Reflections on the Rights of the Consumers

Being involved with the implementation of the Right to Information Act for more than two years now it becomes a bit difficult to say no to an event celebrating an another “Right” conferred on the citizens of India. So, past week was spent in attending two such events celebrating the World Consumer Rights Day, one after the other. The first event was organized by the Ministry of Agriculture on the day itself, the 15th of March, and the second by the Uttarakhand Branch of the All India Consumers Council, Dehra Dun the ensuing Sunday.

 

Taken together one thing was common to both, the representation and response of the state government, though officially invited, was typically most indifferent. Do the governments, even though intrinsically involved in the process of conferring such laudable “Rights” to its citizens, really care about spreading awareness about their existence and an efficient and effective execution of the provisions of the laws which provide for it ? This common poser was repeatedly raised in both the events, but here, I would like to leave this query to the organizers of the events and, of course, the governments concerned, to answer. The burden of my reflections is a different theme altogether.

 

The Rights of the Consumers

 

The Consumer movement the world over commenced on 15th March, 1962 when President John F. Kennedy of the USA added his voice to asserting four basic rights of consumers on this historic day. Taking this as a cue, as it were, different Acts were passed in several countries ultimately resulting in the historic UN Consumer Protection Resolution in 1985. This Resolution asserted the basic rights of consumers and requested the Member Nations to celebrate this Day as the World Consumers Rights Day. The Government of India has decided to celebrate 24 December as its National Consumers Day, the day on which the President of India gave his assent in 1986 to a legislation, which is called the Consumer Protection Act, 1986.

 

The Other Rights and the RTI

 

Speakers of both the events which I attended naturally tended to compare the progress of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 with the Right to Information Act, 2005, separated by some twenty years, and the relative reticence about the salutary provisions in the former legislation, which literally affects almost every citizen. Almost every citizen, since every one of us is a consumer, willy-nilly. As I listened to the speakers I naturally set thinking both, ( i )  as to the cause of citizen- cum- government indifference and apathy  towards the consumers’ rights vis a vis the ever-increasing awareness and use of the RTI Act, and ( ii ) possible role the provisions of the RTI Act could play towards increasing the awareness and effectiveness in exercising the rights bestowed on the citizens through the

A Common Awareness Program for ‘All Rights’

 

Consumers Protection Act. Why only the rights provided through the Consumers Protection Act, 1986 but several other rights provided to the deprived and marginalized segments and sections of the society e.g. Women, SCs, STs, Backward Classes and so on.

It became obvious, going by the advances so far made in the RTI Act implementation, the RTI awareness campaign must include awareness about all other Rights which have been conferred on the citizens in the past. The Awareness of the RTI should illustrate as how to use the “Right” to Information  provisions to exercise the other Rights. In a manner of speaking, use the Right given by the RTI to effectively avail the other Rights. To me, it became obvious that the civil right activists, working for various rights ought to come under a single umbrella and learn to effectively use the provisions under the RTI for leveraging and availing their respective rights. Uttarakhand Information Commission has initiated action on this front and would welcome suggestions to operationalize this thought through a practical and sustainable regime. To begin with it intends to network with a few related set ups like the  Commissions working for Women, SC & ST, Lok Ayukta etc.. A Common Awareness Program could be one of the pragmatic  objectives.

 

Citizen’s Think Tank  &  A  Question  Bank

 

I  became increasingly aware, as I listened to the speakers, that no thinking and sensitive citizen could afford to be indifferent either to the potentialities of using the RTI for cleansing what ails our society e.g. corruption, abominable and insensitive delays, even apathy on the part of public authorities towards what is supposed to be their prime responsibility, rank indifference towards acts of omission and commission and so on, or not become part of a Movement to Strengthen Mechanisms for Exercising various so –called ‘Rights’.

 

To wit, the Consumer Protection Right, the Right under discussion, is in fact a sum total of as many as Six Rights ! Starting with the Rights to Safety, it goes on to assure a consumer of his/her Rights to be Informed, Right to Choose, the Right to be Heard, the Right to Seek Redress and finally, the sixth, the Right to Consumer Education. The Right to Consumer Education or the Right to be made Aware, is something like the Duty cast on the government under the RTI to conduct awareness programs, already alluded to at the very beginning, best manifest in rank indifference. Even a most casual reading would suggest that it would be too much to expect from an average Indian to take action on all these fronts, as a consumer.

 

In my presentation I highlighted how in a fast-changing economy like India’s, the role and responsibilities of the government and the public sector is changing at such a pace that the existing definitions of ‘producers and service provider’ remain redundant by the time one has heard of it; the roles are either over-lapping or the exact status of the actual ‘suppliers and providers’ is not known to many-one can simply go on adding the complexities which one faces as one tries to cope up with any sector of the economy. Even the most ‘aware’ would be the first to plead guilty of ‘not being fully aware’. Here we have a Right which is a sum total of Six Rights, and you are welcome to multiply and define the complexity presented to an ordinary Indian consumer. Here is a fit case of ‘Knowledge promoting Ignorance’.

 

Here, thus, is role cut out for those who have had previous brush with the governments, systems, providers of ‘goods and services’ etc., especially former government servants, retired employees of the public sectors, doing a good turn to the society by constituting  what is often termed as ‘Think Tanks” and take up the cause forward. Expecting the governments to do awareness rounds would be like asking a person to chop off his own legs, as it is bound to be seen as ‘increasing his / her own work-load’, without any commensurate compensation !

 

The thought I left with the organizers of the events was that there is a case to build a ‘QUESTION  BANK’ of intelligent and searching questions for each and every public authority and leave it to the Action Groups, Citizen Groups, NGOs, to pick and choose from this Bank and address it to the public authority concerned ! Surely, there could be even a competition on the Most Valuable Question contributed to such a Question Bank on an internet site which has rendered the Most Valuable Public Good, to be adjudged by an independent agency.

 

A Disclaimer

 

Before any appreciatory remarks appear on this suggestion in the Reader’s Write column let me hasten to add a disclaimer. I have already credited this idea, albeit in a more laconic mode, to Aruna Roy in a publication brought out by this Commission ‘ Towards A Transparent and Accountable Uttarakhand’, where she has advised “Provide Facts and Help People Use Them”. The core concept of the Question Bank is a natural corollary. Any takers ?

R S Tolia

R S Tolia

Late Dr. R.S. Tolia, Ph.D., was former Chief Secretary ( 2003-05 ) and Chief Information Commissioner ( 2005-10) of Uttarakhand. He also served in various voluntary positions after retirement and devoted his time for Mountain Development Agenda.

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