A TV serial, on good old Doordarshan, that I would seldom miss as a school boy, was ‘Rajini’, in which the inimitable Priya Tendulkar had essayed the role of an intrepid consumer activist. That programme almost triggered a movement in the country. And it was no coincidence that the very next year, the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, came into being in India. But just how far have we come 32 years since the statute was enacted and 56 years after former US President J.F. Kennedy moved a bill to safeguard consumer rights, strangely enough, on the ‘Ides of March, which has come to be observed as World Consumer Rights Day? It’s an occasion to come up with platitudes and awareness drives. Little else. Because, much as citizens flock to consumer fora to redress their grievances, it’s a charade on the ground.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a consumer activist at heart. When I moved from TV to Law, I earned my spurs with a victory in a Consumer Court, representing an international sportswoman against a big private bank. My pessimism is not unfounded. It is based on ground realities. Hear me out.
The Consumer Protection Act provides for the resolution of disputes within 3 months if no lab testing is required and 5 months if analysis of samples is to be done. So that’s a prescribed time frame of either 90 or 150 days for the whole case. Sadly, a single adjournment mechanically given is for half that period in district fora or State Commissions and even 9 months at the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission. On an average, a consumer case takes a minimum of 2 years for a judgment and it can go up to more than 5 years. Factor in the three tier appeal apparatus, and the execution of an order, and you will realise how ‘expeditious’ the system is!
A Consumer dispute must be resolved within 3 to 5 months. But even adjournments are much longer! On an average, a case goes on for 2 to 5 years and more.
There have been vacancies unfilled for a whole year. The Tamil Nadu State Commission, for instance, had been headless for more than a year and work had come to a standstill due to lack of quorum. Is our commitment to the cause so shamelessly inadequate? Is it limited to insipid slogans only on the 15th March every year? Do vacancies come with the suddeness of flash floods? Is talent so hard to come by that retirees cannot hand over the baton to new hands before they demit office? Is forward planning rocket science?
Although the Act allows aggrieved consumers to appear in person and even send their complaints by post, without hiring lawyers, the filing requirements and resultant ‘compliances’ are so needlessly cumbersome and time consuming designed to frustrate even a trained legal resource.
The calibre of some members in these fora is another concern. I remember arguing a case of an airline switching off the air conditioning for an hour, after boarding, for refuelling, causing the passengers cooped up inside to feel suffocated and claustrophobic. The learned judge dismissed the complaint on the ground that “there would have been no possibility of suffocation, as even if the AC had been switched off, the fans would have been running.” Good grief! The client was justifiably shocked and let down that although it was a fit case for an appeal, he chose to cut his losses and lump the injustice.
Now taking deficient service and unfair trade practices, the twin evils that haunt consumers, in their stride, is unacceptable in this era of awareness. But I know scores of clients who choose to look the other way just to get closure rather than fight in court. Last week, I myself was in a quandary. I bought a tube of Biotique Shaving Gel from a Nilgiris franchisee in Alwarpet, Chennai. When I tried to use it, the gel seemed dried up with just a small quantity oozing out. It was just seventy five rupees. I could have flung it into the dustbin and bought some other brand from another store. Instead, I chose to complain. As my work involves appearing in court and on tv and a slew of public platforms, I could ill afford a skin allergy on my face due to a seemingly defective or spurious product. So I took the trouble to call the store and ask for the Manager. The person wasn’t available and although I left my number, he did not have the courtesy to return my call. A complaint to the Biotique call centre toll free line elicited a robotic response with the operator asking for a range of details, except my hororscope! A tweet to the manufacturer’s handle drew a blank. E mails to the company and the store resulted in responses seeking details, most of which was already in my initial mail. I often wonder if the strategy at complaints cells is to tire out the customer in the hope that he would give up. In both cases, while the store and the manufacturer insisted on my full address, despite the signature on my email carrying my name, designation and contact information, their replies carried no name and job title. Reading the bar code and the date of manufacture on the crimp often require a magnifying glass even for a person with reasonably good eye sight.
Is 75 rupees worth my time and energy? Or should I fight on principle? My instinct is to take it to court. But a more pragmatic solution would be for me to chuck it, move on and boycott both the retailer and the manufacturer. If a ‘let it be’ approach is the better part of maturity, then the consumer is not the king but a slave and an enabler. Now that’s hardly a close shave!
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, TV Political Analyst, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7)