These two sub-areas of study have, in the light of current events as well as the blurring of international boundaries, become extremely important to the average person. Equally crucially, is the advent of cyberspace, which is an exponentially growing platform of both commercial interaction and social media organizations, only serves to further underscore the truth of this assertion.
All of us purchase items and services for personal consumption - food, clothes, electronic goods etc. It is therefore imperative on the part of the Indian State (being a welfare state, as declared and enjoined upon it by the Constitution of India) to not only ensure that its citizens are correctly informed about the attributes of products available in the market, but also to enact and enforce laws of fair competition, that essentially prevent markets from moving in directions that hurt either suppliers or customers. The extent of economic inequality in India warrants a continued socialist tempering to the free market economic system that we have embraced.
Consumers, as the keystone of a free market economy need to necessarily form one of the foci (if not the sole focus) of legislative interventions in this free market system (Keynesian macroeconomic theory, subscribed to almost universally, is premised on the presumption that demand and not supply and hence, consumers are the principal driving force(s) behind an economy).
The Consumer Protection Act of 1986 is the general legislation conferring rights and remedies on consumers in India. There are certain other specific laws as well, dealing either with a specific class of commodities, such as the Food Safety and Standards Act - or other aspects of products in the marketplace - such as the Legal Metrology Act. Under the Consumer Protection Act, there are recognised and conferred upon consumer's six consumer rights, promoted by the three-tier hierarchy of Consumer Councils.
These rights are: (i) the right to safety, (ii) to information, (ii) to choose, (iv) to be heard, (v) to redressal and (vi) to consumer education. It has importantly, also provided also for the establishment of a parallel system of dispute redress commissions - at the District, State and National levels - specifically for consumer disputes and grievances.
Professor Dr. Ashok R. Patil, currently occupying the Ministry of Consumer Affairs' Chair on Consumer Law and Practice at NLSIU Bangalore, feels that the time is ripe for a revision of the consumer protection legislation in the country.
"In light of the economic reforms that have been introduced to shock the economy out of its paralysis, the Consumer Protection Act - which completes its silver jubilee this year - requires to undergo minor surgeries. For example, there is currently no institutional mechanism providing technical or financial support to the complainant. Introduction of such a mechanism would greatly empower the consumer in this regard. It is my personal opinion that allowing the use of vernacular languages in the fora set up under the Consumer Protection Act for grievance redressal, and establishment of a system of online registrations and payments (for complaints and complaint fees) will also go a long way in empowering the average consumer," he says.
He does, however, concede that the Consumer Protection (Amendment) Bill, 2011 is in fact a positive step forward. "The Bill seeks to define a new term, unfair contracts, which was hitherto absent from the Consumer Protection Act, and thus effectively widens the scope of the Act. Further, the District Forum's jurisdictional powers have also been increased, subject to the State Government's approval. All these measures will have some effect on expediting the disposal of consumer complaints, which has not conformed to expectations thus far," he opines.
Consumer education and literacy are apparently uppermost in the mind of the legal fraternity now. When asked about the first step towards building a fairer market, Professor Patil continues in the same vein, "Ensuring that the entire process is simplified and made easier for consumers is imperative for the authorities, but this can only be effective if the consumers themselves are active and sincere in ascertaining their rights and duties, and asserting them as well. That is one of the hallmarks of an empowered and enlightened economy."
It isn't just the consumers, but the industry/suppliers as well that have woken up to the clarion call of heightened consumer awareness. Says one Legal Manager at a leading consumer goods company, who wishes to remain anonymous, "The Food Safety and Standards Act, the BIS Act, and the Legal Metrology Act - all call for extremely strict compliance with purity, packaging and safety norms, especially when it comes to consumer edibles. Our company is extremely careful when scrutinising compliance with the Rules under these Acts, since many of these violations attract criminal prosecution. Although the slightly narrow definition of a 'consumer' in the Consumer Protection Act leaves a gap in the law where potential consumers, such as viewers of misleading advertisements, do not have the locus to sue - and require to adduce evidence of actual injury in the suit proceedings - the legal framework in India, by and large, is consumer-centric."
While views may differ as to the extent of changes that are required to be made to the Consumer laws that exist in the country, there is consensus on the point that much of the substantive law is well drafted in favour of the consumer - only certain additions, and not wholesale changes, are required. The genuine challenges lie in the area of enforcement and administration of these laws (administrative inefficiency, corruption etc.) - as well as the specific dispute redressal mechanisms that have come to be characterised by their inefficiency. The Bill of 2011 seeks to correct these inadequacies on paper. It is hoped that these are translated into practice as well.
The author Raghav Srivastava is a B.A., LL.B.(Hons.) student at National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore.
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Law in Everyday Life: Consumer Protection in India FeaturedBy Guest Author
There are certain fields of law that are so intrinsically tied up with everyday activities of the general populace that the need to append 'law' to these study areas, more often than not, goes unfelt. In this three-part series, I will address the importance of two such areas within the umbrella discipline of law in everyday life: Consumer protection, and the Freedom of Speech.