Meera was having a wonderful time with her friends at a fancy restaurant, enjoying her exotic dish and reminiscing about the good old days. Suddenly she bit on something that definitely was not mushroom, but tasted and felt more like a metallic object in her mouth. Her expensive, newly installed teeth were badly chipped by the stray piece of metal which on closer inspection turned out to be a rusted washer that had detached itself from the pan the dish was cooked in. Of course, the washer being an element with a mind of its own, the Chef or the restaurant management cannot be blamed for the accident that took Meera back to the dentist’s chair? Obviously, yes, someone can be held responsible. Meera can very well sue the Management for deficiency in services. Not only was there a lack of attention in transferring the contents of the pan to the serving bowl, the restaurant was also careless in using old pans with rusted parts for cooking.
The Consumer Protection Act of 1986 is indeed an empowering legislation that was enacted with the objective of protecting consumer rights and preventing harmful trade practices. Unfortunately though, to a large extent, the very beneficiaries of the Act, that is, the consumers remain blissfully unaware of the arena of rights the legislation grants them – from ensuring quality goods and services to a redressal mechanism that does not even require a lawyer to represent your case.
Say, for example, the local kirana charging you one rupee extra on a cold drink or packet of milk, claiming it as cooling charge. Practices of this sort are prohibited under the Act which stipulates that a consumer cannot be charged prices exceeding the MRP. But one may ask- what is the point behind haggling for one rupee with a kirana store owner? The logic is simple. Your right to a product whose price is pre-determined and which is supposed to be sold at that price is violated through this seemingly innocuous deviance. Often we do not realize the illegal activities that take place around us. And then when we do, we tend to make a quantitative analysis of the situation, calculating our losses against legal hurdles that taking the help of the law poses and ultimately decide to sit back and relax and allow the injustice to continue.
Before I digress any further, here is more on the Consumer Protection Act. A consumer includes any purchaser of goods or anyone availing services but not anyone who uses a purchased good for purposes of employment and revenue generation. In fact, the Act provides for a group of consumers or a consumer association, on behalf of one or more consumers, to sue for defect in products, restrictive or unfair trade practices, sale of hazardous products or deficiency in services. A few examples of violations of consumer rights are misrepresenting nutrients details on food packaging, couriered packages lost in transit, refusal to pay insurance, medical negligence or even an open manhole. A consumer complaint may be instituted where the opposite party resides or carries on business or where the cause of the complaint actually arose. According to the compensation claimed a complaint may be filed before the District Forum for compensation upto INR 20 Lakhs, at the State Forum for claims from INR 20 Lakhs to INR 1 Crore and for claims above INR 1 Crore, suits will be before the National forum. If the goods complained of have to be examined at a laboratory, the Forum may ask the complainant to deposit a certain sum for the analysis. Ordinarily, disputes have to be settled within three months from the date the opposite party receives notice of the complaint in cases where no analysis of goods is required and within five months for other cases.
Consumer education is also an important part of the Act. The Jago Grahak Jago campaign was very informative at its height but has slowly fizzled out with fewer advertisements in the past few years. We have consumer organizations engaging in poster making and pamphlet distribution focusing on consumer rights. Spreading awareness about consumer rights at the school level is another way to ensure that the coming generations are made up of active legally aware citizens. At the end of the day knowing your rights is only one side of the coin, being ready to take action on their violations is the ultimate point of the very existence of your rights.