Effective and Easily Accessible Mechanisms to Redress Consumers Grievances

Prof. K.V. Thomas, Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution has asked the States to ensure effective and easily accessible mechanisms to redress grievances of the consumers as in a highly competitive market like ours protection of consumer interests becomes a moral responsibility of the State. He was addressing a meeting of state secretaries in-charge of consumer affairs and presidents of the state commissions here today. Following is the full text of his address-

I have great pleasure in welcoming all of you to this meeting to elicit your valued opinions and suggestions on issues concerning consumer protection. This meeting is being held on the eve of the World Consumer Rights Day on 15th March, when the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution, in association with the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, is organising a Conference of Ministers/Secretaries of States and UTs in-charge of consumer affairs. Today’s meeting, I am sure, will help us understand first-hand the problems and challenges that we face in the area of consumer protection and the problems which different States/UTs face in effective implementation of the programmes of this Department so that these can be deliberated upon in detail at the Conference tomorrow.

I would like to begin by stressing on one important point – that of ‘consumer protection,’ as a significant issue contributing to the economic growth of a country. A market that is highly competitive is of utmost importance for the healthy growth of economy and is beneficial to the consumer in that the consumer has a wide variety of products to choose from. It can also not be denied that such a competitive market in a fast developing country like ours is also prone to spurious goods and inferior services entering the market place to cheat the unsuspecting and ill-informed consumers. Therefore, protection of consumer interests becomes a moral responsibility of the State. This can only be accomplished through setting up quality specifications and safety compliances for goods and services and by establishing proper, effective and easily accessible mechanisms to redress grievances of the consumer.

The Consumer Protection (CP) Act has been in force for the last 25 years. The Act has enabled setting up of three-tier quasi-judicial bodies from the district level to the national level. The CP Act is a comprehensive piece of legislation. Unfortunately, it is found to be weighed down by issues like inordinate delays in the delivery of justice, ineffective enforcement of judgment orders, etc. This is really a cause of concern not just for the consumers but for the Government too. I would like to mention some of these concerns, which have been engaging our attention.

The first and the foremost one, and I regret to say this, is that most of the State Governments do not evince keen enthusiasm and attention in implementing the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act promptly;

The consumer forums are found to be becoming and acting like civil courts with Presidents of the forums adopting a more formal approach to the issues on hand; for example, the issue of complainants being asked to engage lawyers to fight their cases, even where there is no need for that;
Adjournment of cases are given without valid reasons leading to inordinate delays in the justice delivery system;

The disposal of complaints within the stipulated time-frame of 90 days to 120 days is not strictly adhered to;

In many States/UTs consumer fora are found to be functioning in rented buildings with inadequate space and office equipment. Such States/UTS can avail themselves of the benefit of the Scheme of the Department of Consumer Affairs that provide grant for construction of their own buildings to house consumer forums;

The responsibility for setting up the State Consumer Protection Councils (SCPCs) & District Consumer Protection Councils (DCPCs) rests with the State Governments. It is a matter of serious concern that some States have not yet set up such Councils; and
Finally, the importance of filling up of vacancies of President and Members in the Commissions and District Fora of States well in time to boost consumer confidence.

Having mentioned some specific concerns, let me come to certain general issues affecting the consumer protection system as it exists now: I have been given to understand that very few or no complaints are being filed in relation to unfair trade practices, misleading advertisements, etc. It is absolutely essential that we know the reasons for the consumer not coming forward to lodge his complaints; not just that, we must encourage him to fearlessly engage the infrastructure that we put in place to get his grievances redressed. Otherwise, all our efforts will go waste resulting in nullifying the reliefs provided by the Third Amendment to the CP Act. Here, the role of State governments assumes significance especially in view of absence of suo moto powers of the consumer fora.

Coming to the issue of State Consumer Help-lines, 25 States have so far availed funds for the Help-lines. I would like to take this opportunity to request those States/UTs which have not done so far to submit their proposals to avail funds for Help-lines. This Department has also developed a new IT platform under an Indo-German project and all the States/UTs have been asked to utilize the software as a common platform for the Help-lines. This is offered free of cost. A National Nodal Centre which works as a knowledge management portal for State Help-lines has also been set up at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi to coordinate and network the State Help-lines. The IIPA is also organising training for the Help-line personnel and I would urge upon the States/UTs to send their staff operating the Help-line to undergo the training available.

The Department, under Package Commodity Rules 2011, is going to propose that a marking “GM” should appear on packages containing genetically-modified food items for information of consumers. I would like to get the response of the States to this proposal.

The Prevention of Black-marketing and Maintenance of Supplies of Essential Commodities Act, 1980 empowers the Central and State Governments to detain persons whose activities are found to be prejudicial to the maintenance of supply of essential commodities to the community. While detentions are made by the States/UTs in selective cases to prevent hoarding and black-marketing of the essential commodities, it has been found that many States are not enforcing the provisions of the Act in the strictest sense; even those States which are enforcing it are not giving information on such cases to this Department within the prescribed time – the end result being that the detainees get released and go scot-free for want of evidence, and strictures ultimately being passed on the Government by the Hon’ble High Courts.

Laws are compilation of rules and regulations by a sovereign authority. But effectiveness of laws depends on how well and strictly they are enforced. Only collective efforts can produce the desired results. I am sure, with your cooperation, we can succeed in putting in place a vibrant consumer protection system in the country which, no doubt, will ultimately lead to the economic development of the country. Needless to say, your valuable views and suggestions to help the consumer protection mechanism as it exists today becoming even more efficient are eagerly looked forward to in the course of our deliberations.