In two articles written by me and carried by The Hindu on the World Consumer Rights Day (March 15) of 1989 (Waking up the Indian Consumer) and 1990 (Rights that are illusory), I had said that the so-called consumer movement in India was nothing more than “the fitful and uncoordinated time-killing activities without action indulged in sporadically by do-gooders …unwilling to get into the bad books of the establishment by fighting for a cause”, that the impression of the consumer on the move created by the existence of more than 200 consumer organisations in the country was “an optical illusion”, and that the consumer movement had miles to go for becoming a force to reckon with.
It is a pathetic commentary on the raw deal that the consumer continues to get that quarter of a century later, with more than 2,000 consumer organisations claiming to be “active”, the Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS) International should be constrained to say in its report, The State of the Indian Consumer2012, that “the consumer movement and education has a very long way to go”.
The report is a treasure house of information, supported by extensively compiled data and findings of surveys, on the present status of the eight rights that the consumer is supposedly entitled to both under a solemn UN proclamation and the Consumer Protection Act (COPRA), 1986: Right to safety of products, goods and services, right to accurate information, right of choice through fair competition and at fair prices, right to represent and be consulted, and right to redress of complaints and grievances, right to consumer education, right to basic needs and right to healthy environment.
Far ahead of his times, Gandhiji laid down in his famous maxim: “A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work; he is the purpose of it. We are not doing him a favour by serving him. He is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to serve him”.
At one time, before liberalisation, privatisation, and globalisation, this pithy exhortation, which is eminently worth being dinned into the ears of the public and private sectors any number of times, used to be displayed here and there, but has disappeared from public view in the last 20 years.
Tremendous hype has been built round the slogans “Consumer is King” and “Quality is what the consumer says it is”. They too have gone out the window in the context of the abysmal ignorance of consumers of their rights. The CUTS report mentions that as per a study commissioned by the CAG in 2005, only 13 per cent of India’s population had heard of COPRA and barely 34 per cent of the consumers were aware of their rights. There has been no conspicuous improvement in the percentages (20 and 42, respectively, at present) in the seven years since.
The extent of awareness of the other rights is also depressing: Only 23 per cent of the consumers are aware of the right to represent and be consulted, with a meagre 28 per cent having actually participated in the process. Nearly 93 per cent have never actually made a formal complaint, only three per cent registered their grievances with the company or the producer, 0.3 per cent took their complaints to consumer forums and 0.1 per cent made use of sector ombudsmen.
As regards the right to basic needs, only 22 per cent were satisfied with their adequacy, accessibility and affordability.
As many as 78 per cent of the respondents rated the grievance redress process as ‘difficult’. There is widely prevalent disillusionment with the working of the district, State and National Disputes Redressal Commissions. Although no figures are available in the CUTS report, the common impression is that decisions are delayed beyond the statutorily prescribed time limit in a predominant number of cases, and the forums are getting afflicted by the same maladies as are plaguing the judicial system: Large number of vacancies; repeated adjournments; protracted hearings; and companies and service providers complained against playing truant.
The irony is that the private sector has turned out to be the greater culprit than the governments and the public sector in harassing the consumer.
Is the civil society listening?.
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