By Yash Bishnoi, CNLU
Editor’s Note: Under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986/ Consumer Protection (amendment) Act, 2011 consumers are provided with machinery whereby they can file their complaints to the Consumer Forums with special powers so that appropriate action could be taken and the possible compensation may be awarded to consumer. This paper gives an overview about what actually is Consumer Protection Act. The issues and challenges involved like the problems faced in redressal mechanism. Also the paper provides with various strategies to overcome the same.
The present-day concern for consumer rights is not new and consumer’s rights to have pure, un-adulterated commodities at appropriate prices has been recognized since ancient times. The rulers back then felt the need of the welfare of their people and considered it to be the major area of concern. They gave importance on regulating the social conditions as well as the economic life of the people; they established trade restrictions in order to protect the interests of buyers.
In Manu Smriti the social, political and economic conditions of ancient society are described. Manu had also written on ethical trade practices. A code of conduct to traders and specified punishments to those who committed certain crimes against buyers was given. For example, he referred to the problem of adulteration and according to him any impure commodity should not be sold as pure, nor a bad one as good, nothing less than the quantity or weight should be sold.
Manu has also described the rules of competency for parties to enter into a contract. According to him a contract made by an intoxicated person or insane person or grievously disordered (by disease and so forth) or by a minor or infant or by an unauthorized person to contract is invalid. There was also a mechanism to control prices and punish wrongdoers. The rates for the purchase and sales of all marketable goods were decided by King. All the measures show us the importance of regulating the wrongs of the market to safeguard the interests of consumer prevalent in Ancient society.
Moreover, it is seen how efficient the regulating provisions of the market were at that time. Thus, Manu Smriti effectively dealt with various consumer matters, many of which remain of great concern in modern legal systems. Kautilya’s Arthasastra describes the role of the State in regulating trade and its duty to safeguard interests of the consumers. Between 400 and 300 B.C., there was a director of trade whose primary responsibility was to monitor the market situations. During this period, several measures were taken to maintain official standards of weights and measures.
According to Kautilya factories should be directed to manufacture according to standard weights and measures and he also encouraged on checking of the stamping of weights to be made every four months. For the rights of the traders on the return of an article purchased or payment of price thereof, there was fixed rule of time for the return of article, after which an article could not be returned. Goods were not to be sold directly from the factory, markets were made for sell where the dealer had to declare particulars as to the quantity, quality and the prices of the goods which were examined and registered in the books. There were severe punishments for smuggling and adulteration of goods.
Thus, the State bore a heavy responsibility for protecting the public against unfair prices and fraudulent transactions. The king was the central power to render justice. The King looked on the problems of the consumer on the second shift of the day. The mobile and circuit courts worked at night to listen to the cases and render justice, whenever necessity arose. These shows how effective were the redressal system ancient time.
In the medieval period, consumer protection continued to be of prime concern of the rulers. Strict controls were established in the market place, there was a mechanism for price-enforcement in the market and shop-keepers were punished for under weighing their goods.
In the modern period, Britishers introduced a single unified law in whole India for consumer protection. The British institutions and rules were combined with the separate rules like to Dharma and local custom and personal laws for different religions.
Despite the challenges of combining the British and Indian legal systems, the fabric of modern Indian Law is unmistakably Indian in its outlook and operation and consumer protection is not an exception to this perception. Some of the laws which were passed during the British regime concerning consumer interests are: the Drugs and Cosmetics Act of 1940, the Indian Contract Act of 1872, the Indian Penal Code of 1860, the Usurious Loans Act of 1918, the Sale of Goods Act of 1930 and the Agriculture Procedure (Grading and Marketing Act) of 1937. These laws provided specific legal protection for consumers.
Legal Advancement of Consumer Protection Act, 1986
From 1930 to 1986 for 50 years, the Sale of Goods Act of 1930 [SGA] was the exclusive source of consumer protection in India. The main protection for the buyer against the seller for defective goods is found in Section 16[i] of the Act. It provides exceptions to the principle of Caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) and the interests of the buyer are sufficiently safeguarded. The skill and judgment of the seller, reliance of consumer on sellers’ skill, and the test of “merchantable quality” provide effective remedies to buyers.
With the passage of time of the Consumer Protection Act of 1986, was designed to supplement the remedies already provided under the SGA. Consumer protection was also provided within India’s criminal justice system. The Indian Penal Code of 1860 has a number of provisions[ii] to deal with the crimes against consumers. It deals with offenses which are related to the using of false weights and measures, the sale of adulterated food and drinks, the, and the sale of adulterated medicinal drugs.
The Indian legal system experienced a revolution with the enactment of the Consumer Protection Act of 1986 which was specifically designed to protect consumer interests. The Consumer Protection Act, 1986 was established with the objective to provide justice which is less formal, and involves less paper work, give justice in minimum delay and with incurring less expense.
The consumer protection act, 1986 simply gives a new dimension to rights that have been recognized and protected since the ancient period. The Consumer Protection Act, 1986 has received wide recognition in India as a poor man’s legislation, ensuring easy access to justice. The Consumer Protection Act, 1986 has been utilized by consumers because of its cost-effectiveness and user-friendliness. In fact, the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 creates a sense of legal awareness among the public and at the same time, brings a sense of disinterest to approach traditional courts, especially on consumer-related matters.
It has encourage public to come to consumer redressal board before and made them think first of their remedies under the consumer protection act, 1986, regardless of the nature of their case. In short, the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 has generated confidence among the “teeming millions” of diminished litigants. The basic Consumer Rights are-
I. Right to Safety- This right safeguard you against the marketing of goods and services, which can be hazardous to life and property. According to this right the purchased goods and services availed should not only meet their immediate needs, but also fulfil the long term interests.
II. Right to information– This right means right to be informed about the quality, quantity, purity, standard and the price of goods so as to protect the consumer against unfair trade practices[iii]. The key features are:
- The right to be given the facts needed to make an informed choice, to be protected against false advertising or labeling.
- The responsibility to search out and use available information.
- To read and follow labels and research before purchase. Without information on quality, quantity, potency, purity, standard and price of goods and services, consumers would not be able to make the right decisions and protect themselves from abusive practices. Various interpretations of Article 19 (2) of fundamental rights clearly state that there should be a definite policy or uniform guidelines on the part of the state to help consumers make “informed choice”.
III. Right to Choose– Under this right the consumer is assured to variety of goods and services at competitive prices. In the case of a monopolistic market, the consumer have right to get satisfactory quality and service at a nominal price. It also includes right to basic goods and services. In spite various legislation, the right to choice of the Indian consumer is not been able to be achieved. At the micro level, the individual is duped each and every day by dishonest traders, forced and cheated into buying items she/he does not require as part of tied- selling, and cheated by wrong weights and poor quality. Consumers in many parts of the country are deprived of their basic rights such as supply of electricity, good roads, proper transport and other public services and utilities.
VI. Right to be heard/represented- This right means that consumer’s interests will receive utmost importance by simple and speedy trial with due consideration at appropriate fora. It also includes the right to be represented in various fora formed to consider the consumer’s welfare.
V. Right to Redress– It includes right to a fair settlement of the genuine grievances of the consumer. Consumers must register a complaint about their genuine grievances. Many times, the complaint may be of small value but its impact on the society, as a whole, may be very large. The key aspects are: The right to be compensated for misrepresentation, false goods or unsatisfactory services. The responsibility to fight for the quality that should be provided.
VI. Right to Consumer Education-This right contains the provision to acquire knowledge and skills needed to make well informed and confident choices about goods and services, and at the same time being aware of basic consumer rights and responsibilities and how to act on them. The right to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to be an informed consumer.
VII. Right to Basic Needs- The basic needs include goods and services such as adequate and proper food, pure drinking water, shelter, clothing, health care, and education. These rights are the need of individual today and are a symbol of dignity. The following needs constitute the inalienable right to basic needs: food; clothing; healthcare; drinking water and sanitation; shelter; education; energy; and transportation.
VIII. Right to Healthy Environment- It includes the right to live and work in such an environment, which is safe for the well-being of the present and future generations.
Concern on the issue of healthy environment is also shown in Constitution of India, as per Article 21 of the Indian Constitution requires the State to protect life, which is interpreted as including the right to a healthy and safe environment. A healthy and safe environment is linked with sustainability and promotion of sustainable consumption. Moreover, the Directive Principles of State Policy direct the state to work towards protecting and improving the environment, forests and wild life. Consumer protection in India thus has dual dimensions. It first has to ensure availability and access to basic needs of life to one section of the society; and at the same time, those with the purchasing power need to be protected against violation of their other rights.
Salient Features of Consumer Protection Act, 1986
- The greatness of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 is its easy-to-understand legal framework, wide jurisdiction and inexpensive justice. Consumer Protection Act, 1986 is made from different aspects of law such as a mixture of principles of torts and contract could be found in the Consumer Protection Act, 1986.
- Under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 complain can be filled by any of the party below i.e. Consumer groups, the central or any state government. This liberalization shows the care that has been taken to represent and fight for the cause of weak, indifferent and uneducated consumers.
- The novelty of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 is the inclusion of both goods and services within its jurisdiction. The consumer can bring a suit for defective commodities as well as for deficiency of services. In case of any deficiency, all services, whether provided by the government or any private companies, can be questioned under the COPRA, 1986.
- The Consumer Protection Act, 1986 also liberalized rigid procedural requirements and introduced simple and easy methods of access to justice. To proceed under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, the consumer need only pay a nominal fee and need not to send any notices to the opposite party. A normal letter addressed to the consumer forum draws enough attention to initiate legal action.
- Another major procedural flexibility is the option that the consumer need not pay a lawyer. If the consumer prefers, he can represent himself. These simple measures of action drive consumers to avail themselves of the benefits of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986.
- The Consumer Disputes Redressal agencies, the National Commissions, the State Commission, and the District Forum are working together in a way that is revolutionizing the present Indian legal system and challenging the traditional system of delivering justice.
- The provisions of the Act are compensatory in nature.
- With easy access to the courts guaranteed by the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, consumers now wage legal battles against unscrupulous traders or service providers without any hesitation.
- The Act also provides for setting up of Consumer Protection Councils at the Central, State and District levels, which are set up as advisory bodies to promote and protect the rights of the consumers.
The Indian government is also taking an active interest in protecting consumer rights and promoting effective consumer movements. In 2003, the Planning Commission of India identified “Consumer Awareness, Redressal, and Enforcement of the Consumer Protection Act of 1986[iv]” as a priority, and as a result of this, a national action plan was prepared. The consumer forum created by the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 have proven to be efficient, disposing of thousands of cases with few legal formalities, and leading the way toward well-founded consumer jurisprudence in India.
Consumer Protection Act is amended by Act no.34 of 1991, Act no.50 of 1993 and Act no.62 of 2002. Amendment made in 1991 was mainly to incorporate provisions for the quorum of District Forum, appointing people to preside over State Commissions/District Forums, in case of absence of President to enable the court function uninterruptedly. In 1993, the Act was again amended to address the inadequacies in the coverage of the main Act. It aimed to plug loopholes and enlarge the scope of areas covered and interest more power to the redressal agencies under the Act.
In 2002, the Act was again amended to facilitate quicker disposal of complaints, boosting the capability of redressal agencies, powering them, streamlining the procedure and widening the scope of the Act to make it more functional and efficient.
The main objectives of the Consumer Protection (Amendment)[v] Bill, 2011 are:-
- Widening the scope and amplifying the provisions of the Act.
- Facilitating quicker disposal of complaints.
- Rationalizing the qualifications and procedure of selection of the Presidents and Members of Consumer Forum.
- Strengthening penal provisions/enforcement orders of Consumer Forum.
The Standing Committee Report[vi] on Consumer Protection (Amendment) Bill, 2011 observed that a cooperative approach between Central and State Governments will result in the uniform implementation of consumer protection laws and rules across all jurisdictions. A need for updating of the quality of goods and standards of services provided to consumers so as to conform to the international standard is also stressed upon.
It also draws attention towards a strong need to spread awareness in order to educate the consumer about their rights as provided under the Act. Committee recommended that Consumer Forum should be given the power to grant punitive damages of not less than five times of the loss or compensation awarded to an aggrieved consumer by the defaulting Companies.
Other Eminent Laws Enacted For Consumer Protection
Consumer protection legislation enacted after India’s independence from Britain include the Essential Commodities Act of 1955[vii], the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act of 1954[viii] and the Standard of Weights and Measures Act of 1976. The Constitution of India in Article 46[ix] provides that state shall work towards protecting the economic interest of the weaker section of its population and also protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation which means all kinds of harassments and frauds in the market place. As per the Article, 47[x] of the Indian Constitution people should be entitled to unadulterated stuff injurious to public health and safety.
Under the Sections, 264 to 267 of the Indian Penal Code relating to fraudulent use of false instrument for weighing, crooked use of false weight and measuring devices, any person in possession of false weights or measuring devices respectively. The Indian Penal Code also provides sections 269 to 271 on spreading of infections and in sections 272 to 276 on adulteration of food or drinking water, adulteration of any drugs, the sale of adulterated drugs and sale of drugs as a different drug or any preparation for it, is punishable with imprisonment or with both.
The Indian Standards Institutions (Certification Marks) Act, 1952 provides for the standardization and marking of goods which is a prerequisite to the establishment of healthy trade and to compare favorably with the established makes of foreign products. The Act has been amended in 1961 and 1976 to make more effective in order to achieve its objectives.
The Prevention Of Food Adulteration Act, 1954, keeping in view the menace of adulteration to the society and to make the machinery provided under it more effective to curb the increasing tendencies in adulteration, was amended in 1964. The amendment provides that for the proper enforcement of the provision of the Act that the central government also should have the power to appoint food inspectors.
One of the most important steps taken by Central Government to protect the interests of consuming public is the enactment of the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act of 1969. The object of this Act is to provide that the operation of an economic system does not result in the concentration of economic power to the common detriment. It also provides for controlling the monopolies and prohibition of monopolistic and restrictive trade practices.
These acts are beneficial because they do not need the consumer to prove the guilt of another. These offenses are not dependent on any intention or knowledge to make the person liable. Criminal law has acquired much significance in the life of a consumer, as consumers are less inclined to go to civil court for small claims. A view is in the society saying that there has been an attempt to look at consumer protection as “a public interest issue rather than as a private issue” to be left to individuals for settlement in court.
In addition to the remedies under contract and criminal law, consumers have rights under tort law also. Based on its numerous legal complexities, however, tort law is not the ideal remedy for injured consumers in India. For example, the traditional doctrine of negligence imposes heavy responsibility on the plaintiff to prove each of its required elements. These traditional legal requirements naturally encourage injured consumers to pursue legal remedies under different laws.
Not surprisingly, it is estimated that for about half a century from 1914 to 1965, only 613[xi] tort cases came before the appellate courts. The orthodox legal requirements under the law of torts and contracts forced the policy makers to craft specific legislation to protect consumers and safeguard their rights. As a result, the Consumer Protection Act of 1986 was enacted with the objective of providing “cheap, simple and quick” justice to Indian consumers.
- Educate consumers to develop an understanding of their responsibilities as consumers.
- Consumer should organize together to develop the strength and influence to promote and protect their own interest.
- Government should make and implement rules of punishment harsher so that manufacturer and shopkeeper think twice before adopting fraudulent practices.
- Government and other consumer agencies should make efforts in the direction of propaganda and publicity of the district forum, the state and the judiciary established for consumer protection so as to make more and more consumer awareness about machinery for their greater involvement and to seek justice in case of grievances.
- Supreme Court in a Common Cause v. Union of India,[xii] where the Court issued directions that all States and Union Territories to constitute all the District Forums and the State Commissions within six weeks. The State Governments did not evince sufficient interest in establishing District Forums and the State Commissions. In fact, the District Forum is the blueprint of the entire Consumer Disputes Redressal Machinery because a large number of cases are to be covered within the jurisdiction of the District forum. The appeals that are against the orders of the District Forum are to go to the State Commission and against the orders of the State Commission to the National Commission. It appears that the State Government has paid scant regard to this statutory obligation.
- Publish periodical and product-specific booklets, pamphlets, CDs, slides, documentary films and other devices of mass communication for promoting consumer awareness in English and regional languages.
- Bring together the consumer, traders and policy makers to exchange information of mutual interest for better regulation. Bring together the NGO’s/Consumer activities operating in different areas and equip them with suitable and required information and knowledge to enable them to act as nodal agents of change in rural areas.
- The packaging and appearance of the product should not be the guiding factor for all consumer purchases. Along with its cost consideration, the consumer must take caution of the quality of the product. Most importantly, it is the main responsibility of a consumer to bring any violation in their rights to the notice of the concerned authorities.
- Further procedures shall so be designed as to have easy handling and quick disposal of cases.
With the increasing awareness of consumer rights the prospect of the consumer justice system in our country appears to be bright in view of the proactive policy, schemes / programmes adopted by the Government. However, the present drive and direction need to be supported by appointing efficient and quicker redressal system and there is an alarming need for the State Governments to give considerable amount of priority to Consumer welfare and gear up themselves to meet the challenges thrown up by market economy. Besides this the involvement of civil society organizations, above all consumer and trade and industry, themselves are vital for betterment of consumer welfare in the years to come. Quality product is consumer’s right and they are all well empowered to get it.
Formatted on 28th February 2019.
[i] Sale of Goods Act, 1930.
[ii] Section 265,272 and 275 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
[iii] Right to Information, URL- http://www.consumerrights.org.in/to-information.htm
[vi]http://www.prsindia.org/billtrack/the-consumerprotection-amendment-bill-2011-2123/, Time- 4.43 PM , Date- 13/03/14
[ix] Prof. M.P. Jain, Indian Constitutional Law, Volume 2, 6th edition, Lexis Nexis Butterworths publication Wadhwa, Nagpur, 2010.
[x] Ar. 47: Duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health (DPSPs)
[xii] 1993 AIR 1403, 1993 SCR (1) 10