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Not a buyers' market

The Consumer Protection Act is 25 years old. Yet the law, which promises inexpensive and speedy justice, is beset with multiple problems. Pushpa Girimaji writes.

india Updated: Dec 18, 2011 22:56 IST

Consumers in Bellary, Karnataka, haul up the electricity department for sharp voltage fluctuations; a farmer in Bihar takes a tractor dealer to task for defects in his vehicle; a Delhi resident sues a marriage bureau for not finding a suitable match for his daughter; a couple in Tamil Nadu seek compensation from a school for the tragic death of their child on the school premises; farmers in Andhra Pradesh file a class action suit against a seed manufacturer for substandard seeds - these are just a sample of the 3.7 million cases filed in consumer courts across India since the Consumer Protection Act (CP Act) took effect 25 years ago.

This unique law revolutionised the concept of consumer protection through a justice system meant exclusively for consumers. It came to the rescue of consumers weighed down by the incompetence of and corruption in State agencies, unfair trade practices in the retail sector, negligence health-care facilities and callous indifference of railways and airline companies.

The years following the constitution of the consumer disputes redress agencies were heady days for consumers. Through these courts, they could hold up traders, manufacturers and service providers to scrutiny and slam them for their actions and inactions. From their complaints emerged a number of landmark judgements that further strengthened consumer rights encapsulated in the law. In the case of Lucknow Development Authority vs MK Gupta, the Supreme Court denounced the State-run land development agencies for their sloth and inefficiency and said consumers who are victims of such shoddy service are entitled to compensation (applicable to private builders too). In Indian Medical Association vs VP Shantha, it struck down the argument of medical professionals that they can't be held accountable under the CP Act. This and several subsequent orders of the apex court as well as the apex consumer court (National Commission) have come to define the rights of patients in India.

Even as these judgements strengthened consumer rights in the country, the delays in the adjudication process began to weaken the consumer justice system. The causes for setbacks were many: from the beginning, the state governments were reluctant to constitute consumer courts at the state (state commission) and the district (district forums) levels as required under the law. They did so only after a stern warning from the Supreme Court. Later, the delay in appointing adjudicating members often hampered the work of the courts and resulted in their complete closure for long periods in a number of states.

Even now, out of the 629 district forums in the country, 11 are shut because of vacancies. In New Delhi, two benches of the National Commission are not working because of four vacancies.

Delays in constituting additional tribunals or benches to cope with the increasing number of complaints also led to a huge pile-up of unresolved cases. The complicated methodologies adopted by the adjudicating members in contravention of the procedures laid down in the law and the repeated adjournments given at the behest of lawyers, only made matters worse. The insensitivity of the members to the suffering of the consumer and the miserly compensation awarded only added to the misery of consumers who sought relief through these courts.

Quick to take advantage of these pitfalls in the system were retailers, manufacturers and service providers, who found that by routinely appealing against the orders of the consumer courts, they could drag on the adjudication process for years and effectively discourage consumers from filing complaints. A typical example is that of an unemployed youth (Nirakar Sahoo), who filed a case against a bank for not releasing the loan sanctioned under the Pradhan Mantri Rozgar Yojana. Even though he won the case, the bank used delaying tactics. By the time the National Commission heard the appeal, nine years had already passed and the scheme had come to an end.

Similarly, Bhausaheb Devram Patil found that the consumer court's direction to the dealer to repair or refund the cost of his defective television set made no sense at the end of a long fight lasting 13 years. For 10 out of the 129 farmers from Maharashtra, who had sought compensation against defective cotton seeds sold to them, the process of justice proved too long - they did not survive to see their victory.

The law, which promises 'speedy and inexpensive' justice, mandates that complaints should be resolved within 90 days. However, only about 25% of the cases are decided within that time. The rest take anywhere between five months to three years. If appeals are filed before the state and the National Commission and later the Supreme Court, then the cases drag further. There could also be delays in the execution of the orders. Considering that the raison d'etre of these courts is speedy justice, the law should have stipulated a time limit for resolution of complaints at the very beginning. By the time it was mandated through an amendment in 2003, it was too late. By then, 17 years had passed and the consumer justice system had borrowed some of the worst features of civil litigation in the country, robbing consumers of speedy justice.

In order to bring about a course correction, regular and efficient audit of the functioning of consumer courts is a must, as also some tweaking of the law. Restricting the presence of lawyers would also bring down the adjudication time and simplify procedures. For small value complaints (up to R1 lakh), both advocates and appeals should be strictly prohibited. About 25% of the complaints filed before the forums pertain to household appliances and other goods. These can be resolved outside the courts, if the government forces trade and industry to provide independent and effective alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. Better enforcement of laws regulating the services and the goods sector would also reduce the burden on consumer courts.

But for all this to happen, the government should demonstrate the same commitment that former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi showed in empowering consumers when he brought in this law. Otherwise, the silver jubilee celebrations will have no meaning.

Pushpa Girimaji is a New Delhi-based journalist who writes on consumer rights

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Dec 18, 2011 22:53 IST