Even after sixty years of independence, the consumer is the most exploited segment of Indian society. During British rule, the colonial rulers exploited the Indian consumer to serve their own interests. He was cheated and fleeceds that wealth may continue to flow into England, the homeland of the imperialist rulers. However, things did not change even after independence. The consumer continued to be exploited and cheated in various ways by the traders, manufacturers, and industrialists in general. He was cheated both in quantity and quality of the goods he purchased. There was cheating at the time of weighing the gods and fancy prices were charged in the absence of any controls and tags indicating the price of article he purchased. Even when the price was indicated the words,” local taxes extra” provided ample scope for cheating.
In the absence of any quality-control measures, adulterated goods were sold to him. Essential consumer items like milk, ghee, condiments, pulses, rice, wheat, etc., were all adulterated and sometimes such adulteration proved to be a serious health hazard. Even medicines he purchased were spurious and of inferior quality, sometimes resulting even in the death of the patient concerned. But no effective steps were taken to check such exploitation. The consumer remained helpless because he did not have any organized body or union of his own. Even when now and then, such organizations have been formed, they have remained helpless before the subtle ways and organized strength of traders, manufacturers and industrialists.
It is only recently that it has dawned on the power that the poor consumer has his own rights, that he is the backbone of the national economy, that the farmer, producer and the manufacture flourish only because the goods are needed by the consumer and they are sure that he would purchase, even if they ate of an inferior quality and exorbitantly priced. It is only recently that it has been recognized that the consumer has his own rights which need to be protected. These rights are (i) the right of safety and the right to be protected against the marketing of goods which are health hazards or pose a danger to life itself. (ii) The right to be informed, so that he may protect himself against fraudulent, deceitful or misleading information, advertising, labeling, or other such practices, and to be given the facts he needs to make a suitable choice. (iii) The right to choose and to be assured, as far as possible, access to a variety of products and services at competitive prices and in cases of industries in which free competition is not workable to be assured of satisfactory quality and service at fair prices, and (iv) the right to be heard and thus to be assured that the will be protected by law and his interests receive full and sympathetic consideration in the formulation of government policy.
It is only after decades of continued exploitation, that attention has been focused on the consumer’s plight. Several steps have been recently taken to protect his interests. To check hoarding and black marketing, both retailers and wholesalers were ordered to display a list of the stock with them. The use of labels and price tags was made a legal necessity. Now it is also proposed that the cliché “Local Taxes extra” should go as it leads to over-charging and avoidable exploitation of the consumer.
The Weights and Measures Act, ensures that only the correct and standard measures are to be used by the traders. But even if correct weight and Measures are used it in no way provides enough safeguard against cheating by under-weighing in various subtle ways. There is also the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act. It is expected to take care of the interests of the consumers, but in practice it has remained ineffective, and of no help at all to the consumer.
Efforts have also been made to ensure that only goods of a standard quality are sold. There is an act to check adulteration of milk, ghee, and other consumer items, but the law has remained ineffective in this respect also. The inspectors appointed for the purpose are bribed and they easily certify that the goods sold are of standard quality. Separate courts to try economic offences have been established but they too have failed to provide any effective protection to the consumer. However the Indian standard Institute has been more successful in this respect. Goods marked ISI have been more successful in this respect. Goods marked ISI are certainly of a better quality than the goods which do not bear this mark. Consumers in increasing numbers are now purchasing ISI marked goods.
The Consumers Protection Act was passed in December 1986. It seeks, “to provide for better protection of the interests of consumers and for that purpose to make provision for the establishment of consumer councils and other authorities for the settlement of consumer’s disputes and for matters corrected therewith” (Preamble). This act is enacted to strengthen the already present legislations in order to protect the interest of consumers in a better way. It was hailed as a very important legislation for protecting the consumers against exploitation by traders. For the first time the Government brought within the purview of such legislation even the public sector enterprises enabling consumers to complain against both the private and public sectors in respect of any defect in a product or deficiency in service,. Areas of the public sector including banking, insurance, transport, information dissemination etc., were opened up for consumer’s complaints. It was for these reasons that the enactment of this Act was hailed by the consumers.
The Act provides for the setting up of quasijuducial machinery for redressed of consumer-grievances. This machinery is in the shape of “courts” at the district level presided over by officers of the status of district judges, higher “courts” at the level of states and Union Territories presided over by officers of the status of High Court Judges, and at the national level, the National Commission, presided over by a person of the status of a Supreme Court Judge. Each of these “courts” is to have additional personalities of eminence in the field of trade, education etc., to assist the judges.
But, the position has not much improved. The States and Union Territories have filed affidavits before the Supreme Court showing the progress, “They have made in setting up these “courts” ”. The affidavits in fact reveal a pretty grim picture showing an utter lack of seriousness on the part of the States to fulfill their statutory obligations. One common complaint appearing in these affidavits to justify the failure of States in not having set up the various redressal bodies, particularly at the district levels, where they are most needed—is that of financial constraint.
As there is not much substance in such complaints, the Supreme Court took notice of these commissions of the State Government and issued stiff directives to them to fulfill their obligations within six weeks. This was in September 1989. In November, the States were given another six weeks. The directives did help to shake up the State Government and since then they have been filing ling affidavits about the action taken. The operations of these courts, wherever they have become really functional; have generated quite an awakening among the consumers. ‘The consumers’ organizations all over the country should file writ petitions in their High Courts for further compelling the States to expeditiously deal with this important matter.
It has been recognized that competition is necessary for consumer-protection and the elimination of various malpractices. To provide such a competition a network of Co-operative stores has been established throughout the country, in all major towns and cities. It was hoped that such competition would check price rise as also compel the traders to sell goods only of standard quality. But such Co-operative stores have, by and large, remained ineffective largely owing to Bureaucratic delays and the inefficiency which is the bane of all Government departments, in general.
More recently, a consumer protection department has been established in Bombay. It organized raids and the shops and god owns of hoarders and black marketers indulging in malpractices were raided. Now the Department has its sub-offices functioning in co-operation with other government departments, in such major cities as Delhi. The department has also tried to create consumer awareness. It has been publishing articles in newspapers, popular Journals, and distributing pamphlets etc., to educate the consumer and make him conscious of his rights and the ways in which he can seek redress. With growing awareness among the consumers, the consumer justice is making progress steadily.
In short, consumer protection is possible even in India. Government Acts, consumer-organizations, concerted and sustained effort I consumer education can do much. The consumer himself must be gradually built up. Co-operation of all is needed to better the lot of the poor consumer and save him from exploitation at every step.