In a bid to protect consumers' rights in the country, the government has taken a good number of initiatives albeit there are still much to do, especially in case of the mindset of both buyers and sellers about their respective needful to do.
In addition to the state agencies, civil rights platforms have also been playing a noteworthy role in ensuring discipline in the sector, which is commendable.
The government has enacted laws those are directly connected with the consumers' rights including the Consumer Rights Protection Act, 2009 and Food Safety Act, 2013. Besides, there are some other legal frameworks and regulatory bodies which are indirectly related to the issue. Two government watchdogs have also been established in the last one decade, namely Directorate of National Consumers' Rights Protection (DNCRP) and Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA).
Both the watchdogs are said to have been set up under pressure created by the civil rights platforms led by civil society members.The government enacted the Consumer Rights Protection Act, 2009 in April 2009 aiming to protect consumers' rights to quality goods or services at rational prices. The law also paved the way for the consumers to get access to product information like quality, quantity, standard and value of the goods or services.
A customer has the right to know the detailed information about a product he is buying from a seller like the manufacturing date, place, expiration, ingredients used, cautionary notice and maximum retail price (MRP). On the other hand, a seller is obligated to provide the consumers with the basic information, if he denies doing so, he is violating the law.
According to the law, a consumer is an individual who buys goods or services for himself or for his dependants in exchange for money. Besides, a consumer has many rights including availing safe, pure products, exact quantity, scope to choose from alternatives and know basic information, get change in case of faulty products. But in reality consumers are being deprived of their rights by various means.
Often quarrel takes place between a seller and a buyer even in posh shopping malls over different issues of rights, while it is needless to mention what happened at places like footpaths. However, some consumers are also found to be irrational in what they demand from a seller. To understand the topic there is a need for understanding the law. The main objective of the law is as follows
1. To ensure and enhance consumers' rights with the needful initiatives.
2. Thwarting the anti-rights activities with efficiency.
3. Settling disputes between a seller and a buyer.
4. Taking measures to ascertain supply of quality products in the shops and other marketplaces.
5. Compensating a consumer if he/she falls a victim at the hands of unscrupulous businesses.
6. Prevention of deception and irregularities in availing products and services.
7. Creating awareness among both consumers and sellers about the rights and responsibilities.
As per the law, once a buyer is deprived of his rights, he can file complaints with the government watchdogs. To implement the law DNCRP was established in 2015, which is getting good public attention these days as it is regularly conducting drives to monitor market. When rights are infringed, a consumer can file complaints with the DNCRP within 30 days of purchase of the products or services with proper evidences like money receipt.
A consumer can directly contact the DNCRP offices across the country including its headquarters in the capital located at the TCB Bhaban in Kawranbazar filling in a prescribed form. Now the DNCRP has spread its operations to other districts. A consumer should visit the DNCRP website for other details of the issue and how to file a complaint.
According to official data, the most common ways rights violation occurs include not packaging goods rightly, not posing price lists, over-charging prices, sale of fake, adulterated and expired goods, cheating in weight and giving false information through advertisement. A trader with an ill-motive can land in jail for one to three years or count fine between Tk 50,000 and Tk 2,00,000, if he is proved to be deceiving a customer by cheating in might or selling fake, substandard goods, as per the law. Besides a business selling expired medicine or other goods will be fined or put behind bars for up to one year or will face both.
According to the data available with the DNCRP, during market monitoring the watchdog fined 19,234 businesses Tk 14,74,33,050 on charge of resorting to different types of irregularities in the fiscal year (FY) 2018-19 against 11,718 businesses fined Tk 12,52,81,700 in the previous FY 2017-18.
The DNCRP also fined 5,571 businesses until mid-October in the current fiscal year during market monitoring.The number of complaints filed by the consumers directly fell by around 17 per cent to 7,515 in the FY 2018-19 from 9,019 in the previous fiscal. Under the allied law, a consumer gets 25 per cent of the fine money from the DNCRP as incentive or compensation after the case in connection with the complainant is settled. Complainants received around Tk 0.1 million in the first quarter of the FY 2019-20. Compensation amounting to Tk 24,38,825 was also given to complainants in the FY 2018-19. So far 5,520 consumers received Tk 96,35,327 as incentive since FY 2011-12, the DNCRP data revealed. The government officials and other stakeholders, taking part in different forums, identified the customers' unawareness about their rights. They also said some businesses cheat the consumers wilfully, while many of them violate the rights without knowledge.
According to the media reports, the government agency cannot take initiatives against the large conglomerates as they approach the High Court to impose stay order on the disputes.
So it is high time for the agencies concerned to take necessary steps for strengthening the government watchdogs so that they can function independently. In such circumstances, it's next to impossible for the government agencies alone to improve the situation. The civil rights platform Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB) has been working for many years to create awareness among the country's people about their rights.
A voluntary organisation, the CAB was established in February, 1978 with the participation of conscious citizens in Dhaka. They were inspired with the ideas of consumerism, a movement that took shape in many advanced countries in Europe and America.
CAB is one of the key members of the National Consumer Rights Protection Council under the Ministry of Commerce. The rights body is also represented in the Executive Council of Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI) and affiliated with other government agencies like Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Food, Ministry of Communication, Ministry of Health and so on.
With the change in the way people communicate, the right bodies, government agencies related to the consumers have been using social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube.This is highly praiseworthy, as these have become an easy mode and the most effective way of communication.
Some of DNCRP officials use the Facebook live feature while conducting a drive, which proves to be a very good way to ensure transparency. Later they upload the footage on websites like YouTube, as a result people interested can watch them later. Besides, the instance can be a source of learning for other businesses.
The cooperation between government and civil platforms is also noteworthy. The CAB with the support of the DNCRP launched a call centre last year (2018) so that consumers can contact at ease to get information and seek support if they face rights violation. Besides, the rights body has also launched an online news portal hosted at https://www.voktakantho.com/, which is a good source of information for the consumers.
According to experts, the overall consumer rights situation is not yet favourable though the government has formulated legal frameworks and constituted some agencies in recent years. There is a need for strengthening the government agencies and implement the existing laws strictly to ensure the rights. Above all, a positive change among the all stakeholders of supply chain from production to retailers is most crucial in this regard.
As the supply chain is undergoing revolutionary changes across the globe, especially in terms of information technology and e-commerce, the authorities concerned must take the development into consideration.
Saif Uddin is a reporter at The FE.
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