Consumer Protection ___ a dream or a reality ?

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In Belgium, some school students got ill after drinking Coke. A case was filed on the basis of parents’ complaints and the Coca Cola Company had to destroy litres of beverage, produced during the period. In England, a man, standing on a sloppy footpath, was hit by a fox wagon parked behind him. He admitted a lawsuit against the Fox Wagon Company, claiming that the break shoe lining used in the car was defective. He won the case and the company had to pay him two millions dollars for his broken leg. Besides, it had to change the shoe break lining of its automobiles.

In the West, it is believed that a customer is always right. If you are an American or European consumer and find your new shoes uncomfortable after wearing them once or twice, or your new clothing has shrunk after a wash, you can easily exchange them. A friend of mine who is recently settled in England told me that her school going son damaged his new bag, she visited the shop to get it repair but the shopkeeper exchanged it without any argument.

For Pakistani consumers, such examples are hard to believe. We are living in a society where consumer rights and protection are strange slogans, restricted to the Text Books. Practically, a consumer is considered a target prey, deserved to be deceived and looted.

The Consumer Protection Council (CPC) of Helpline Trust appeared in the local scene in 1994, with a different approach. It maintains that Pakistani consumers, like others in the world, have rights to safety, correct information, choice, good quality, reasonable price, complaint and accountability on the part of the vendor. It insists that the ordinary citizens should receive value for the money that they pay for goods and services. In other words, they want that a common man should not be sold death in medicines, diseases in food and darkness via electricity meters.

But the message of CPC is still limited like its work. With little staff, small funds and gigantic plans such as public awareness and resistance programmes against inflation, rising prices, black marketing, adulteration etc., it hardly achieves much. However, the council can’t be called a complete failure. As a part of its consumer awareness programme, it organised public forums, distributed pamphlets, displayed banners and bring out a monthly newsletter “The Citizen.” All these efforts are aimed to highlight local consumers’ problems.

The CPC also started a door to door `Be Pakistani, Buy Pakistani’ movement and conducted a public survey relating to consumers’ awareness about their rights. Out of one hundred thousand questionnaires, distributed in weekly bazaars, it received less than 200 replies that indicates lack of public interest in their own rights. . Not a single respondent knew where to complain officially, if the item bought is substandard. Mr. Shamsuz Zaman, the Chief Coordinator of the CPC says “It seems people have resigned to their fate. They neither have awareness of their rights, nor do they have will to fight against economic injustice. The national press is also not very supportive, thus, we are unable to get remarkable results towards our cause.”

At legal front, the CPC is actively lobbying and pursuing for enactment of Consumer Protection Act. It believes that without legal protection, Consumer rights can’t be safeguarded. But despite promises by the previous two governors, the bill can not be presented in the Sindh Assembly. The members of the CPC have been included in the government’s price fixation committee as people’s representatives. They punctually attend its quarterly meetings to evaluate supply and prices of essential commodities in the markets. They also monitor Weekly Bazaars and fair Price Shops to ensure that the official price list is strictly followed and displayed at the stalls and take immediate actions on public complaints. Though, presently CPC monitors only three weekly bazaars in Defence and Clifton on regular basis, its member’s claim that they frequently visit the rest and are planning to extend its field of activity.

With the support of doctors and scientists, it has initiated full fledge campaigns against adulterated cooking oil, pan masala, sweet supari and use of harmful chemicals in other food products that can cause cancer, chest and lung infections and other serious diseases. It also demanded the Health Ministry to ban the production and sale of such hazardous items. Apart from its legal committee, the CPC has a consumer product committee which is supposed to control quality of both packaged and unbranded products, weights and measures, packaging, marketing and prices, but when asked for any practical achievement, it fails to give any. It has a pharmaceutical committee too, which is there to monitor the availability of essential and quality drugs at a fair price and stop the sales of internationally banned medicines, but a common man can hardly find any proof of its existence in reality.

However, it’s KESC, KW&SB, PTCL Committee, which is overseeing the working of these departments, is able to pursue some individual and collective complaints and get them solved. But at the same time, the CPC administration is not willing to gather the entire city in its office, so it doesn’t propagate its achievements in the area.

Regarding the public interest litigation, the Consumer Protection Council had challenged the levy of TV, VCR and dish antenna fee by PTV in the Sindh High Court. The petitions maintained that since PTV is a commercial channel, supported through ads, it shouldn’t charge license fee. Besides it has no role in providing dish and VCR services, thus it can’t collect taxes from the citizens without returning anything in value.

Presently, no concept of standards and accountability is prevalent in our economic scenario and the innocent consumers are often mislead by glossy advertisements and false promises. Many of us are completely ignorant of our legal rights and power we enjoy as consumers For e.g. how many of us know that every packaged commodity has to bear the maximum retail price inclusive of all taxes and a shopkeeper can not charge more for such items. Or a taxi or rickshaw driver can’t refuse to accept a passenger and can be prosecuted and fined on a passenger’s complaint to the concerned district magistrate. Or that the Electricity Act, 1910 provides legal protection to the consumers against excessive billing and illegal disconnection and there is a penalty of one thousand rupees per complaint on KESC in case of interrupted supply of electricity.

The consumer protection movement can’t be successful in our country unless the citizens themselves are willing to fight for their rights and shoulder their civic responsibilities. Generally it is assumed that there is no use protesting in our country as nothing comes out of it. Besides who has time to indulge in such fights? And then what an individual can do when the entire system is faulty? In fact all these are lame excuses to find an escape from our social responsibilities. It is an accepted fact that fair protest against highhandedness always helps. Even if it doesn’t solve your problem, it will save many others like you in the future. And when people have will, they can always find time to fight for their own rights. Once a consumer begins a fight, other add their voice and it turns into an effective campaign.

Besides, the legal courts no more remain the only place for social battles Nowadays, consumers can register their complaint and get justice in several ways. They can convince a vendor by a genuine argument and frank discussion across the counter if they are well aware of their rights. They can protest through a written compliant which mostly makes an impact as it shows to the concerned authorities that people keep an eye over their activities and can take action against them. Then, the press also plays an active role to redress public grievances. One factual article or letter to editor can bring out protest from the other affected consumers and can put pressure on the people in power to resolve the issue.

In short, the time of consumer movement has come in Pakistan and the establishment of Consumer Protection Council is a realisation of the fact. But such organizations can’t achieve their goals without active public support. In short, Pakistani consumers are needed to fight their battle at every front for improvement of their own life and also for the uplift of the overall national economy.

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