In business and economic planning the consumer should be held supreme in any economy. It is his ultimate satisfaction that matters. While addressing a group of businessmen, Gandhiji also once said, “A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is a part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.” Gandhi’s words place the consumer on a very high pedestal. But the consumer’s high place is only a myth so far as the Indian economy is considered. Indian consumer is an utterly helpless fellow. He has no say in the quality or nature of goods that are sent to the market for his consumption.
He is a victim of numerous malpractices. He is often made to buy adulterated or substandard goods. Second hand goods are passed on to him as new. Clever businessmen, through glossy salesmanship, misleading advertisements and tall claims about their products, rob the consumer of his hard-earned money. The consumer knows what is happening to him. But except making a loud, individual kind of protest, which has no effect on the mammon-worshipping businessmen, there is very little that he can do to check his systematic exploitation.
Since a majority of our consumers, particularly in the rural areas, are illiterate, they are not able to distinguish between the genuine and the spurious or the good and the bad. It is mainly these consumers who suffer at the hands of unscrupulous businessmen. Our consumers also suffer from a total absence of awareness among them. They know nothing about their rights, they are ignorant of the laws. First of all, the laws on trade marks, essential commodities, drugs, weights and measures etc., are not very effective. Secondly, the standard of morals in our country being what it is, the businessmen do not find it difficult to steer clear of laws through greasing the palms of the inspection staff. Besides, litigation is such a costly and time consuming affair that no consumer has the courage and patience to throw cudgels on behalf of his ever suffering community.
The cumulative result of these commissions and profit margins has been a lop-sided and totally unfair arrangement which seeks to take advantage of the plight of the consumer who realizes that he is being fleeced but is totally helpless to do anything about it. Fortunately, the realization has lately dawned on the authorities at various levels that something needs to be done to protect the interests of the consumer to save him from exploitation arid to ensure that he gets the worth of his money in respect of both quality and quantity.
Some years ago, Mr. Rajyadhyaksha, a former judge of the Supreme Court spoke of the rights of a consumer in a free society and of how these rights could be assured. In particular, he laid emphasis on three rights—the right to choose, the right to be informed and the right to be heard. All these rights assume the existence of certain conditions.
The basic rights of a consumer were precisely defined by no less a person than the late President John F. Kennedy, who articulated what had long been known in advanced countries and among vigilant, highly educated people. The rights as defined by him are : (1) the right to safety and to be protected against the marketing of goods which are health hazards or pose a danger to life itself; (ii) the right to be informed so as to be protected against fraudulent, deceitful or grossly misleading information, advertising, labeling or other such practices and to be given the facts he needs to make an informal choice; (iii) The right to choose and to be assured; as far as possible, access to variety of products and services at competitive prices, and in industries in which free competition is not workable and Government regulation is substituted to be assured satisfactory quality and service at fair prices; and (iv) The right to be heard and thus to be assured that consumer interests will receive full and sympathetic consideration in the formulation of governmental policy and fair and expeditious treatment in its administrative tribunals.
Since India has for decades been a seller’s market where the manufacturer and the trader have the upper hand and manage to sell whatever is marketed, the awareness of the consumer’s basic rights as defined by former President, Kennedy and others, has taken a longtime coming. For all practical purposes, the consumer has been made the victim of monopolistic practices even where there is no monopoly goods. Until recently, there was no appropriate legislation on the statute book to ensure a fair deal to the consumer, where there was some kind of protective legislation, it was seldom enforced and remained on paper only.
A few purposeful Acts have been passed by Parliament to protect the interests of the consumer and these reflect the Government’s desire to do the needful in this direction. But as stated above, the flaw has been in the implementation. The manufacturers, the traders, both wholesalers and retailers, know this and, therefore, they go on merrily overcharging and fleecing the consumer in both quality and quantity. The poor consumer is left high and dry.
The Weights and Measures (Law Revision) Committee, commonly known as the Maitra Committee, estimated a few years ago that the faulty weights and measures enabled the trade to gain both ways; even one per cent error in commercial transactions carried out in the country by inaccurate weights and measures causes the consumer a loss of over Rs 170 crores in cities; the farmers stand to lose about Rs. 150 crores by such a fault. A later report released in January 1977 disclosed that under-weighing alone cheated the consumers to the extent of Rs. 3,000 crores annually. This indicates the magnitude of the loss the consumers suffer—all through the lapse on the Government’s part in enforcing a strict check on the weights and measures being used by traders at various levels.
The interests of the consumer can be protected by making more stringent laws and making the enforcement machinery per form its function honestly and diligently. Among the methods adopted by the Government in its effort to protect the consumer’s interests are : the order requiring display of price lists in shop; the orders fixing the limits of stocks of certain commodities which can be stored at one time; the order requiring fixation of price tag& and printing weight and prices on cartons; opening of more fair price shops; the prescription necessitating a certificate from the Bureau Indian of Standards (BIS) regarding the quality of the stuff being sold. There is also the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act (MRTP) to act as the watch dog of the Indian consumer.
The consumer movement in India, unfortunately, has developed very slowly. Periodic efforts are made to organize a network of consumer societies, but the impact has been minimal. Again it is ironical that while defects in automobiles, freezers, fans, packed foods etc. have been, highlighted, not much attention has been given the people’s essential requirements. The masses are virtually voiceless in this field; they accept whatever is given by the ‘grocer’. Owing to their general ignorance, they are the most common victims of the force of capitalist’s exploitation. Consumer protection should start at the lower levels and work upwards. The laws of the land should be adjusted accordingly.
The Indian consumer also needs to be educated about his rights, as has been done in the U.S.A., Britain and other advanced countries. Quality should become the norm instead of being the exception in this country. Every possible effort should be made to enable the consumer to get full value for his money. In this venture the co-operation of all sections of the people and also of the industrialists is essential. If industry exercises self-discipline and persuades all the manufacturers and businessmen to ensure quality and correct weights, much of the difficulty will vanish. Consumer’s organizations exist in some towns of the country, but after the initial flush of enthusiasm they become silent and cease to function. The network of super patroni was established with high hopes, but they have made only a marginal impact on the general price level. They do have considerable patronage but owing to a certain bureaucratic practices and the time-consuming procedures they follow, many people prefer, to continue patronizing the petty traders near their homes.
Obviously, consumers’ protection is possible in India, but effective enforcement by legislation and a sustained ‘drive to educate the people are necessary. Happily, TV programmes have begun to discuss the problems of consumer protection and consumer’s movement and a separate cell for consumer protection has been formed in the Ministry of Food and Supplies. Let us hope the consumer movement gathers momentum in times to come.