We, in India, celebrate two consumer days – the national consumer day on 24th December to commemorate the date on which the Consumer Protection Act came into force to promote consumer rights and responsibilities in 1986, and the world consumer rights day (WCRD) on 15th March on which the US president announced the consumer rights for the first time in 1962 and is being celebrated since 1983. WCRD gives us an opportunity to reflect on what India’s consumer movement has achieved so far and what direction we should take in the future.
Consumers International, a global federation of consumer groups, has approved the theme for this WCRD to be ‘tackling plastic pollution.’ It is certainly a worthy and pressing consumer problem for India in general and Mysuru in particular.
However, the real and basic problem we face is getting any type of service from our own, democratically elected government. Even after 73 years of Independence, we the public are, with rare exception, treated in all the government offices as servants rather than masters—a continuing colonial hangover.
It is unfortunate that even some government-sponsored WCRD celebrations have organised events to discuss the theme of plastic menace rather than highlighting the real consumer problems we face every day. This article is a small attempt to show why India’s consumer movement should take a different path.
How many of us are even aware that we, the public, should be treated with dignity irrespective of whether we are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, connected with VIPs or no connection at all, while seeking government services? This is true both in urban and rural areas.
It is because of such indifference to serve the public that there are always big lines in front of the residences and offices of MLAs, MPs, or even defeated political leaders, of citizens seeking help.
There are large crowds in front of the offices of the bureaucrats where the public stands with patience for hours to get services like registration, paying property taxes, completion reports, building permits, and ration cards, for which there are all kinds of schemes like tatkal, e-platform, e-complaints, and Right to Information (RTI) Act.
It is a rare event when any one can accomplish the task at first attempt in any government office.
Consumer activists (including myself) have welcomed with great excitement the latest Consumer Protection Act (COPRA) 2019 which replaces the Consumer Protection Act 1986.
It is a progressive law which certainly helps the consumers by providing several reforms like the concept of product liability, filing complaints electronically, alternate resolution mechanism like mediation, action against unfair trade practices and misleading advertisements, flexibility to file from where consumers live or work, no fees for filing for cases involving less than Rs5 lakh, and providing consumer protection while purchasing online.
Unfortunately, just as COPRA 1986 failed to bring about the systemic changes, COPRA 2019 may face the same dismal results and provide, at best, band aid. One of the biggest hurdles was the inefficiency of consumer courts which were turned into civil courts by the presiding officers by giving never ending adjournments and consumer unfriendly environment in the courts.
In short, consumer courts, which are now called consumer commissions, more often than not violate the advice so beautifully stated by Mahatma Gandhi on the correct way of handling the consumers.
“Customers are the most important visitor on our premises, they are not dependent on us, we are dependent on them. They are not an interruption in our work. They are the purpose of it. They are not outsiders in our business. They are part of it; we are not doing them a favour by serving them. They are doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so.”
Do any of our government offices follow the above advice given by Mahatma Gandhi in serving the public?
Often, the basic philosophy is how to send back the persons seeking any government service by raising every possible excuse one can dream of: the concerned officer is on vacation, come tomorrow since the officer has not signed, bring some more documents, review is not over and it is not certain when it will be ready, etc. In short, how to delay the process of providing services is the motto of every government offices.
Just to give an extreme example of such a delay is the number of times a former president of Mysore Grahakara Parishat had to go to the Mysuru City Corporation seeking a permit to rebuild a house. Even though he was complying with all the building regulations (he is the person who has helped thousands seeking solutions to consumer problems over the past 25 years) and knew all the officers, he had to visit MCC 111 times over two years to get the required permit.
He did not have to make one change between the first submission and the last one when he finally got the building permit. But those who are prepared to bribe can get the permit even in a day and when the by-laws are violated!
Let us take a look at services like water supply, and electricity, basic needs to be supplied by the government. For a large percentage of our population, securing potable water is still a Herculean task.
Electricity is as undependable as always in most cities and certainly in villages but we claim that all the villages are connected to the national grid. The less said the better about the services provided by the Indian Railways, the public sector banks, public sector transportation companies, and Life Insurance Corp of India (LIC) where we are often treated with discourtesy and neglect despite the COPRA.
All over the country on 15th March, in a ritualistic manner, in each state capital and major cities, World Consumer Rights Day is celebrated by publishing the famous quote of the Mahatma, or praising the outstanding benefits of the new COPRA 2019 or how consumers should be treated as kings.
This is because most such functions are organised by the government departments. No one mentions how we, the public, are treated worse than servants by the government departments.
It is high time the non-government organisations (NGOs) start demanding our rights of getting services with minimum delay and inconvenience. For that, we need to strengthen the consumer movement by taking active part either by joining an existing NGO or starting a new one.
Consumer movement should stop concentrating only on COPRA, and start working on the concept of public being the masters and not servants. Just like Mahatma Gandhi used a simple concept of protesting salt tax to usher a new chapter in India’s freedom movement, we, in the consumer movement, should adapt a new strategic direction to demand the status of masters in all the government offices and stop acting as servants.
(Dr Bhamy V Shenoy, an IITM alumnus, is the founder of Mysore Grahakara Parishat, a leading consumer organisation in the city. He was also governing council member of Consumer Voice.)