On World Consumer Rights Day every year (March 15), the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission holds day-long deliberations on improving the functioning of consumer courts in the country, with particular emphasis on speeding up the process of consumer justice.
However, when I see the agenda items every year, I feel disappointed that there is no discussion on the quality of justice delivered by the consumer courts in the country. And when I refer to quality, I particularly mean the quantum of compensation awarded by these tribunals, because after all, that is the raison d'être of these courts.
In fact two decades ago, the Supreme Court emphasised this basic principle of consumer justice embodied in the Consumer Protection Act when it spoke about the need for consumer courts to award compensation commensurate with the injustice suffered by the consumer. (Lucknow Development Authority vs MK Gupta (CA no 6237 of 1990, decided on 5-11-1993).
Expanding this concept further, it called for a liberal interpretation of the provision in the law for compensation. Besides the actual loss or the expected loss, the compensation may extend to physical, mental or even emotional suffering, insult or injury or loss, the Apex court said. Warning that any other construction would defeat the very purpose of the law, the court also emphasised that compensation should not only recompense the consumer, but also force the offender to change his ways.
But till today, the computation of damages by the consumer courts is highly arbitrary and in most cases, too conservative to be just and too meager to have any salutary effect on trade and industry.
In CM Kadam Vs Maharashtra State Electricity Board (RP No 604 of 2003), where the Board had cut off power supply to the consumer without any valid reason and forced him and his family to live without power supply for over two months, the National Consumer Commission came down heavily on the lower consumer courts for awarding a compensation of Rs 5000 to the consumer. 'Put yourselves in the shoes of the consumer while deciding on the quantum of compensation," said the Commission, while enhancing the compensation amount.
But unfortunately, not every consumer court in the country follows this dictum. Even the National Consumer Commission is not very consistent when it comes to the issue of compensation. The annual conference would therefore serve the cause of consumers better if it were to reflect on some of these issues too and bring about course correction.
RS Sharma: My laptop, bought at a cost of R1.25 lakhs, has been malfunctioning from day 1, but the dealer is refusing to give me a replacement. His two attempts at repair have also brought forth no positive results. What is my option?
Write a formal letter to the manufacturer, demanding a replacement. If he does not respond positively, try the Mediation Centre set up by the Delhi government. (Phone: 23379074, 26513307) Remember that by not giving you a replacement, the dealer (and the manufacturer) has violated your right to a defect-free product as well as your right to redress of your grievance. So in addition to giving you a replacement, he ought to compensate you for the harassment caused to you.
Meanwhile, keep the receipts pertaining to repair of the laptop safe- you will need it to prove the defect in your laptop. It is also good to visit the online consumer complaint websites and see if this particular model has any design defect or problem. That would strengthen your case. If the manufacturer or the dealer had made some claims that are inconsistent with its performance, that would also help establish unfair trade practice.