SC order on filling up consumer forums a welcome intervention
At a time when public confidence in the consumer justice delivery is at an all time low and consumer courts in the country are plagued by huge vacancies and infrastructural deficiencies, the Supreme Court’s suo motu intervention and direction to the Union and state governments to fill up all vacancies in eight weeks, brings a ray of hope.
Of course this is not the first time that the apex court has hauled up the governments on poor enforcement of the Consumer Protection Act. In the initial years after the enactment of the consumer protection law in 1986, there was such resistance from state governments to constituting the consumer courts that the Supreme Court had to constantly step in, regularly monitor and ensure that the states established the redressal agencies contemplated under the Act. “It is such indifference which renders a well meaning legislation, intended to protect a large body of consumers from exploitation, ineffective,” the Supreme Court had commented in its order in 1993 (Common Cause vs Union of India)
Even after three decades, there is not much of a change in the attitude of the state governments. The working of the consumer courts continue to be stymied by inadequate infrastructure, absence of secretarial staff, besides huge vacancies in the posts of judicial and non-judicial members (presidents and members ) that adjudicate over consumer disputes. So much so that in the last three decades, the Supreme Court and several high courts have interceded to ensure uninterrupted running of the consumer tribunals, but the consequent reliefs have only been short lived. Thus, closure of consumer courts on account of the absence of adjudicating members is now part of the ground reality of consumer protection in the country.
It is also not uncommon to find state governments resorting to ‘jugaad’ to comply with the directions of the Supreme Court and putting one judicial member in charge of three consumer courts or appointing part-time members. So technically, the vacancies are filled up and the courts are functioning, but the truth is that their working is restricted to just about a few hours in a day.
Ironically, if you look under the acronym “FunNFun” on the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission’s (NCDRC) website, you will see the list of functioning and non-functioning consumer courts. Interestingly, in the last three decades, the slate has never been wiped clean of non-functional forums.
The vacancy positions are even more revealing - as per the data on the NCDRC website, dated June 30,2021, state governments had to fill up a total of 788 posts in district commissions and 81 in state commissions. Of course some states contributed more to these staggering numbers. For example, Uttar Pradesh had to fill up 153 vacancies in district commissions as on December 31, 2020, Madhya Pradesh had to appoint 74 adjudicating members as on May 31, 2021, and Tamil Nadu had 79 vacancies as on April 30, 2021.
That’s not all, a comprehensive study on the working of these courts, sponsored by the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs and published last year by the Indian Institute of Public Administration, showed that 85.6 per cent of the consumer forums suffered from inadequate infrastructure, while 85.6 per cent lacked adequate staff.
Now the new Consumer Protection Act of 2019 provides for online filing of complaints and e-hearing, besides mediation facilities to overcome the delays in the adjudication process. But here again, most consumer courts in the country do not have the required IT infrastructure nor facilities for mediation. IIPA study said 96.5 per cent of the forums had computers, many of them outdated, and 87.6 per cent had internet connections that were often poor.
The crumbling infrastructure and the recalcitrant attitude of the state governments are only one part of the story of the failing consumer justice system in the country. The other part is the poor enforcement of the law by those adjudicating over consumer disputes and the failure of the new law to deal with these issues. I will write about that in my next column.