19 Jun 2018 19:19 IST

Know about consumer protection

The Consumer Protection Bill 2018 is a step forward in protecting the interests of consumers

Whether we buy a packet of biscuits, a bar of soap, a car or an insurance policy, we are consumers. And often, what we see may not be what we get. In such cases, it helps to know our rights as consumers and how the law stands in our favour.

The Ministry of Consumer Affairs enumerates the following rights for consumers who feel that a product or service they have bought / paid for does not meet certain set standards:

- Right to safety

This is the right to be protected against the marketing of goods and services that are hazardous to life and property. Products should not only meet immediate needs, but also fulfil long-term interests; they should not cause harm to an individual or society at large.

- Right to be informed

This includes the right to know about the quality, quantity, potency, purity, standard and price of goods. Consumers have the right to get all the information about a product or service before making a decision. This right acts as a check against selling tactics that trap consumers through misinformation.

- Right to choose

This is the right to be assured, wherever possible, of unfettered access to a variety of goods and services at competitive prices. This is designed to prevent exploitation of consumers by charging higher prices or providing lower quality of services for the same price.

- Right to be heard

This implies that consumer interest will receive due consideration at appropriate forums. It includes the right to be represented at various forums formed to protect the consumers.

- Right to seek redressal

Consumers have a right to seek redressal against unfair trade practices or unscrupulous exploitation. This includes the right to fair settlement of genuine grievances.

- Right to consumer education

Ignorance is mainly responsible for a consumer getting exploited. They should know what is right and what is wrong. The Department of Consumer Affairs conducts awareness campaigns — through physical camps or the media — to keep people updated.

Apart from these rights, which are enforceable in a court of law or with the appropriate consumer authorities, there is also a legislation to protect the interest of consumers. Called the Consumer Protection Act, it was first enacted in 1986. A new Bill to replace this Act was introduced in the Lok Sabha earlier this year.

A step beyond

The Consumer Protection Bill, 2018 is a step forward in protecting the interest of the consumers. It is an improvement over the older Consumer Protection Act, 1986 in many ways. For one, it has a wider scope than the earlier law. The new law will apply to all goods and services, including sale/construction of homes/flats and telecom services.

It brings within its fold all forms of selling — offline, online, teleshopping, direct selling and multi-level marketing. While the earlier law did cover unfair trade practices, the current one makes it more comprehensive. It adds practices such as failure to issue a bill or a receipt, refusal to accept a good returned or refusal to discontinue service within 30 days (if it is so stipulated and requested by the consumer), and disclosure of personal information given in confidence, to the list of unfair practices.

Another highlight of the new law is the inclusion of the product liability action. Thus, when you suffer any harm due to a defect in a product made by a manufacturer, serviced by a service provider, or sold by a product seller, you have a right to claim compensation.

The Bill lays down circumstances under which the manufacturer, service provider and seller will be held liable. Currently, this type of action is laid out separately in many laws governing consumer issues such as Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006; Legal Metrology Act, 2009; and Bureau of Indian Standards Act, 2016.

Regulator to check exploitation

To promote and protect consumer rights, Consumer Protection Councils at the district, State and national levels are prescribed under the current law. But this is only an advisory body and does not have powers of enforcement. To overcome this drawback, the Bill brings in a regulator for consumer affairs, much like SEBI for the financial markets or the IRDAI for insurance. Called the Consumer Protection Authority, it will be a central authority with offices at the regional level. This authority will have powers to inquire, investigate into complaints, initiate prosecution and issue safety notices/pass orders in relation to matters such as recall of goods, reimbursement of the amount paid by consumers, misleading advertisements and unfair trade practices/contracts.

The authority can act on its own or on directions from the Centre. An aggrieved consumer can also complain, either in writing or through the electronic mode. Non-compliance with an order issued by the Consumer Protection Authority is punishable, with imprisonment of up to six months, or a fine of up to ₹20 lakh, or both. The authority may also impose penalties with regard to misleading advertisements, food adulteration and spurious goods.

Simplification of grievance redressal

Currently, a redressal commission operates at the district, State and national levels to adjudicate consumer disputes. These forums were formulated to be customer-friendly as they don’t operate like regular courts. To simplify the dispute resolution process further, the new law provides for an alternative dispute redressal mechanism.

The Bill envisages setting up of mediation cells attached to the district forums, State and national commissions. Mediation is a process where a neutral third party, or a mediator, assists the parties in dispute in amicably resolving the problem outside of the court/consumer forums.

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