New Consumer Protection Bill must reflect the changing times
During the last days of his tenure as the union minister for consumer affairs in the previous Modi government, Ram Vilas Paswan had expressed regret that the much awaited Consumer Protection Bill, 2018, meant to replace the existing consumer protection law of 1986 , could not be passed by both Houses of Parliament.
He now has a chance to fulfil that promise made to consumers and bring in the new law. But more important, since the Bill has to be introduced afresh in Parliament, he also has an opportunity to improve on the Bill and that’s an option he must exercise.
During the Bill’s long journey from its first draft in 2014 to 2019 when it finally lapsed with the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha, the Bill was tweaked several times. Yet, some of the basic flaws in the Bill remained and some of the changes brought about subsequently weakened the proposed law . So much so that I would describe the lapsing of the bill as a blessing in disguise as it gives the ministry time to review the Bill once again, rectify the flaws, remove the anomalies and turn it into a law that truly empowers consumers.
The Bill, for example, does not address the fundamental problem of protracted and complicated litigation, the bane of consumer forums constituted under the Consumer Protection Act of 1986. Instead, it provides an alternative to the consumer forums, in the form of mediation. Ironically, when the law was first enacted, the lawmakers promised that it would provide consumers with an alternate system of consumer justice that enabled them to seek resolution of their disputes with manufacturers and service providers in a simple and quick manner without the help of lawyers.
But consumer justice has turned out to be anything but simple, quick or inexpensive and several studies that went into the reasons for this , have blamed the large presence of lawyers in these forums for the delays as well as the complicated nature of the proceedings. Yet, the Bill does not simplify procedures and prohibit lawyers or even restrict their presence to complaints of high value.
Another major flaw with the 1986 law was the absence of a regulator to enforce the rights of consumers. The Bill does provide for a regulator, but there is no proper focus on the duties of the regulator.
Even though one of the first rights of consumers listed in the CP Act of 1986 is the right to safe goods and services, the enforcement of this right does not get due importance, despite the fact that the markets are flooded with unsafe products and we urgently need to protect consumers from the harm caused by such products. .
On the other hand, there is over-emphasis on unfair trade practices and misleading advertisements to the extent that the law even prescribes imprisonment (fine and jail term of two to five years) for false and misleading advertisements . In fact in most countries, unfair trade practices , including misleading advertisements are handled by the Competition Commission.
Today the world over, there is emphasis on simplifying laws, so that it is easily understood by all.
This is particularly important in respect of consumer protection law , but unfortunately, even the definition of ‘consumer rights’ in the Bill is not simple and straight forward, so that consumers at least know what their entitlements are.
Lastly, it is important to remember that this is not an amendment to the 1986 law, but a new consumer protection law and this is truly an occasion to rectify the mistakes of the past and come up with a new, dynamic law in keeping with the changing times and needs. And this opportunity should not be frittered away.