On December 24, 1986, President Zail Singh signed the Consumer Protection Act into law.
It had taken years of effort by activist organisations like the Consumer Guidance Society of India (CGSI) and the Council for Fair Business Practices (CFBP), both founded in 1966 in Bombay. CGSI was started by nine women who took to the streets beating thalis with rolling pins, demanding justice and protection from the rampant black marketeering and adulteration then prevailing. CFBP was formed by Indian industrialists who had seen the need for high manufacturing standards as the best way to gain consumer confidence and compete against the multinationals who dominated the market.
These organisations, and others like them, all started in humble surroundings — for instance in offices surrounded by drying laundry, without chairs for complainants and advocates, with the presiding officers sharing a table — and have scaled up slowly.
In consumer courts, filing fees are low and there are no court fees. Consumers are encouraged to appear in their own matters; unlike in civil courts, the observance of technicalities is minimal, the Code of Civil Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act, are not to be strictly used. So litigants do not need to become legal experts before presenting their cases. It is easy for them to prepare and argue their complaints. In addition, NGOs have been spreading consumer awareness through lectures and other means; like the CFBP, many have free counselling centres which assist consumers with drafting and filing complaints. And many manufacturers have taken up the consumer awareness programmes, not just to raise awareness among their own workers, but also to instil a value for quality control, since other consumers are conscious of the products they make.
All this has encouraged more consumers to seek redressal for their complaints, and over the years, consumer courts have grown in importance. The importance of the work, and the volume of it, can be seen in the four monthly reports published containing the judgments of the state Consumer Dispute Redressal Commissions (CDRCs) and the National Commissions and of the Apex Court. The Act itself has developed further, with a series of Supreme Court judgements and interpretations bringing builders, insurance, doctors, banks — indeed almost all services — within the ambit of the Consumer Fora.”Jago grahak Jago,” wake up, consumers, is the moto.
The efforts to create the Act, the expansion of its ambit, the rising faith of consumers in it: all of these are negated by the condition that our consumer courts find themselves in today, almost thirty years after the Act was passed.
The consumer is queen, but the consumer courts are paupers
The present infrastructure is unable to handle the volume of complaints being filed with the district-level Consumer Forums (CFs) and the state’s CDRCs.
There are no proper courts rooms, with lights and fans and chairs. The presiding member is supposed to be of district judge-level, and in the state commission it is supposed to be a High Court judge. But these eminent jurists have some of the most pathetic chambers allotted to them. There is no adequate or even trained staff, no stenographers for taking dictation. Often, the entire board is required to be discharged because there were no peons to staff to retrieve files from the records room. The records rooms themselves are inadequate; files are misplaced, or even eaten by termites.
Members of CFs get paid as little as Rs. 250 per sitting; this is less than half the salary of Class Four government employees. Members of the CDRCs get little better: Rs. 400. Even this paltry remuneration sometimes does not get paid for months at a time. How can one expect these officials to work all day to deliver verdicts and survive without remuneration? After all, their workload leaves them with no time to have any other source of livelihood.
In Mumbai, the CDRC functions from two locations. At one, they share premises with the Motor Accident Claim Tribunal and the Human Rights Commission opposite CST; here, there are two daily boards, one for the Circuit Bench No III and the other of the Registrar. The other centre is at the Old Secretariat building opposite Jehangir Art Gallery; the principle Bench and the Circuit Bench II function from there. Records and original files are ferried from one centre to the other daily, by taxi or by the personal vehicles of the members and the Registrar. At these offices, there are no washrooms or toilet facilities for litigants; both litigants and advocates have no access to drinking water; women advocates do not have a bar room; there are not even fans to offer some relief from the heat and the humidity. But still these daily boards have between 40 to 80 matters listed every day. With at least two litigants and their lawyers for each matter listed, this translates to a minimum of 150 citizens waiting for justice each day, without, water, toilet, fans. Often, after all this, they do not even get a hearing, since the number of stenographers and other staff is inadequate to handle the caseload.
Complaints filed, hearings dates, orders passed every day, and other such details are supposed to be made available in a transparent way on a web portal, Computerization and Computer Networking of Consumer Forums in Country (confonet.nic.in). This system seems to be sabotaged: there is no information available since August 2015.
Circuit Benches have been started at Nagpur, Aurangabad, Kolhapur, Pune, Amravati and Nashik, to bring dispute redressal for a closer to consumers in other parts of the state. But at most of these cities, presiding members have been complaining of no suitable accommodation and lack of adequate staff. As a result, there is a huge pile-up of complaints and appeals, particularly in Kolhapur and Pune.
The situation in other states is much better. For instance, the Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh CDRCs are in sprawling eight-acre plots.
Making the city’ consumer courts stronger
Without satisfied consumers, no market, no society, no country, can develop or progress or even survive. It is very important that our citizens should get full and timely redressal for their grievances. Especially considering the progressive image of the state of Maharashtra, it is necessary for our Government to improve the situation regarding consumer courts.
There are several public interest litigations pending before the Mumbai High Court seeking adequate staff and infrastructure commensurate with the nature of work that is being done by the presiding members. But it seems like the government is taking all these requirements lightly and without the priority they need in order to establish and conduct a proper redressal mechanism for the consumer, as contemplated by the Act.
Some steps suggest themselves
Make adequate space available for at least four sitting benches of the State Commission in Mumbai. All of them should be in one place, and be adequately staffed, both in terms of numbers and training.
Members of the Consumer Forum should be given remuneration commensurate with the job. Their standing is on par with a district judge, senior division, so they should be paid on the same scale.
Consumer courts must be treated with the same degree of respect as civil courts. That is, the facilities should be of the same quality and number.
The number of staff allotted
The cadre of the staff
Operating infrastructure, like courtrooms, records rooms, and so on should be sufficient
Reflecting the age we are in, information technology facilities like computers, printers, and online facilities must be vastly improved
Chambers for judges and members
A litigants’ instructions room
A library both in print and in electronic media.
And yes, the basic irony must be resolved. This is the place where consumers come to seek justice. Why are they treated here, above all, like sub-humans? Consumers’ rights must be kept foremost here. The State must insure that litigants and lawyers alike get access to at least basics like toilets, drinking water, and a canteen.
Protect the Consumer Protection Act: treat it with respect
The Act reflects the developing of not just awareness of the rights but also of the responsibilities as good citizens. Manufacturers, builders, bankers, insurance providers, transport providers, all manner of service providers: they know that taking the consumer for a ride is risky. They have realised they must mend their ways and be more consumer-friendly, more receptive to the consumers’ needs.
Isn’t it time that the Act’s redressal mechanism gets the same respect?
WHAT MATTERS YOU CAN TAKE TO A CONSUMER COURTS.
All such goods and services pertaining to issues for which a consumer has paid or agreed to pay, which is made available to potential users and includes but limited to the provision of facilities in connection with
Processing, supply of electrical or other energy
Boarding or lodging or both
Amusement, or the purveying of news or other information
This does not include the rendering or any service free of charge or under a contract of personal service. or against unfair trade practices as defined u/s 2(1)(r)
TYPES OF CONSUMER COURTS
Handles Original Complaints where the claim amount is above Rs 1 crore [section 21(a)(i)]
Appeals against orders passed by the State Consumer Commissions [section 21(a)(ii)]
Revision jurisdiction against orders passed by the State Commissions in first appeals
Has administrative and supervisory powers over the entire Consumer Fora below and also power to Frame Regulations [section 21(b)]
Handles Original Complaints where the claim amount is between Rs 20 lakhs and Rs 1 crore [section 17(a)(i)]
Appeals against orders passed by the District Forum [section 17(a)(ii)]
Revision jurisdiction against orders passed by the District Forum which is illegal or beyond their jurisdiction [section 17(b)]
Has administrative and supervisory powers over the District Forum in the State [section 17A, 17B]
Handles Original Complaints where the claim amount is upto Rs 20 lakhs [section 11(1)]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anand Patwardhan is Honorary Treasurer, Council For Fair Business Practices. He was formerly chair of the Consumer Guidance Society of India and president of the Consumer Courts Advocates’ Association (Maharashtra & Goa).