The Consumer Protection Act of 1986 (the Act) envisaged protecting the interests of consumers by establishing consumer councils and other such authorities for settling consumer disputes. The perceived guiding principle behind this Act is that business organizations must adopt utmost ethical practices while conducting their business transactions. If and when the businesses gallivant and fail to fulfil their social and ethical obligations, the government will come to the assistance of the consumer.
Another oblique purpose of this Act, as stated by H.K.L Bhagat, the then Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, was to spur strong voluntary consumer movement at the grass root level. However, a law is a part of society, it takes issues from society. Hence, laws are not immune to the fault-lines prevalent in the society.
The Act has failed to substantially stimulate the welfare of consumers belonging to subaltern groups. Here subaltern group refers to consumers from lower socio-economic classes. The Act envisaged bringing in a behavioral change in the attitudes of the buyers and sellers, shifting the focus from caveat emptor to caveat venditor. This behavioral change can be brought on a macro level only when people are aware of the Act, its contents, and its consequences.
However, we have dismal awareness about the Act in India, especially in rural areas. As per a study sponsored by Department of Consumer Affairs the awareness of the Act is directly proportional to the level of education and income level. Subsequently, the Act has had a much less impact on the marginalized and subaltern groups of the society who lack education and are living in rural areas with minimal levels of income. Thus, to a large extent, socio-economic background of the consumer will determine the impact that this Act has on them.
Further, the Act aimed to provide speedy and effective justice to aggrieved consumers by establishing three-tier consumer redressal forums. It was deemed that shifting consumer dispute cases from the judiciary to specialized forums would ensure speedy redressal. However, most of the specialized consumer forums do not have the minimum facilities to function and the members appointed, especially non-judicial members, lack the basic legal expertise to deal with the legality of myriad issues.
According to a report submitted by a committee headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Arijit Pasayat, most of the non-judicial members are political appointees, serving political interests, who are incapable of even writing or dictating order. Fearing delays and further complications, the consumers have been generally cautious of approaching these special forums.
Marketization and privatization have further lead to overtly strengthening the caste and class consciousness deepening the archaic social hierarchies and innate biases. The members of the redressal forums are also not immune to it. Most of the appointed members belong to the affluent class and castes of the society and hence they have certain predispositions toward other members of the society, especially those from the less privileged sections.
The graded and structural inequalities in social, political and economic edifices of society are also reflected in the working of the Act. Superficially, it seems that the Act provides equal opportunities for consumers to put forth their point of view before the forum.
However, under the Act, consumers can argue their case either through the medium of an advocate or they can represent themselves before the consumer forums. The latter arrangement is based on the assumption that the process and technicalities in the consumer forums are far too benign and easy as compared to the one followed in the civil courts and as such even a layman may understand the proceeding, or the lack thereof, and may represent himself saving the fees of advocacy.
However, this procedure, although established with a benign intent, does not help the subaltern consumers. This is due to the following two factors:
1) The poor, being illiterate in most cases, do not have proper guidance and understanding of the legal processes to present their own arguments before the redressal forums, and as such, they don’t get any assistance with this regard from the officials present therein.
2) Most the subaltern people don’t have the pecuniary resources to hire a lawyer to fight a case on their behalf.
Thus, the Act, and consequently consumerism, has failed to protect the interests of the subaltern consumers for whom every hard-earned penny matters.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PRATIK PRAKASH DIXIT
Law Student pursuing BA LLB (Hons) at NLSIU, Bangalore. Interested in social and political issues.