If Supreme Court, which everyone normally looks upon as the saviour of the common man, has not done justice to the consumers or the consumer movement, where will the consumers go?
Voluntary consumer movement got a fillip in 1986 after the promulgation of the Consumer Protection Act. Consumer activists were born overnight due to extraordinary initiatives taken by the then government in translating the Act into time-bound quasi-judicial redressal machinery and consultative bodies, which held out enormous hope for the uncared consumers. One of the important aspects of the growth of the consumer movement in this country was the much-touted time bound consumer disputes redressal bodies, known as the District Forum, State Commission and the National Commission. But, the time limits were rather adhered by exception. Thanks to lack of interest to safeguard the consumer interests in a structured manner, the present central government, in 2005, practically decimated the central consultative body, known as the Central Consumer Protection Council, by simply amending the Consumer Protection Rules, in a hushed manner, as there is no need for such amendments to be ratified by the parliament.
Alas, even the Supreme Court which everyone normally look upon as the saviour of the common man, has not done justice to the consumers or the consumer movement or the impoverished voluntary consumer organisations. The case in point is the under-weighment of LPG refills (cooking gas). Consumer Protection Council, Rourkela accidentally stumbled upon this fact, through random sample surveys conducted in July 2000. Indian Oil Corporation as well as the ministry of consumer affairs, Government of India, including the Director (Legal Metrology) were informed and requested to act. As a consequence/s IOC offered to conduct a joint survey. Since the outcome was worse than even our own independent findings, they excused themselves mid-way through the survey and did not even sign the papers. IOC kept assuring that their LPG bottling plants were fine and wanted the undersigned to visit their plant for a firsthand knowledge. The undersigned being a qualified engineer, on his visit in 2000, in no time assessed that the bottling plant consisting of its semi-automated carousel machine was the root cause of the problem. The information was shared with the plant manager then and there. But he said that all IOC’s bottling plants, numbering 120, were having similar machinery. The company was not willing to accept the fault nor was willing to discuss about a solution. After giving sufficient time and even highlighting this problem in the Central Consumer Protection Council, a case was filed in July 2001, before the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC).
The NCDRC concluded in October 2005 that in the prevailing LPG bottling system, consumers could get less than the stipulated weight of 14.2 kg and hence as an interim measure directed IOC to adopt pre-delivery weight checking of the LPG refill at the consumer’s premises and also to publicise through advertisements as was being done, in a prominent manner, by Hindustan Petroleum Corporation. During the pendency of this case, the Consumer Protection Act was amended from 15th March 2003. Several important provisions which were relevant to this case, especially for awarding punitive damages, payment of penalty when the defective good or deficient service affects large number of consumers, providing adequate cost to the litigant, etc were introduced and the Council in January 2004, itself sought the invocation of those provisions in this case.
IOC did not comply with the 2005 directives and NCDRC took on record such behaviour, in 2006 as well as in 2007, at the instance of the Complainant Council. But the final order of the NCDRC passed in July 2007 glossed over all that and also the prayers of the Council for making the awards as per the amended Act and did not even discuss about that in the final order. The Council’s review before the NCDRC evoked the following admissions by the NCDRC in 2010:
“Applying this ratio to the facts of present case, we are of the view that the review application for consideration/grant of said prayer(s), which will be deemed to have been declined, is not maintainable under Section 22(2) of the Act. Otherwise also this would require detailed examination of the case which is impermissible under Section 22(2) of the Act. Application is dismissed as such. It will be open to the complainant to have redressal of its grievance as may be permissible under the law.”
Hence, the Council appealed to the Supreme Court in 2010 against the final order of the NCDRC made in July 2007, after a delay of 1,071 days. While the Supreme Court condoned the delay of 1,071 days, obviously because of the review proceedings in the NCDRC contributing to the delay, failed to address the issues raised in the appeal, which were hitherto not addressed by the NCDRC. The judgment of the Supreme Court said that the appeal was ‘infructuous’ as both the government and IOC had complied with the order of the NCDRC. When an individual is dissatisfied with the order of the National Commission, he appeals to the Supreme Court, under Section 23 of the Consumer Protection Act. The Supreme Court has to conclude only whether the NCDRC order is defective in law or not, based on the facts placed before it. No appeal can become infructuous unless it is filed under Section 27A, where the implementation part is involved. The Supreme Court dismissed the review sought by the Council. If the judiciary has to fail the consumers, where will he go? The apex court was probably finding the issues raised were too big and the issues relating to “punitive damages” had to be addressed for the first time, under Consumer Protection Act and that too against a state undertaking. A cumulative value of Rs65,000 crore of short-weighed cooking gas refills had been sold by IOC till 2005, the time when an interim order was passed, warranting it to pay at least Rs3,250 crore to the Consumer Welfare Fund.
This year's theme of the Consumer’s Day is Consumer Justice Now. Our experience aptly describes the predicament of the consumers and consumer organisations in this country.
Seldom a voluntary consumer organisation could take up such a major issue, prove it technically correct and provide tangible relief to crores of unsuspecting housewives across the country. Of the 184 bottling plants, of the three oil marketing companies (IOC, BPCL and HPCL), 180 have been automated and the balance will be done within the next financial year. The government (P&NG ministry) was supposed to have spent around Rs300 crore for this modernisation. Unfortunately, the apex court of the country does not provide relief as mandated by the law.
(BVaidyanathan is the chief mentor of the Consumer Protection Council, Rourkela.)