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Consumer is king till product is sold

For a country thriving on the service sector, it is surprising that there is no fast and effective consumer redressal mechanism, writes Shivani Singh.
Hindustan Times | By Shivani Singh
UPDATED ON JUL 19, 2007 06:01 AM IST

How many days can it possibly take to get a phone disconnected? A week or two, perhaps, a month? But I was not so lucky. After an eight-month battle with company executives, and finally a call to the big boss, using my “media” connection, I was able to get that instrument out of my house. But I still get calls threatening action if I do not return the instrument.

It’s been three months since I started repaying my home loan, but the “easy repayment through electronic clearing" from my account is yet to start. Executives call up and ask me to pay the EMI in cash. The air-conditioner I bought last year broke down soon after installation. It took me five days and Rs 2,000 to get it fixed. I can imagine many of you nodding your head in empathy.

The consumer seems to be the king only till the product is sold. For a country thriving on the service sector, it is surprising that there is no fast and effective consumer redressal mechanism. It often takes years to reach the verdict stage in consumer courts. The landmark judgments make it to the front pages. Most of these orders are either stayed or challenged in the higher courts. Up against legal sharks, the poor litigants eventually withdraw. Who can pay Rs 50,000 as legal fees to recover Rs 5,000?

A more effective solution can be through the law of Torts popular in the USA and the UK. It has provision for civil action against a person for breach of duty where consumers can sue companies and individuals for damages. But in India, it is one of the most under-used laws. No wonder the same multinationals that deliver better services abroad take Indian customers for granted.

Helplines that assist consumers in arriving at out-of-court settlements exist. National Consumer Helpline with Consumer Voice is doing a good job putting harassed consumers in touch with companies directly. But the redressal rate remains less than 20 per cent and the response time varies from weeks to months.

The regulators can appoint ombudsman and set performance standards. The Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission recently notified performance and supply standards. There are stiff penalties if the distcoms fail to rectify problems within a stipulated time. The response has been limited mainly because of poor publicity.

One has to understand that companies spend on big lawyers not to save paltry sums of compensation in individual cases, they do it to discourage other consumers from moving court. Only specific legal provisions for high compensation for failing to deliver within stipulated time can help. Otherwise, consumers can do no more than shouting at faceless voices over the phone and bear it.

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