns by a handful of consumer organisations to make the government sit up and bring the legislation into effect.

“After the bill was passed, from 1986 till 1990, no steps were taken by the then government to implement the act across the country,” recalls Prabir Basu, lawyer and member, State Consumer Protection Council, Government of West Bengal. “So two noted voluntary consumer organisations, Common Cause and Ahmedabad-based CERC (Consumer Education and Research Centre) filed a writ petition at the Supreme Court, which then directed the Centre to take action.”

A high-powered committee, Basu adds, was set up (headed by former Supreme Court judge Balakrishna Eradi) to look into the matter. “After the committee filed its report, national commission, state commissions and district forums — as envisaged under the 1986 act — began functioning in 1991,” he says. “So for me 1991 is a turning point in the history of the CPA.”

While some experts concede that the CPA was an impressive step towards empowering consumers, most feel that the law has failed to fully meet its objectives.

“Thanks to the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, who understood the need for a comprehensive consumer protection law in a progressive country, the CPA became a reality,” says Bejon Mishra, consumer expert, who was part of the panel that drafted the legislation way back in the mid-80s. “At the time there were as many as 24 diverse laws in India that dealt with consumer protection in parts and fuelled what could be called an ‘inspector raj’.” Therefore, a single legislation ensuring a three-tier (national and state commissions and district fora) quasi-judicial system was like manna from heaven, feels Mishra.

“In general, the act helped in initiating the process of realising consumer rights and ensuring right standards for goods and services for which one makes a payment,” says George Cheriyan, director, CUTS (Consumer Unity and Trust Society) International.

But pressing concerns remain. To begin with, a vast majority of Indians, especially in rural areas, don’t have a clue about consumer rights or the CPA. Take a study from CUTS done in Rajasthan. It shows that 63 per cent of the people in the state have not heard of the act. And, Rajasthan is, of course, the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

The central consumer affairs ministry admits that there are low levels of awareness in many areas. In a report, it states, “Awareness of consumer rights is very poor especially among the population in rural and far-flung areas of the country.” It then goes on to say, “Compared to the developed countries, the levels of consumer awareness … with a large population like India are much lower… Because of this, consumers are not able to assert their rights and on many occasions are exploited by the trade, industry and service providers.”

The CUTS, in fact, has been tasked with the responsibility of bringing out a “State of Indian Consumer Report” by the department of consumer affairs (DoCA), Government of India. “Under this, we will be covering 19 states and three Union Territories (UTs), including West Bengal,” says Cheriyan.

A worrying backlog of cases and an inordinate delay in disposing of cases in consumer courts across India have been a cause of concern for all these years.

“Consumer courts have started functioning like civil courts and are far from ensuring fast-track justice, as stipulated in the CPA,” says Bejon Mishra.

According to CUTS, out of the 37 lakh cases filed since the CPA’s inception, 33 lakh cases have been disposed of. This amounts to a disposal rate of 89 per cent. “However, only 46 per cent of cases in district courts and 38 per cent in state courts were settled in the CPA mandated time of 90 days and 150 days in 2011,” says Cheriyan.

He also points out that positions (presidents and members) in consumer courts are lying vacant for a long period of time due to apathy of state governments, lack of infrastructure and other factors.

Agrees Santosh Godbole, national joint secretary, Akhil Bharatiya Grahak Panchayat, one of the key grassroots consumer organisations that fought for the CPA in the past, “Most district forums in states like Madhya Pradesh have no members to run them!”

Figures from West Bengal might be a tad encouraging, though. As per the DoCA, the disposal rate (as on December 31, 2010) at the state commission is 94.67 per cent and the average at district forums in Bengal is around 94 per cent. However, the time taken to resolve the grievances is not known. The state consumer affairs ministry is also keen to increase consumer forums in Calcutta and in large districts like North and South 24-Parganas and Burdwan.

Experts also say that there are many grey areas in the law that need to be looked into. “For instance, the law is still not clear about whether medical experts or non-medical personnel in consumer fora should examine medical negligence cases,” says Basu.

The CPA had been amended in 1991, 1993 and 2002. The Consumer Protection Amendment Bill 2011 has been drafted and is currently with a Parliamentary standing committee. Among other things, the bill allows online filing of complaints. It also says that orders of district fora, state commissions or the National Commission will be enforceable as a court decree and stipulates a penalty if the orders are not complied with. Futhermore, the penalty imposed will not be less than Rs 500 or 50 per cent of the value of the order, whichever is higher and it also gives district fora, state commissions and the national commission the power to attach properties of defaulters.

Experts say that these are not enough. “The bill has not addressed or touched upon some issues which require immediate attention to remove ambiguities,” says Cheriyan. “For instance, after a ruling of the Supreme Court in September 2009, there is some confusion over the jurisdiction of consumer fora to decide or hear consumer complaints related to telecom services. The proposed amendments do not have anything to address this confusion.”

Clearly, Jaago Grahak Jaago campaigns to spread awareness are not enough. More needs to be done to realise the CPA in letter and spirit.

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