India passed the Consumer Protection Act in 1986. The Act sought to "promote and protect the rights of consumers. The
Act mentions six rights, by way of examples. These are the right to be protected, informed, assured, wherever possible, of access to competitive prices, heard, seek redress and to consumer education. The United Nations stipulated eight rights. These are the rights to satisfaction of basic needs, to safety, be informed, choose, be heard, to consumer education and the right to healthy and sustainable environment. The last three from the UN list of rights have been omitted from the Indian Act.
This apart, the implementation of the Indian law leaves the consumer in the lurch. Under the Act, cases were to decided within three months of receipt of notice by the opposite party. However, most cases drag on for years. The courts function like any civil court. The consumer is at the receiving end of all the usual delaying tactics seen in other courts in India. The principal object of the Act was to provide speedy remedy to consumers. There is neither speed, nor any remedy for consumer ills. Under Regulations framed for consumer forums, 75 to 100 cases were to be disposed off every month. The State Commission is to submit a report on institution and disposal of cases every month to the National Commission. The lack of any accountability is obvious from the fact the cases go well beyond the laid down period for disposal. If the National Commission's oversight were good, they would have known this and acted to remedy the situation. If the number of courts are inadequate to handle the volume of litigation, more courts should be set up. In fact, if cases were speedily disposed off and stringent penalties imposed on those who trample on consumer rights, the number of cases would reduce drastically. As it is, product manufacturers and service providers are able to deal with consumers with impunity.
Typical of the problems faced by consumers are delays and non-provision of service by the construction business to individual consumers who pay huge sums for purchase of flats and homes. Invariably, the purchase if through loans from banks and financial institutions. The interest clock keeps ticking while purchasers wait for delivery of the flats and homes. This imposes a very high burden on the buyers. Yet consumer courts have not been active in disposing cases against builders, who take the buyers for a ride.
Drastic and immediate action is called for to improve the functioning of consumer courts. A few suggestions for this are listed below.
- 1. Set up more consumer courts
- 2. Appoint judges who understand consumer issues and rights
- 3. Do not appoint judges from among those who retired either from the lower judiciary or High Courts. They bring with them the mental baggage of the thinking prevalent in these conventional courts.
- 4. Allow consumers to plead and argue their cases. They could be provided with qualified legal assistance for the purpose of making them aware of the legal procedures and interpretation of evidence.
- 5. Ensure that cases are disposed within 3 months, as laid down in the Act.
- 6. Ensure stringent penalties, including, imprisonment for those who do not comply speedily with the orders of consumer courts.
- 7. Penalize and remove judges who do not decide cases within time frames stipulated in the law.