Consumers play a vital role in the economic system of a nation because in the absence of effective demand that emanates from them, the economy virtually collapses. Mahatma Gandhi said, "A consumer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us, we are on him. He is not an interruption to our work, he is the purpose of it. We are not doing a favour to a consumer by giving him an opportunity. He is doing us a favour by giving us opportunity to serve him. But, of late, unfortunately cheating by way of overcharging, black marketing, misleading advertisements, etc has become the common practice of greedy sellers and manufacturers to make unreasonable profits. In this context, it is the duty of the government to confer some rights on consumers to safeguard their interests.
1. Right to Safety: The right to be protected against goods which are hazardous to life and property.
2. Right to Information: The right to be informed about the quality, quantity, purity, price and standards of goods.
3. Right to Choose: The right to be assured access to a variety of products at competitive prices, without any pressure to impose a sale, ie, freedom of choice.
4. Right to be Heard: The right to be heard and assured that consumer interests will receive due consideration at appropriate forums.
5. Right to Seek Redressal: The right to get relief against unfair trade practice or exploitation.
6. Right to Education: The right to be educated about rights of a consumer.
Protection of Consumer Rights
Consumer protection means safeguarding the rights and interests of consumers. It includes all the measures aimed at protecting the rights and interests of consumers.
Consumers need protection due to the following reasons:
1. Illiteracy and Ignorance: Consumers in India are mostly illiterate and ignorant. They do not understand their rights. A system is required to protect them from unscrupulous businessmen.
2. Unorganised Consumers: In India consumers are widely dispersed and are not united. They are at the mercy of businessmen. On the other hand, producers and traders are organized and powerful.
3. Spurious Goods: There is increasing supply of duplicate products. It is very difficult for an ordinary consumer to distinguish between a genuine product and its imitation. It is necessary to protect consumers from such exploitation by ensuring compliance with prescribed norms of quality and safety.
4. Deceptive Advertising: Some businessmen give misleading information about quality, safety and utility of products. Consumers are misled by false advertisement and do not know the real quality of advertised goods. A mechanism is needed to prevent misleading advertisements.
5. Malpractices of Businessmen: Fraudulent, unethical and monopolistic trade practices on the part of businessmen lead to exploitation of consumers. Consumers often get defective, inferior and substandard goods and poor service. Certain measures are required to protect the consumers against such malpractices.
6. Freedom of Enterprise: Businessmen must ensure satisfaction of consumers. In the long run, survival and growth of business is not possible without the support and goodwill of consumers. If business does not protect consumers' interests, Government intervention and regulatory measures will grow to curb unfair trade practices.
7. Legitimacy for Existence: Business exists to satisfy the needs and desires of consumers. Goods are produced with the purpose of selling them. Goods will, in the long run, sell only when they meet the needs of consumers.
8. Trusteeship: Businessmen are trustees of the society's wealth. Therefore, they should use this wealth for the benefit of people.
Methods of Consumer Protection
There are four main methods of protecting the interests of consumers:
1. Business Self-regulation: The business community itself can help in achieving consumer protection and satisfaction through self -discipline. Businessmen can regulate their own behaviour and actions by adopting higher ethical standards. Trade associations and chambers of commerce can check unfair trade practices used by some businessmen.
2. Consumer Self-help: Every consumer must be alert as self-help is the best help. He should educate himself and know his rights. He should not allow unscrupulous businessmen to cheat him.
3. Consumers' Associations: Consumers should form voluntary associations. These associations can educate and awaken consumers. They can take organized action and put pressure on businessmen to adopt fair trade practices.
4. Government Regulations: The State can ensure consumer protection through legislative, executive and judicial actions. The laws enacted by the Government must be strictly enforced by the executive. Government of India has enacted several laws to protect the interests and rights of consumers. Some of these laws are as follows:
o The Essential Commodities Act, 1955 which aims to regulate and control the production, supply and distribution and prices of essential commodities.
o The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954 which aims to check adulteration in food items and eatables.
o The Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 which seeks to ensure purity and quality in drugs and cosmetics.
o The Standards of Weights and Measures Act, 1956 which aims at ensuring that consumers get the right weight and measurement in products.
o The Household Electrical Appliances (Quality Control) Order, 1976 which seeks to ensure safety and quality in the manufacture of electrical appliances.
o The Consumer Protection Act, 1986 which seeks to provide speedy and inexpensive redressal to the grievances of consumers.
THE CONSUMER PROTECTION ACT, 1986
The Act provides following remedies to an aggrieved consumer:
o Removal of defects in goods or deficiency in service.
o Replacement of defective goods with new goods of similar description which shall be free from any defect.
o Return of price paid by the consumer.
o Payment of compensation for any loss or injury suffered by the consumer.
o Discontinue the restrictive, or unfair trade practice, and not to repeat it.
o Withdraw the hazardous goods from being offered for sale and not to offer them for sale.
o Provide for adequate cost to the aggrieved party.
The Consumer Production Act provides for a threetier system of redressal agencies: one at district level known as District Forum, second at state level known as 'State Commission', and third at national level known as 'National Commission'. A complaint is to be made to the district forum of the concerned district where the value of goods and services and compensation, if any, is up to Rs 20 lakhs, to the 'State Commission' between Rs 20 lakhs and Rs 100 lakhs, and to the National Commission for more than Rs 100 lakhs. Interestingly, there is provision for appeals against the orders of a particular redessal forum by the aggrieved party before the next higher echelon and even from the findings of the National Commission before the Supreme Court.
Invariably, consumers are a vulnerable lot for exploitation, more so in a developing country with the prevalence of mass poverty and illiteracy. India too is no exception to it. Instances like overcharging, black marketing, adulteration, profiteering, lack of proper services in trains, telecommunication, water supply, airlines, etc are not uncommon here. From time to time, the government has attempted to safeguard consumer's interests through legislations and the CPA 1986 is considered as the most progressive statute for consumer protection. Procedural simplicity and speedy and inexpensive redressal of consumer grievances as contained in the CPA are really unique and have few parallels in the world. Implementation of the Act reveals that interests of consumers are better protected than ever before. However, consumer awareness through consumer education and actions by the government, consumer activists, and associations are needed the most to make consumer protection movement a success in the country.