If I have been cheated or defrauded, and have a grievance, I can go to the police or relevant departmental redressal machinery, or seek justice under the law. But if my grievance is against a legal facility set up by the government itself, where do I go?

Twenty five years ago, the union government passed a path-breaking Consumer Protection Act, to provide “simple, speedy and inexpensive” justice to the common man, as against the cumbersome and expensive law courts where cases could drag on for years. It was a very comprehensive piece of legislation that was hailed as one of the best in the world. Today, the implementation of the statute is in shambles, with the original spirit of the law almost forgotten. And for this sorry state of affairs, two parties are mainly to blame -- the government itself, and multinationals seeking markets in the developing world for profits.

The government passed the Act in 1986, to protect citizens’ basic rights (to safety, choice, information and most importantly, redress in matters of defective goods and deficient services) through a simple three-tier mechanism, with a three-member quasi-judicial district forum in each district of the country, a state commission to hear appeals from the district fora in each state, and a National Commission that heard appeals from parties aggrieved by orders from the lower courts. Citizens no longer had to go through intimidating civil courts, or engage lawyers. A simple written submission was all that was required under the Act.

A screengrab of cercindia.org

Having passed the Act, however, the government did nothing till 1989. There were no funds allocated, or infrastructure (accommodation, staff) and no appointments were made from the judiciary as required by the Act, till Common Cause, an NGO founded by former bureaucrat, H.D.Shourie (father of Arun Shourie) approached the Supreme Court with a public interest litigation. The Supreme Court ordered the union government to set up the machinery to implement the Act, “within six weeks”. Fearing contempt of court charges, the government hastily set up the district fora and state commissions - but with ill-concealed disinterest. One in south Mumbai, for instance, was housed in old, dilapidated barracks next to a stinking toilet, some fora had no clerical staff to transcribe orders (so complainants often couldn’t appeal against an order within the stipulated 30 days).

The Act originally said complaints had to be resolved within 90 days. Today, in case no. 1809 of 2012 (Bangalore) a copy of the complaint did not even get sent to the opposite party (a multinational) for a full two months. Other cases filed in 2008, and 2009, are still not resolved. In one case (against Maruti, for a defective car) 24 adjournments were given till the elderly complainant died without getting justice.

There was no need for lawyers earlier; today the fora are filled with lawyers who take up most of the seats, pushing ordinary citizens who appear in person, to the periphery and creating an atmosphere of intimidation. When lawyers were, in fact, barred in these consumer courts, the move was opposed by the legal profession on grounds that their “right to practice a profession” was being curtailed. With the result that inordinate amount of time is now taken up by unwanted documentation, and long, convoluted rejoinders in legalese, running into several pages. (And as activist Jude Chaves of Mumbai points out, lawyers get paid for each appearance, and it is in their interest to seek adjournments.) All this, in spite of the fact that the National Commission has clearly ruled that the spirit of the Act along with justice, should be the overriding consideration rather than technical legalities. The Bar Council of India in fact opposed representation by non-advocates in consumer courts, but the High Court held (in 2011) that complainants cannot be compelled to engage lawyers. A strange case of lawyers trying to sabotage the spirit of an Act itself ! With the result that procedural deadlocks have, as Chaves remarks, “defeated the very purpose of the Act”.

When lawyers were barred in these consumer courts, the move was opposed by the legal profession on grounds that their "right to practice a profession" was being curtailed. With the result that inordinate amount of time is now taken up by unwanted documentation, and long, convoluted rejoinders in legalese, running into several pages.

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Originally there was no fee for filing a complaint, Today, demand drafts for amounts ranging from Rs 100 to 400 are to be submitted. And cases drag on for years, with repeated adjournments granted to lawyers representing commercial interests, making a mockery of the spirit of the Act. In fact, the forum at Bangalore even asks complainants to bring their own stamps and envelopes, to send a copy of the complaint to the opposite party, although there is no provision for such a collection under the statute. What is worse, the demand for stamps is imposed very arbitrarily - some complainants are asked to bring their own stamps, some are not. There are no clear guidelines displayed on the large boards carrying instructions, and the staff in fact concede that there is “no rule” requiring complaints to bring their own stamps. Earlier, postcards used to be mailed to complainants, informing them of the date of hearing. Today, no such intimation is sent, one has to go find out personally.

Who does one complaint to? The State Commission? It turns out that it is the State Commission that has instructed the district fora to collect stamps and envelopes, because “allocation of funds has been cut.” If safeguarding citizens’ rights is promised under the Act, why does the government cut funds? The way the Act works now, it is neither simple, nor speedy, nor inexpensive. Formerly, the registrar signed the affidavit that complainants are required to file, today affidavits have to be from a notary on payment. The Bangalore district forum has no registrar, many posts of members (and in one case, even the president of the forum) are kept vacant for months on end, with no appointments made. The State Commission at Bangalore had, during 2012, only two against the three members mandated, Nagpur had vacancies for months, the forum at Goa had the President from Mumbai going over twice a month, to hear cases, because of the unfilled vacancy at Goa. Why pass a law, and forget about facilitating its implementation?

The government’s commitment to the idea of consumer protection is typified by the recent experience of the Consumer Guidance Society of India (CGSI), the country’s first and oldest consumer protection group, which was largely instrumental in getting the MRP legislation passed (previously, manufacturers sold anything from biscuits to medicines at arbitrary prices that varied from place to place and shop to shop, till it became mandatory to print the Maximum Retail Price). A massive signature petition spearheaded by CGSI also resulted in an order mandating free delivery of gas refills when dealers in Mumbai began asking customers to collect cylinders at their own expense (which inconvenienced elders, housewives and low income families).Testing of food products is another area that CGSI undertook, to expose malpractices like adulteration. CGSI also has a complaint committee helping citizens with their grievances and publishes a monthly magazine Keemat. CGSI has received the government’s national award for consumer protection work.

In 1971 the Maharashtra government made available very modest, accommodation for CGSI’s offices (two rooms, barely 450 sq ft, in a row of old barracks at Azad Maidan in Mumbai) free in view of the socially important work that the organisation was undertaking. Three years ago, however, the government suddenly slapped a demand for Rs 7.74 lakhs as “arrears” of rent. An eviction notice was sent, and unable to raise this money, CGSI reportedly turned to corporate sponsorship, which resulted in the ignominy of its being thrown out of Consumers International. Why were rent “arrears” suddenly being claimed, for years 1971 onwards? Isn’t there a judicial time limitation for such claims? Was the land perhaps needed for commercial undertakings, since it is prime location? Why have a ministry for consumer affairs, if NGOs doing what the government ought to be doing by way of protecting citizens’ rights get penalised?

Although in the initial stages many district fora gave out landmark orders (against arbitrary limitation clauses like “no refund, no replacement”), the trend now seems to be to favour multinationals with their lawyers seeking to bamboozle lay complainants. in a recent case, Sony’s lawyer, refusing to replace a digital camera which had malfunctioned within 45 days of purchase though the warranty was for three years, first accused the complainant of “filing a vexatious and baseless complaint to malign the company”. “There was “no defect” in the camera, Sony’s lawyer claimed, although he conceded that “the battery compartment would not lock” (which means the camera could not be used - surely, that is a strange definition of “defect”?) The lawyer said, the purchaser could have examined the warranty and not bought the item if she objected to the “no refund, no replacement” clause. The forum accepted this argument and dismissed the complaint and let Sony get away with selling a camera that was clearly sub-standard and could not be used when needed!

Many multinational brands are now keen to profit from India’s huge (and growing) market for consumer goods, and giving us short shrift. Nescafe was found to sell underweight packets when CERC (Consumer Education and Research Centre) a pioneering organisation at Ahmedabad (the first one to set up a lab for independent testing of products ranging from water to medicines, packaged food and cosmetics) checked the packages in the market. Philips, another multinational, was selling bulbs that did not meet quality standards. Tests on 23 “foreign” brands of CFL (compact fluorescent lamps) showed that none of the 23 met international standards and label claims. It is precisely because multinationals dump sub-standard products (and even drugs that are banned in developed countries) in India, that we needed the Consumer Protection Act, to uphold buyers’ rights against powerful companies.

A National Commission ruling also exists saying that multinationals “should not fight complaints through protracted litigation simply because they have money power” but they continue to refuse to accept wrongdoing, even when buyers’ grievances are genuine, and go on appealing, till the average individual complainant gives up in sheer disgust. Publicity for such cases in magazines devoted to consumer protection used to help create awareness (and help buyers boycott brands that were known to be bad value for money) but support for such magazines (which cannot accept advertisements because of ethical constraints and the need to maintain impartiality and independence) is inadequate.

Insight, the excellent bi-monthly magazine that routinely published test reports from CERC’s lab, has now closed down, whereas similar magazines - Which? in the U.K. and Consumer Reports in the USA - sell in millions. Misdeeds by multinationals used to be regularly exposed by Insight. Pharmaceutical multinationals are known to sell the same drugs with different insets and instructions, in different countries. Multinational Monitor, a magazine founded by world renowned consumer activist Ralph Nader, has exposed many of these misdeeds that multinational corporations engage in, especially in developing countries where the law is not strict enough to protect people’s interests. Who exposes these malpractices, if consumer organisations and publications wither away?

With the union government slavering over FDI (foreign direct investment) in multi-brand retail, mammoth companies like WalMart, which have allegations of misdeeds in the US, are raring to enter the Indian market (WalMart spent Rs 135 crores on lobbying alone, according to reports). Multinational Novartis sought to block the production and sale of generic medicines that cost a small fraction of the price that the company’s brand charged, till a Supreme Court order dismissed Nestle’s demand for patent protection. The order was hailed worldwide, and the same company is also being sued by the US government for unacceptable business practices. Unless the government ensures that our laws are strong enough and are also enforced meaningfully, we as consumers in the developing world are going to be squeezed for profits and corporate enrichment. Paper statutes are worthless if they are not turned into reality. All the more reason why the Consumer Protection Act needs to be strengthened, not diluted or applied lackadaisically.