Do We Know Our Consumer Rights Well Enough?

Urban, educated, middle class consumers in India have little idea where to go with their grievances.

December 24 is observed as National Consumers Day.

In November 2018, on Sarjapur road in Bengaluru, 75 families came together to protest against a builder who had taken booking money for flats but failed to deliver them. It was their third protest in as many months. Some of them were in distress for having to pay an EMI of Rs 65,000 per month; some wanted to let out their flats so that they could repay their loans.

As per the agreement, the builder was to hand the flats over to the buyers over a year ago. Some buyers were to be handed over even earlier, in June 2016. The builder has even disregarded the aggrieved buyers’ claims for compensation as per the initial agreement.

We reached out to 12 prospective buyers, selected at random, and asked if they were aware of a ruling from the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) that held builders liable to pay compensation if they failed to hand over the flats on time or to return their advance payment with interest. For those unaware, the NCDRC is the highest authority in the three-tier redressal mechanism set up under the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) in 1986. Complaints go first to the district forum (with a panel of ‘judges’ drawn from  the judiciary), then to the State Commission in appeal from the district forum, and finally the NCDRC, which hears appeals from the state commissions. It also takes up cases directly where the amounts involved are huge. Judgements given by the NCDRC are binding all over the country and overrule those from the lower courts.

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There exist judgements from the NCDRC, spelling out the liabilities of builders who default. All one has to do is cite these rulings to strengthen one’s claim for compensation. Out of the 12 families surveyed, 10 said they didn’t know of such orders; one said he was “vaguely aware” but had no idea how to go about using the judgments; the last one, a woman, said she knew about the NCDRC but decided to join the protest anyway. (She did not however, know that in 2017, the NCDRC had ruled that joint complaints by groups of aggrieved parties will be taken up too, as class action complaints, if the group’s total amount exceeded Rs 1 crore. Clearly, this group could have benefited from that order; class actions can reduce the time taken by litigation.)

Three decades after the Consumer Protection Act was passed, this is the pathetic level of public awareness among educated urban middle class people. One reason is that mainstream media do not routinely report on these judgments except occasionally when large sums are involved. Some publications devoted exclusively to consumer rights carry these orders and judgements.

An advertisement of Paytm, a digital wallet company, is pictured at a road side stall in Kolkata, India, January 25, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

The Mumbai-based Consumer Guidance Society of India (CGSI), India’s oldest consumer protection group, now in its 52nd year, publishes orders from the three-tier fora in its magazine Keemat. The Ahmedabad-based Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC) used to publish Insight magazine focusing likewise, on judgments under the CPA; though Insight has ceased publication, an abridged newsletter is available online, in English and Hindi, highlighting important judgments from around the country. Moneylife also carries such rulings (and even offers free legal advice). Deccan Herald and Femina, among the pioneers in featuring consumer news nearly four decades ago, dumped those columns in favour of revenue-generating ads.

It is a vicious circle typifying the pervasive obsession with profits – mainstream media do not carry news that would empower citizens with information about rights (because that space devoted to ads could generate profits), so public awareness is low, and because awareness is low, the demand for better accountability in the functioning of quasi-legal frameworks set up for the benefit of the pubic is also low (complaints that should be resolved within 90 days as mandated by law, drag on for years, for instance). So, even those who would like to use the CPA for grievance redressal shy away.

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Knowing about precedent-setting rulings can make life easier. How many of us know that a Reserve Bank of India directive requires all banks to provide doorstep services (collecting cheques, delivering  passbooks, etc) to senior citizens? How many know about the toll-free helpline 14444 for  issues concerning digital payments? How many know that mere nomination is not enough on a fixed deposit or other asset (PPF a/c, etc) unless a will supporting the nomination also exists? How many of those using LPG that there is an insurance cover for all users from oil companies?

Unesco says that India has the world’s largest population of illiterates. That does not include the ‘educated’ who are unaware of their rights as consumers.

Sakuntala Narasimhan is a national award-winning consumer activist and columnist.