Consumerism in contemporary society

Though the idea of consumer rights protection is great, it will only serve its purpose if the process is consumer friendly, writes Syed Zafar Mehdi

Jaago grahak Jaago, the much-touted consumer awareness campaign that was kicked off a few years ago to disseminate information on consumer rights, has become a buzzword today. Evocative slogans like: an enlightened consumer is an empowered consumer, consumer right to protect against defaulted services, consumer is the king are resonating everywhere, giving jitters to the nefarious elements who take consumers for a ride.

However, there are people who think this campaign has been an exercise in futility and sheer wastage of money from the state exchequer. It is important for us to scrutinise and evaluate how successful the government has been in protecting consumer rights. And, how have consumers been able to derive benefit from it.

Idea of the Consumer Act
Right from the Arthashastra written by renowned economist Kautilya (aka Chanakya) till today, the protection of consumers has had relevance in India. The most significant initiative taken by the Indian government in this direction was the introduction of the Consumer Protection Act in 1986. According to the law, everyone can exercise his or her consumer rights for the goods and services purchased by them. The Act also specifies the courts and procedures to deal with in case of infringement of consumer rights.

Gaining attention
A few weeks ago, Archana Agnihotri, a resident of South Delhi, gave her expensive saree (costing around INR 60,000) for dry-cleaning. “The shopkeeper initially showed reluctance to dry-clean it because of silver work on it. But then he asked for time to check with his workers and finally issued a receipt. After two days, he asked me for more time. But when I contacted him for third time, I got to know that the saree was done. Unfortunately, it had lost all its shine. When I asked him for compensation, he refused to give more than ten per cent of the dry-cleaning cost, as mentioned in the company terms and conditions,” she said.

Left with no other option, Archana, who works for an NGO, took the matter to the consumer court. “I had heard a lot about it from TV and newspapers, so I decided to consult my lawyer friend for guidance in pursuing the matter,” she said.

Reality Check
Though clear laws exist in India to protect the consumer rights, only few people actually have detailed knowledge about them. The website on consumer rights is interesting and offers easy and free of cost facilities related to mediators (lawyers) and for filing complaints/forms etc. But consumers have to take guidance before pursuing the matter and wait patiently for the results.

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Justice is delayed
The idea of forming a nomenclature for consumer courts was to give fast relief to the affected party. But the reality is far from this.

“In 1999, I took up the case of a building owner against a constructor in the district consumer court. According to him, the constructor had defaulted in providing the kind of services he promised initially. There were innumerable sessions and finally, the verdict came after 11 years in 2011. It was quite disappointing. According to the court, the case was not fit to be tried in that particular court and, hence the complainant was free to file a petition in the civil court against the constructor. The hearings were adjourned innumerable times,” says Sudhir Kalia, a South Delhi-based lawyer.

“In other words, I believe the slogan jaago grahak jaago is just a wastage of public money because the government is not serious about making consumer rights really a right,” he adds.

Siddharth Tanwar, a lawyer from Delhi handling five consumer cases, has similar views. “In 2007, an 87-year-old South Delhi resident contacted me regarding inflated electricity bills at his house from 2001 onwards. We took up the matter against the particular power supply company with the district forum, Qutub Institutional area,” he said.

“During the case, administrative officials pleading the case agreed the man was overcharged. Yet, they asked him to pay the inflated amount for those months. The case is subjudice,” he added.

Call for perfection
To avoid being cheated, it is necessary that certain information should be displayed publicly and implemented strictly. Consumer rights are mostly exploited in cases of adulteration. Yet, no action is initiated against the defaulters. It should be ensured that quality standards are observed and penalty imposed against defaulters strictly. A list of defaulters should be put on the consumer rights website and those complaining in court should be given quick results. Though the concept of protecting consumer rights is great, it will only serve its purpose if it is consumer friendly.