By N.L. Rajah
|Changes are needed in the Consumer Protection Act and in its implementation to deal with the challenges of globalisation.|
"To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice." — Clause 40, Magna Carta.
ON MARCH 15, 1962, President John F. Kennedy declared before the U.S. Congress the four rights of consumers — right to satisfaction of basic needs, right to safety, right to be informed, and right to choose. We celebrate the day as World Consumer Rights Day. In 1983, the United Nations Secretary General submitted draft guidelines for consumer protection to the Economic and Social Council. Based on it, the Council recommended that the world governments develop, strengthen and implement a coherent consumer protection policy, taking into consideration the guidelines set out therein. So it came to pass that we gave to ourselves the Consumer Protection Act 1986 and embarked on an expedition of strengthening our consumer protection regime. Nineteen years down the road, we need to introspect whether we are on the right track.
One discomforting factor in the way we have designed our system for consumer protection is that we have imported the definition of "consumer" from developed countries. "Consumer" in developed countries commonly refers to a person who has purchased "goods" or "availed" himself or herself of services for consideration. One-third of our population depends on the Government to provide goods, through the public distribution system, and services that include laying roads, providing lighting and water, etc., through municipalities and local authorities. Consideration for such activity is collected in the form of taxes. It makes no sense to exclude such activities of the Government from the purview of the Consumer Protection Act. The definition of consumer should therefore be amended to include services provided and goods supplied by government and local authorities. In a case before the Supreme Court, it was argued that payment of tax would amount to payment of consideration for services rendered by the Government. The Supreme Court shot down the argument stating that the provisions of the Act as they stand currently do not lend themselves to any such interpretation. We therefore now have to look to Parliament for appropriate amendments to the Consumer Protection Act to widen its reach.
The issue whether globalisation is manna from heaven or a fiendish attempt to exploit the have-nots will be debated for a long time. The reality however is that globalisation is happening all around us and we need to reinforce and strengthen our system to meet its challenges. We need to ensure that India does not become a dumping ground for sub-standard products. In the U.K. the consumer protection legal arsenal earlier consisted of a few laws such as the Consumer Safety Act, 1978, the Price Act, 1974, the Trade Description Act, 1968, the Hire Purchase Act, 1964, the Unfair Terms of Contract Act, 1977, etc. But with the advent of globalisation, regulations passed by the Government to protect consumer interests have been legion — Control of Misleading Advertisement (Amendment) Regulations, 2000, General Product Safety Regulation 1994, Cosmetic Product Safety Regulation 2000, Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 2001, to name a few.
All this was possible due to a simple legal provision that enables the government to bring out regulations to protect consumer interest, without travelling the route of legislative amendments. In India, it took consumer groups 10 years of intense activism to bring "water" within the purview of "food" under the Food Adulteration Act. To prevent such delays, the Consumer Protection Act should be amended to empower the Central Government to bring in regulations to protect consumer interests, which may then be tabled before Parliament.
The third issue is not so much the need for legal provisions but the implementation of existing ones. The Consumer Protection Act provides for the establishment of the National Consumer Protection Council, State Consumer Protection Councils, and District Protection Councils. These are government-sponsored bodies with a large representative base meant to protect consumer interests. The purpose of creating consumer protection councils is to ensure that they act as watchdogs and pressure groups to serve consumer interests. It is a sad reality that even the meetings of these councils are not convened. For example the State Consumer Protection Council in Tamil Nadu has met just twice in the last five years. The District Councils headed by the Collectors are supposed to meet at least twice a year. This also largely remains an empty promise. Some collectors convene these meetings while others just do not. These meetings are meant to kick-start and activate action for consumer protection. If even the meetings do not take place, where will the action come from?
It would be in our interests to constantly remind ourselves that human agencies can ensure that the law delivers solutions and does not become part of the problem.
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