Consumer Rights in India

Chapter One: Sanju buys a brand new vehicle, her first. She had assiduously saved for this event over past 3 years. So the spanking red sedan arrives and she proudly brings her parents and siblings to the showroom and then they take their first ride. Hmm all nice until a month later in a traffic gridlock on one of the busiest and lousiest roads in Bengaluru and that too during a fast drizzle around 8 pm, her car would not start. Hey, it had start-stop technology. It was the latest and the company’s top-end variant. What the heck? She calls the distress number but the crazy honking behind her was a nightmare come true. The distress number answers: a nice computerized voice instructing her to innumerable dos and checks. Exasperated she calls the dealer: Sorry, madam right now all our boys are in the field. Please wait. The traffic cop comes looking; calls for a few guys to push the car to a side but hey, the silly car would not budge; the emergency brake is on somehow; the car would not start; the steering would not work; the brakes would not work without power. Few hours later, it gets loaded on to a tow-truck.

Chapter Two: Sanju is angry. Sanju is disappointed. Sanju narrates woe to the dealer who listens but the charming Charlie would not accept that the dealer was at fault stating they had done ALL PDI (pre-delivery inspection) etc., etc. That distress number Sanju called did send a message to them and they did send the towtruck as soon as possible. Now they will give a thorough check. Sanju spoke to the manufacturer’s rep-cum-service engineer. He made polite and soothing noises that they will take care of the car and the sorry for the inconvenience.

Chapter Three: Sanju gets her car BUT gets a bill for umpteen thousand rupees. What the heck? The car is brand new; it is under warranty; the company is at fault; she did nothing wrong and so on. The company says, ma’am, you overloaded the power system of the car; you had too many gadgets; you had too many apps that interfered with the car’s systems, blah, blah, and these charges are for electrical items nya, nya, nya…

Chapter Four: Sanju goes to her lawyer who directs her to a lawyer specialized in Consumer Grievances. He takes over and starts the process. The company Regional Service Engineer comes down, the company sends an apology letter, the marketing chief calls and speaks to Sanju. The car is delivered to her but the lawyer says that Sanju will go ahead and file a suit under Consumer Protection Act if the dealer and company do not compensate her for the trouble, the expenses, the harassment, and the mental agony. A satisfactory settlement gets done BEFORE the case goes to the court.

This is a familiar scenario in India. A lawsuit under Consumer Protection Act scared a big fish manufacturer and a big shot dealer. So is the consumer in India really protected? The govt would like to think so and say so. Let us look at some facts going back a few decades when this Act was first introduced.

From Independence until the year 2000, our country faced a big gap between demand and supply of goods and services. The demand was heavy due to exponentially burgeoning population and the supply was inadequate due to low productivity. There were shortages in just about anything and everything and it was very acute during the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. This led to unbelievable levels of exploitation by manufacturers, traders, service providers, etc. The consumer was left in tears literally with many tragic incidents littering the landscape of consumerism. An acute need was felt that consumers needed protection against such exploitation and the government think-tank came up with the first consumer protection act. The Consumer Protection Act 1986 was introduced, passed in 1986, and came into force from July 1, 1987. The main objectives of the Act were to provide better and all round protection to consumers and effective safeguards against different types of exploitation such as defective goods, deficient services, and unfair trade practices.

Sadly, this act rather proved to be inadequate due to shortage of courts, manipulation by the cheats, consumer ignorance, lack of stringency, etc. But the main issue was that due to advancement in technology, connectivity, newer platforms, and very innovative and inventive ways of advertising and publicity and marketing methodologies, the culprits could go scot-free since in many cases there was no scope in the existing law to even make a case against them.

Governments after governments since 1986 only kept drafting newer and newer laws but could not bring any into effect until 2019 when the government finally addressed the various lacunae in the existing consumer rights and introduced a new Act in 2019.

The new Consumer Protection Act, 2019 was introduced on 8 July 2019 and passed on 6 August 2019. The bill received assent from President on 9 August and The Act came into effect by 20 July 2020, while certain other provisions of the Act like establishing the Central Consumer Protection Authority came into effect from 24 July 2020.

The current Act focuses on giving the consumer more power by taking transparency to another level. In September 2020 government declared a new draft known as advertising code which is applicable throughout all mediums of communication like TV, Social Media, Print Media, Digital Platforms, etc.

The Consumer Protection Act has made it mandatory for every e-commerce entity to display the country of origin.

The consumer protection bill 2019 primarily defines the following consumer rights:

  1. Be protected against marketing of goods and services which are hazardous to life and property.
  2. Be informed of the quality, quantity, potency, purity, standard, and price of goods and services.
  3. Be assured of access to a variety of goods or services at competitive prices.
  4. Seek redressal against unfair and restrictive trade practices.

The eight consumer rights are:

  1. Right to basic needs
  2. Right to safety
  3. Right to information
  4. Right to choose
  5. Right to representation
  6. Right to redress
  7. Right to consumer education
  8. Right to healthy environment.

One of the most significant additions to the 2019 Act is the proposal to establish Central Consumer Protection Authority (“CCPA”). This is a Constitutional body like RBI, SEBI, IRDAI, etc., so that manipulation or political influencing is not possible. CCPA has been provided with vast powers to inquire, investigate, and take action against violations of the 2019 Act. A significant power the CCPA will have is the power to take action suo-moto and impose penalty against misleading and false advertisement as well as against any endorser of such advertisement, which means the CCPA can now initiate action against the celebrities as well. It can also file class action suits on behalf of multiple consumers which makes it an effective tool to curb mass violation of consumer interest.

Another major introduction in the 2019 Act is the concept of Product Liability which covers within its ambit the product manufacturer, product service provider, and product seller, for any claim for compensation. Now the Act includes the manufacturer, service provider, and seller which includes the platform through which the actual selling takes place. The excuse that e-commerce platforms or websites had that they were merely the link or platforms or aggregators will now not be applicable. No escape route anymore. However, certain exceptions have been provided under the 2019 Act from liability claims, such as, that the product seller will not be liable where the product has been misused, altered, or modified.

All right. What about the consumer that has a grievance? Where can the grievance be addressed?

  1. National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission or NCDRC
  2. State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission or SCDRC
  3. District Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum.

Okay but how does the consumer actually go about having the grievance addressed? Normally the consumer exhausts all other venues like making a complaint to the seller, the provider, or the manufacturer etc. Only after getting an unsatisfactory response does the consumer approach the COURTS. Herein lies the hassle; the grey area that is still not CLEARLY DEFINED. This throws up an acute need for concerted efforts to educate the consumer at grassroots level to protect themselves against being cheated or manipulated. The government, NCDRC, SCDRC, DCDRF, other nongovernmental bodies, the marketing organizations, etc., must go the extra mile at consumer education. Is this being done? Well yes but inadequate. More efforts and reach are needed.

Do I need to go to a lawyer specialized in consumer rights for this? Not mandatory but advisable. If I have no money to pay the lawyer, where do I go and what do I do? Some of these questions are answered by Justice Ashok Bhan, President, NCRDRC.

Can consumers expect a faster case closure?

We are trying to streamline the process. We have asked all consumer courts to write the verdict within 15 days of a hearing. We have become tough on adjournments and have seen results. Our members travel to far-flung states to take up cases in a bid to make it easier for people to be present.

Do consumers need a lawyer in consumer courts?

Consumers are encouraged to take up their own cases because the proceedings are extremely consumer-friendly. In spite of this if an individual is not able to present their case properly, we appoint a lawyer who is paid from the National Consumer Legal Aid Fund.

What is the procedure to file a complaint in the Consumer Court?

  1. STEP 1: Intimation via Notice
  2. STEP 2: Get the Consumer Complaint Drafted
  3. STEP 3: Attach Relevant Documents
  4. STEP 4: Appropriate Forum
  5. STEP 5: Pay Requisite Court Fees
  6. STEP 6: Submit an Affidavit

Summary

Appearing in consumer court does not require a lawyer and you can represent yourself or have a relative do it for you. Alternatively, what you could do is have a lawyer help you out with the initial paperwork and then take control of the matter yourself.