Sunday, May 16, 2010

Consumer Rights Organisations in India

Consumer Rights Helpline

Consumer Education and Research Centre is one of the leading consumer rights organisation in India. The United Nations has recognised CERC as one of the approved non governmental organisations.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Poor service in postal dept

A consumer briefs about her hard time with the postal dept

First trying to get the telephone number for the post office in the nearest town took 20 MINUTES because they are NOT listed in the phone book under anything, the only number 411 (both Verizon and MCI) has is a 1800 number, and when I called my local Evensville post office to get it, they didn't answer their phone. I took off work to file for my passport, a whole other bunch of bullshit government hoops to jump thru.

So I had to go online to find the phone number, when I finally got a HUMAN I was told the Dayton, TN post office could NOT take my passport info today, during business hours which are bankers hours and the reason I had to take off work in the first place, because they had no clerk who could do it!!! Our government in general and the Post Office specifically sucks. No wonder more people use Fedex or UPS, at least you can reach them and they have people who can get something done.

Bad service even in US postal department

This incident happened to a father who had to send a package to his son

On Feb. 18, 2010 a package was mailed from a father to his son in Los Angeles, CA 90028. This package was for a birthday on March 10, 2010. Delivery attempt made on March 11. They left a note saying they would re-deliver on Mar 18, 2010. THis is an apt complex with a manned office, where packages are usually left. His son left a note on the apt door stating to please deliver to the office. No delivery. Today March 24, 2010 father received the package back. He called the 1-800 customer service number and basically He was told that his son was to go to his local post office to pick the package up and basically stating that he was lying. No refund, no offer to resend the package. I'm out +15 with no re-course. Upset...just a little.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Indian Railways in bad form

Its all not about the pleasures that we saw on the journey ,but more about the the condition that the India Railways seems to be in. My spouse and me have traveled to some extent on the Indian railways.We normally do the journey between Chennai and Madurai frequently since there is family in both locations.
We normally take the Pandian (and have been doing so for many years), and have started seeing the condition of the trains going down over the past few years. It would seem like the same coaches that were in use for the past many years are being used, which is fine, but it also seems that the maintenance of the coaches has come down drastically (and maybe this is how railway ministers earn money from the railways, by cutting down the cleaning and maintenance). So, now when we go, there is a smell in the train, the loos are normally never as clean as they used to be, and of course water eventually ends midway during the trip.
But what happened on the course of a journey just a few weeks back took the cake. First surprise, the train was 1 hour late. And when the train came, passengers started coming out from the train (which means that the train had just arrived and they had decided to move the same train to departure). The reaction of people when they entered the AC chair car was incredible, one could not believe how dirty the train was. There were cups on the floor, there was coffee and tea on the floor and some of the seats, and also other rubbish (this was done by the departing passengers, but it was the responsibility of the railways to ensure that incoming passengers paying fare are entitled to clean coaches and clean loos (one look at the loos, and it was an attempt to hold things till we reached our destination)).
We tried talking to the TT for getting hold of the complaint book (there were other problems, in some cases, the meal tray would not hold in place and kept on falling on the person in the seat), but the TT declined to offer any such book, and politely told us that such things happen once in a while, what is the point of raising such a complaint. He also told us the likely treatment of any complaint that we raised.

Shopping Malls take us for a ride

people flock in huge groups and not enough staff to handle the crowds at checkout.Big Bazaar in chennai is a huge retailer, expanding its network in a number of cities. It also comes out with a number of offers and schemes over a period of time which entices a large number of people to come to their stores. I had a recent experience in a store which was pretty shocking, and showed me the level of customer service that the store managers were showing to their shoppers. Now, when we have to do some shopping in Big Bazaar, we hesitate and wonder whether we really need to go there for the stuff that we need. This was a recent exchange offer that had come out for a period of 15-20 days where people could get their old stuff to the store, get coupons for the exchange, and then exercise those coupons against stuff. Here were some matters that really bit hard to consumers:
- The coupons after exchange were valid for a period of only 10-15 days. So, you give your old stuff, and then realize after reading the fine print on the coupons that they are only valid for a short time. This was not mentioned in all the advertisements.
- The staff was not totally aware. So, you had somebody buying stuff over there after talking to the salesman, and then the clerk at the billing refused to accept the coupons for some of the items because it was not in his system. This naturally angered the customer.
- There were a total of around 12 billing counters, but for several hours, there were only 3 of those counters manned. As a result, the queues were very long, and yet even when people were shouting for more counters to be open, there was no reaction from the store. It took each person as much as 20-30 minutes at the billing counter.


India has been observing 15 March since 1989 as the National Consumers’ Day.


Laws, rules, regulations and orders (for which India has unparalleled distinction in the Guinness book of records) alone do not protect consumers, but it is the rights’ movement of people which produce results in a democracy.

One of the greatest achievements of the Indian consumer movement is the enactment of the dynamic consumer law: COPRA. Coming 39 years after Independence, it has acknowledged the rampant consumer abuses, including those of the government owned public utilities like telephones, transport, power etc. These utilities, in the first place, were created as state monopolies ostensibly to protect consumers!

Critics of COPRA rightly conclude that it can’t do anything about rising prices, but it has succeeded in bringing about fairplay in the supply of goods and services available in the market place, giving substance to the adage: Customer is King. Also, COPRA has encouraged active consumer bodies to demand, and perhaps see in the near future, independent Public Utility Regulatory Commissions to debate costing, pricing and promote competition.

This confidence emanates from the empowerment of voluntary organisations in COPRA and other consumer laws. While right to information is enshrined in COPRA, addition of the enlarged Right to Know in the fundamental rights chapter of the Indian Constitution would only result in meaningful empowerment - no more tight rope walking, but total glasnost.

In fact the Central Consumer Protection Council has recommended to the Government to enact a Freedom of Information Act on the pattern of a similar law in the US. Another major achievement of the Indian consumer movement in the context of the world scenario, was to get the government in 1989, to adopt 15 March, the World Consumer Rights Day, as the National Consumers’ Day. Unlike the Labour Day on 1 May, which has roots in the US, the Consumer Rights Day, which also has roots in the US, is not even observed there.

Today India is the only country in the world, which has exclusive courts for consumer redressal. At the IOCU’s 13th World Congress held in Hong Kong during 7-13 July 1991 it came in for praise and developed countries were called upon to emulate. In the same year, these developments inspired Jim Sugarman, a noted US consumer activist and a close associate of Ralph Nader, to candidly observe: “India is getting a global reputation for the rapid development of its consumer movement.”


COPRA, which was amended by an ordinance in June 1993, is a mixture of sad and happy tidings. And tragic because of one surprise which our bureaucrats sprung onto the bill, a matter which was not even discussed in the high power working group of the Central Consumer Protection Council.

The law then proposed a limitation of one year to file complaints, where none existed. An utter nonsense, which goes beyond the principles of our well established Limitations Act of 1963, wherein courts cannot be approached after the expiry of three years of the last cause of action.

Since there was no limitation period prescribed under COPRA, in one matter, the apex consumer court, the National Commission had pronounced that the principles of the Limitations Act do not apply but can be relied upon, though not religiously.

This proposal would not only have put consumers at a terrible disadvantage but also annoy them badly. Most warranties and guarantees on goods expire in one year, and manufacturers often drag on many consumers during this period by attending to complaints, instead of setting it right or replacing or refunding the price of the defective goods. They will thus be deprived of the easy redressal avenue by this one-year ‘deadline’.

Consumers will be angry because the rule on the time limit of 90/150 days provided in COPRA for disposal of cases are practiced more in the breach, and cases drag on for years. Under this situation, expecting consumers to meet a deadline will be very irritating. Granted that delayed complaints can be entertained, but that would mean a set of lengthy arguments on just the admissibility of the case.

Fourthly, the law also enables consumers to file class action complaints, which incidentally always existed, but there can be no basis to determine the deadline in such matters. For instance, if the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 provides for certain mandatory safety features which have been ignored by manufacturers; after research, we decide to file a complaint what would be the limitation period?

Due to these arguments and lobbing the time limit was revised to two years, when the ordinance was put on the table of the parliament.


The law belied the consumer affairs Minister, A K Antony’s note in the statement of objects and reasons, wherein he says the working of the redressal agencies has helped to arouse the expectations of the people on several other grounds as well.

Housing by way of plots or flats or houses has been covered under the definition of ‘services’ under COPRA. Rather than adopt the words: ‘real estate’, as defined under the MRTP Act, 1969 from which the whole definition clause of services was borrowed in the first instance, a new jargon: ‘housing construction’ is added. This would mean that the consumer courts will only entertain complaints relating to: flats, land, houses purchased or to be purchased.

In a beacon case involving a plot: Garima Shukla vs. UP Avas evam Vikas Nigam, the National Commission had held that the dispute is covered as a deficiency in the service of housing. The Supreme Court upheld the orders of the National Commission.

Among several other recommendations of the Central Council, another major one has also been diluted. In view of several protests by consumers, the council had agreed to recommend incorporation of an open, democratic and a transparent process of selection of the non-official members of consumer courts.

The recommendation was that a selection committee headed by the minister and consisting of the secretary in charge of the department, a nominee of the chief justice of the state high court and two consumer activists (one a woman) would be the right form. The bill now proposes a committee headed by the President of the state commission and the consumer affairs secretary and the state law secretary.

It is thus heavily loaded against transparency. I have seen many a president of the State Commission sitting in the chamber of the secretary, especially when s/he is a retired high court judge. By and large the secretary has to follow the minister’s orders, therefore the transparency sought in the selection process will be doubtful. Presence of two activists would have perhaps changed the odds.

However the president of the State Commission can only be appointed after consultation with the Chief Justice of the concerned high court, but those who know, consultation does not mean consent or concurrence. On several occasions, in spite of opposition, people have been appointed, after the so-called consultation.


The Council had made several other vital recommendations after long deliberations and critical debates, but they have been given the broomstick. These were:

1. Consumer rights were to be put in a separate chapter so that violations of the same could be an additional ground, if not the basis of a complaint. These will now continue as decorations in COPRA, for the central council to ‘talk, about - only once in a year, as against twice as recommended’.
2. Services rendered by public health care system and civic bodies were to be covered, as they are not charities but are run from the taxpayer money. So that consumer could get value for money and these white elephants are brought to heel. The union health ministry prevailed.
3. Lawyers were to be debarred except when the complainant had engaged one, or with his consent or if the consumer court directed the parties to engage lawyers, when questions of law were involved. This was recommended because lawyers often delay the settlement of cases by court craft etc. Apparently the belligerent lawyers lobby proved stronger.
4. Writ jurisdiction of high courts has to be excluded by bringing COPRA under Article 323B of the constitution as their interference, particularly the Calcutta High Court, delays the proceedings especially when an hierarchy of appeals is provided under COPRA where the Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter.
5. Empowering Consumer Courts by giving them the authority to order cease and desist, or interim injunction or take suo motu action (of its own accord and on its own information) like the MRTP Commission, so as to meet the ends of justice have not been incorporated. For, bureaucrats felt that it would give unbridled power to over 450 district fora and 30 state commissions and that would have created havoc.

Some readers might remember the case of ITC LTD’s Wills brand being injuncted by a Gangtok district judge, which cost ITC a large sum of money to get it vacated from the Supreme Court under its extraordinary jurisdiction. This type of case is a freak but without such power our consumer courts will be hamstrung in protecting the consumers interest, as it were.

Section 1(4) of COPRA says this Act will apply to all goods and services, therefore under the definition of services, where illustrations are given, it was understood that it was an all inclusive definition and exclusions had to be specified.

To correct the anomaly, especially in view of the hectic lobbying by the medical fraternity and other professional groups, it was proposed to put a semi-colon, and add, “not limited to” before the illustrations. But this has also not been inserted in the amendment bill.


So much so for the bureaucratic revenge and/or sabotage. However there are many welcome steps, though confused as well, which will take the consumer movement considerably forward. These are:

* Enhancement in the scope of relief under COPRA to stop the sale of and/or order withdrawing the marketing of hazardous goods. This will entitle consumers and consumer groups to challenge harmful goods, provided a law says so, like the BVO case when this toxic chemical was banned but continued to be used in soft drinks like Limca, Gold Spot etc.

But the clause does not empower consumers to challenge hazards in services. For instance the Electricity Act provides for certain safety measures to be adopted by the suppliers, but consumers may not be able to challenge it.

This is more so surprising when in all the consumer rights in COPRA ‘services’ have been added along with ‘goods’, and under the relief section power has also been given to consumer courts to remove defects and deficiencies in services.

* A major beneficial change has been added to cover agreements for purchase, as against the earlier provision for only goods or services actually purchased. This would cover disputes relating to booking of flats, cars, scooters and similar contracts, where delivery has not been made.
* Restrictive trade practices have been added, also enabling the courts to stop these, as well as unfair trade practices. This means that there would be a mini-MRTP Commission in every district.
* Monetary jurisdiction of a district forum has been raised to Rs 5 lakh, while that of a state commission to Rs 20 lakh. Beyond this, the National Commission. Age limit of the members of the state commissions has been fixed at 67, while that of the national commission at 70. No mention of the age limits of members of the district forums.
* Following the Supreme Court order, in the Common Cause Vs Union of India case, administrative control of district fora will now be under the state commissions, who will in turn report to the National Commission. A proper reporting system and procedures will also be incorporated.

Lastly, a quiet change has been incorporated to redefine the department of civil supplies as consumer affairs, which is what we in the consumer movement have been shouting for a long time.