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Editorial Articles


Issue no 38, 17-23 December 2022

Know Your Rights as a Consumer Celebrating National Consumer Day

Prof (Dr) Sheetal Kapoor

We are all consumers as we buy goods and services from the market. Consumers constitute the markets and consumerism is a social force to aid and protect consumers by legal, administrative and economic policy measures. A country's economy turns around its markets. When it is a seller's market the consumer exploitation is the highest. When there are substantial number of buyers and sellers, consumers enjoy wide number of choices and have a win-win situation. Many times, asymmetry in the market and ignorance of the consumers puts them in an exploitative position where manufacturers and sellers take unfair advantage of them. To protect consumers from these manipulative tactics of traders, Government of India brought a benevolent legislation on 24th December in 1986 known as Consumer Protection Act. Since then, 24th December is celebrated throughout the country as National Consumer Day. As consumers we face many glitches related to defective goods, deficiency in service, food adulteration, spurious goods, hoarding, use of deceptive and fractional weights, late deliveries, variations in the contents of the pack, poor after sales service, misleading advertisements, hidden price components, price discrimination, ATM and credit card frauds, financial frauds, real estate problems and problems related to public utilities, fake reviews, hacking of private information and digital frauds. As the sellers and traders do not act responsibly it is required to inculcate this habit of self-help amongst consumers and educate them about their consumer rights, timely and effective redressal mechanism. With the advent of digital technologies, growth of E-Commerce sector and digital marketing there has been a rapid change in the marketplace as witnessed by consumers and producers. The old legislation i.e. the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 does not support the provisions for contemporary technology which are utilised by buyers and manufacturers for buying and trading products. Thus, Consumer Protection Act, 2019 eliminates the challenges of the old act and offers advantages like, transparency of e-commerce companies, simplicity in online shopping, teleshopping, product recall, unsafe contracts and misleading advertisements. CPA, 2019 provides a legislative framework for better protection of the interests of the consumer by creating a formal but quasi-judicial dispute resolution mechanism exclusively for consumers. This progressive social legislation establishes a three-tier quasi-judicial consumer dispute redress machinery at the National, State and District levels aimed at providing simple, speedy and affordable redress to consumers. At present there are 680 District Commissions out of which 630 are operational, 35 State Commissions and the National Commission at the apex level are functioning in the country. CPA 2019 extends the coverage of consumer protection, its scope and enhances the powers of the redressal machinery. Some of the innovative features of CPA, 2019 are:

A.     Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission: Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions (CDRCs) have been set up at the district, state, and national levels. A consumer can file a complaint with CDRCs in relation to: (i) unfair or restrictive trade practices; (ii) defective goods (iii) deficiency in service; (iv) overcharging or deceptive charging; and (iv) offering of goods or services for sale which may be hazardous to life and safety. Complaints against an unfair contract can be filed with only the State and National Appeals from District Commissions earlier known as District Forums are heard by the State Commissions and appeals from the State Commissions are heard by the National Commission. The final appeal lies before the Supreme Court. Table shows the Number of Cases filed in Consumer Commissions as on 31-8-2022

Total Number of Consumer Complaints Filed / Disposed since inception Under Consumer Protection Law as on 31-8-2022

S.no

Name of Agency

Cases filed since inception

Cases disposed of since inception

Cases Pending

% of  total Disposal

Remarks

1.

National Commission

143928

120877

23051

83.98%

 

2.

State Commissions

881388

771737

109651

87.56%

 

3.

District Commissions

4609377

4121700

487677

89.42%

 

 

TOTAL

5634693

5014314

620379

88.99%

 

B.     Revised Pecuniary Jurisdiction: The Govt. has notified the rules for Consumer Protection (Jurisdiction of the District Commission, the State Commission and the National Commission) Rules, 2021. As per the rules revised pecuniary jurisdiction for entertaining consumer complaints in respect of goods and services paid as consideration are as follows:

i)             District Commission               up to 50 lakhs

ii)            State Commission                  More than 50 lakh to 2 Crore

iii)           National Commission              More than 2 Crore

 

C.     Definition of 'Consumer' has been widened to include both offline and online consumers. The expressions "buys any goods" and "hires or avails any services" includes offline or online transactions through electronic means or by teleshopping or direct selling or multi-level marketing.

 

D.     Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA): CCPA has been established under CPA, 2019 to promote, protect and enforce the rights of consumers, to investigate and intervene when necessary to prevent consumer detriment arising from unfair trade practices, and to initiate class action including enforcing recall, refund and return of products. It works on the same lines as the Federal Trade Commission in US. Thus, CCPA acts on:

 

a)      Complaints of unfair trade practices

b)      Issuing safety guidelines

c)      Ordering product recall or discontinuation of services

d)     Referring complaints to other regulators

e)      Has punitive powers such as imposing penalties

f)       Can file actions before consumer commissions

g)      Intervene in proceeding in matters of consumer rights or unfair trade practices CCPA has an Investigation Wing headed by a Director-General for the purpose of conducting inquiry or investigation under the Act. For false and misleading advertisements CCPA can issue a penalty upto Rs 10 lakh on a manufacturer and endorser and includes online marketing. For a subsequent offence, the fine may extend to Rs 50 lakh. For every subsequent offence, the period of prohibition may extend to three years. However, there are certain exceptions when an endorser will not be held liable for such a penalty. CCPA has the authority to direct the removal of a misleading advertisement and can take Suo-motu actions.

Recently, CCPA has directed e-commerce companies to recall the pressure cookers and reimburse their prices to the consumers and submit a compliance report of the same within 45 days. The company has also been directed to pay a penalty of Rs. 1,00,000 for allowing sale of such pressure cookers on its e-commerce platform and violating rights of consumers. The Domestic Pressure Cooker (Quality Control) Order, which came into force on 01.02.2021 mandates conformity to IS 2347:2017 for all domestic pressure cookers. Therefore, since 01.02.2021, all pressure cookers are required to conform to IS 2347:2017 and due diligence is required to be done whether the pressure cookers are offered for sale online or offline.

To raise cognisance and quality awareness among consumers, CCPA has launched a country-wide campaign to prevent sale of spurious and counterfeit goods that violate QCOs issued by the Central Government. Everyday usage products classified as part of the campaign consist of helmets, domestic pressure cookers and cooking gas cylinders. CCPA has written to District Collectors across the country to investigate unfair trade practices and violation of consumer rights concerning manufacture or sale of such products and submit Action Taken Report. Bureau of Indian Standards also conducted search and seizure of a number of non-standard helmets and pressure cookers, where 1,435 pressure cookers and 1,088 helmets which did not conform to mandatory standards have been seized by them.

E.     Product Liability: Chapter VI applies to every claim for compensation under a product liability action by a complainant for any harm caused by a defective product manufactured by a product manufacturer or serviced by a product service provider or sold by a product seller. A product liability action may be brought by a complainant against a product manufacturer or a product service provider or a product seller, as the case may be, for any harm caused to him on account of a defective product.

A product manufacturer shall be liable in product liability action, if-

(a)    the product contains a manufacturing defect; or

(b)   the product is defective in design; or

(c)    there is a deviation from manufacturing specifications; or

(d)   the product does not conform to the express warranty; or

(e)    the product fails to contain adequate instructions of correct usage to prevent any harm or any warning regarding improper or incorrect usage.

 F.      Mediation: Chapter V of the Act introduces the concept of mediation for providing speedy redressal to consumers. The State Government, by notification, would open a consumer mediation cell which would be attached to each of the District Commissions and the State Commissions of that State. The Central Government would also establish, by notification, a consumer mediation cell to be attached to the National Commission and each of the regional Benches. A consumer mediation cell would consist of persons as may be prescribed who would act as mediators and try to resolve complaints between the business and the consumers with a win-win situation for both the parties. Every consumer mediation cell would maintain.

(a)    a list of empanelled mediators;

(b)   a list of cases handled by the cell;

(c)    record of proceeding; and

(d)   any other information as may be specified by regulations. Every consumer mediation cell would submit a quarterly report to the District Commission, State Commission or the National Commission to which it would be attached.

 G.    Unfair Contracts: It means a contract between a manufacturer or trader or service provider on one hand, and a consumer on the other, having such terms which cause significant change in the rights of such consumer, including the following:

(i)                 requiring manifestly excessive security deposits to be given by a consumer for the performance of contractual obligations.

(ii)               imposing any penalty on the consumer, for the breach of contract thereof which is wholly disproportionate to the loss occurred due to such breach to the other party to the contract.

(iii)             refusing to accept early repayment of debts on payment of applicable Penalty

(iv)             entitling a party to the contract to terminate such contract unilaterally, without reasonable cause

(v)               permitting or has the effect of permitting one party to assign the contract to the detriment of the other party who is a consumer, without his consent.

(vi)             imposing on the consumer any unreasonable charge, obligation or condition which puts such consumer to disadvantage.

 H.    Ease in Filing of Complaints: Several provisions aimed at simplifying the consumer dispute adjudication process in the consumer commissions have been added. These include, among others, enhancing the pecuniary jurisdiction of the consumer disputes redressal agencies, increasing minimum number of members in the consumer fora to facilitate quick disposal of complaints, power to review their own orders by the state and district commission, constitution of 'circuit bench' to facilitate quicker disposal of complaints, reforming the process for the appointment of the president and members of the district commission, and deemed admissibility of complaints if the question of admissibility is not decided within the specified period of 21 days. The Act now allows consumers to file their complaints with the consumer courts from anywhere. This is a big relief as earlier consumers were required to file complaint in the area where the seller or service provider was located or where the transaction had taken place. This is a welcoming change, especially with the rise in e-commerce purchases, where the seller could be located anywhere. In addition, the Act also enables the consumer to file complaints electronically through E-Daakhil App in the Consumer Commissions and seek a hearing through video conferencing, saving both money and time and also a big relief to physically challenged consumers.

 

I.       E-Commerce and Direct Selling Guidelines: The Consumer Protection (e-commerce) Rules, 2020 are mandatory and are not advisories. It mandates e-tailers to display details of sellers supplying goods and services on their websites and moot the procedure to resolve consumer complaints.They apply to all e-commerce retailers, whether registered in India or abroad, offering goods and services to Indian consumers. The e-commerce companies are required to ensure that personally identifiable information of customers are protected. Display terms of contract between eCommerce entity and the seller relating to return, refund, exchange, warranty / guarantee, delivery / shipment, mode of payments, grievance redressal mechanism etc. to enable consumers to make informed decisions. All relevant details about the goods and services offered for sale by the seller including country of origin and in case of imported goods the name and details of the importer and guarantees related to the authenticity or genuineness of the imported products need to be provided to enable the consumer to make an informed decision at the pre-purchase stage. Marketplaces, as well as sellers, need to appoint a grievance officer. No e-commerce entity shall manipulate the price of goods or services to gain unreasonable profit or discriminate between consumers of the same class or make any arbitrary classification of consumers affecting their rights or post fake reviews.

It Pays to Complaint: Consumer movement thus refers to the collective power of the consumers to take a country forward with respect to awareness, education and development. It is a social movement which attempts to improve the quality of living of the people by enhancing the economic well-being and bargaining power of consumers. Department of Consumer Affairs has launched its new mascot Jagriti which is an aware consumer about its rights and responsibilities. Further a short new code '1915' has been launched by the Department of Consumer Affairs, where more and more consumers have been found registering their grievances on the National Consumer Helpline. It is relevant to note that e-commerce continues to occupy the highest proportion of all grievances registered on NCH. Major types of consumer grievances at NCH relating to ecommerce include delivery of defective products, failure to refund paid amount, delay in delivery of product etc. The efficient and effective programme of consumer protection is of special importance to all of us since all of us are consumers. Even the marketer, producer or the service provider is a consumer of some other goods and services. Only vigilant consumers can safeguard themselves and the society.

The writer is a Professor, Department of Commerce, Kamala Nehru College, University of Delhi and can be reached at e-mail: skapoor@knc.du.ac.in Views expressed are personal.