Ensuring consumer rights

Friday, 12 July 2019

The high Court Division's recent directive to the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection (DNCRP) to strengthen its drive all over the country against violation of the rights of consumers is no doubt a welcome move. However, it remains a trifle unclear, if not confusing, as to why such a directive had to be issued from the highest court reminding the DNCRP of its foremost task? Understandably, this is because slack and irregular monitoring of market situation by the DNCRP has, so far, done little to alleviate consumers' suffering due to unrelenting and widespread violation of their rights. It has been learnt that in response to a public interest writ petition filed by the Conscious Consumers' Society, the court issued the directive to rein in all kinds of violation of consumer rights, including illegal bus fare hike, sale of adulterated food and medicine, high fees charged by lawyers and other professionals from clients etc. In the directive, the court asked the directorate to open round-the-clock hotline within two months to listen to consumer complaints. The directives include another ruling which says that the directorate must let consumers lodge complaints by dialing emergency numbers round-the-clock until hotlines are opened.
The country had its first consumer rights protection law way back in 2009. In line with the key provisions of the law, the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection (DNCRP) was set up to look after consumers' interest while ensuring fair and transparent practices in the trading of goods and services. A consumer protection framework generally includes introduction of greater transparency and awareness about goods and services, promotion of competition in the marketplace, prevention of fraud, education of customers and elimination of unfair practices through strict enforcement of law. Hence, to bring these into practice in a visible manner, the only instrument the government has to resort to is a well designed and efficient institutionalised mechanism.
But as most observers will agree, setting up of the directorate has till date made very little or no impression on the consumer rights situation. Newspaper reports say function of the organisation is mostly confined to receiving complaints. It has also been observed that the law (Consumer Rights Protection Act) has not clearly spelt out the precise areas it is to address and how. This, experts opine, has left an unclear role on the directorate. The directorate is also not adequately empowered to direct specific state agencies to carry out activities as and when necessary, nor has it been given sufficient institutional capacity to develop a specialised manpower for supervising the market.
There is hardly any disputing that at present the consumer rights situation in the country is more shocking than perhaps it ever was. The voice of the consumers as a stakeholder in the market is too feeble to be heard. Consumers have no choice but to buy fake, adulterated, poor quality goods. In this situation, inefficacy of the state agency designated to attend to the uncontrolled wrongdoings is unfortunate. All that is now required is to strengthen the directorate with human and technical resources as well as empower it with clear legal sanction to operate independently in the marketplace. Otherwise directives even from the highest court will hardly be complied with.