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Don't go wrong about rights, says online consumer body founder

On World Consumer Rights Day today, expert Bejon Misra answers consumer related queries and addresses the most common doubt people seeking justice and redressal have — is it worth their while to file a consumer complaint?

Bejon Misra is Founder of Consumer Online Foundation. He has been involved in the consumer movement in India for 30 years starting from Jamshedpur in 1983, as founder of the Consumer Guidance Society of Jamshedpur. At present, he is founder trustee of Consumer Online Foundation in New Delhi. He was chairman in 2003-2005 and the Founder Governing Council Member of the Consumer Coordination Council (CCC), a national coalition of 70 leading consumer organizations of India since 1993.

Take him on and help create a data base: Consumer expert Bejon Misra
Take him on and help create a data base: Consumer expert Bejon Misra

Here, on World Consumer Rights Day, Misra clears the air about consumer complaints and whether the hope for justice is an illusion or worthwhile pursuit.

The interview:

Which is the ruling body for consumer complaints in the city?
Every consumer complaint is guided by law and as per law there are designated regulators. For example, all telephone related complaints are guided under the TRAI Act and also the Indian Telegraphs Act apart from the Consumer Protection Act 1986. However, it is the responsibility of every manufacturer and service provider to resolve any kind of complaint from the consumers. Unfortunately, the State Government, Ministry of Consumer Affairs in Maharashtra, which is the nodal Ministry, is least active and the consumers are not complaining to them but rushing to seek legal redressal, which is long drawn and expensive.

What are the most common complaints that people have - are they defective appliances?
Almost 25 per cent of the complaints are on defective or sub-standard products and services sold to consumers. None of the manufacturers or service providers are prepared to refund the amount paid at the time of purchase, or. exchange the defective products for high quality products adhering to global best standards.

Telecom comes second and it is as high as 18 per cent. This is also because we have 900+ million telecom consumers in India with extremely poor regulatory oversight. Lately, complaints on e-commerce have also increased, which is around 7 per cent. Other sectors include banking which is 5 per cent and insurance which is 3 per cent.

Is it worth filing a complaint? The common perception is that it is better to let the matter go than go through the hassle of filing complaints...
We started the JAGO GRAHAK JAGO Multi-Media Campaign in 2005, when I was the Chairman of the Consumer Coordination Council, in order to encourage consumers to complain. We initiated the National Consumer Helpline and the Consumer Online Resource Centre to make it easy and simple to complain. However consumers are still reluctant to complain. It is time we started the campaign JAGO SARKAR JAGO.

How long does it take for a consumer to get justice?
In India, we do not have a fixed timeline. If the consumer is an influential individual then 24 hours, however if he is an ordinary individual, which we all are, it could even take upto 15 years to resolve the problem. We have several examples in insurance, banking and healthcare sectors, where the consumer had to fight for compensation for more than 15 years.

Is it possible that the consumer is lying and it is actually not the fault of the corporate?
It is possible and that is why we amended the Consumer Protection Act 1986 to punish consumers for false or frivolous claims. Under Section 26 of the Act, for dismissal of frivolous or vexatious complaints, the provision is as follows: 'Where a complaint instituted before the District Forum, the State Commission or as the case may be, the National Commission, is found to be frivolous or vexatious, it shall, for reasons to be recorded in writing, dismiss the complaint and make an order that the complainant shall pay to the opposite party such cost, not exceeding Rs 10,000, as may be specified in the order". So the consumer is liable to pay up to Rs. 10,000 if the consumer complaint is found false or with vested interest.

When an individual takes on a corporate or company, it is usually an unequal battle -- one person against a huge organization. Are the scales not tilted on the company's side?
Yes, you are right. The scales are tilted towards the manufacturers and the service providers, including services provided by public sector organizations at a price. An ordinary consumer has to fight against an eminently resourceful person or organization, thus it is important to organize ourselves and fight for the poor, voiceless consumer in a unified manner. We need to compel the Government to take action against all such unscrupulous and unethical organizations in the public as well as private sector. This is our key objective to start an office in Mumbai. Today, we find only 13 per cent consumers from Maharashtra are complaining, while Delhi alone is 23 per cent and Uttar Pradesh is 15 per cent. I am sure that consumers in Maharashtra, especially those from Mumbai are fairly aware and empowered about their rights but may not be aware about the simple way to complain and where to complain.

Supposing one has a grievance about something that cost you Rs 10,000. Is it worthwhile to spend much more in terms of energy, resources and time to get somebody to address it?
It is not at all wise for individuals to fight for their rights by spending their own money but they must ensure, as consumers, that their grievances are brought to light and the data is created so that organizations like ours or other consumer organizations can claim compensation on behalf of several consumers. This will be done under a class action litigation or a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) to seek justice for the consumer who is helpless and economically unable to pursue the justified claim.

We all have to move forward in the right manner by creating data on such cases and facilitate the Government to bring a robust policy on refund and exchange of defective or sub-standard products or services. This can be done through deterrent penalties for intentional delays in providing resolutions or adopting unfair trade practice.

‘My biggest mistake was to go to consumer court'

Andheri resident Harish Kanchan met with an accident on the Nasik-Mumbai highway, in February 2008. His car (A Skoda number: MH 06 AF 6115) hit a dead bull and went off-road.

SO NEAR AND YET SO CAR: Harish Kanchan with his car. He has been fighting a futile battle in the consumer courts
SO NEAR AND YET SO CAR: Harish Kanchan with his car. He has been fighting a futile battle in the consumer courts 

The undercarriage was damaged. Kanchan, who is into the construction business in Nasik, sent his car to dealers Nummer Eins Motors Pvt Ltd the authorized Skoda dealer in Ghatla, Chembur the same evening. Kanchan got his car back nearly 45 days later with several original Skoda parts replaced by duplicate parts.

From mid-April 2008 Kanchan had pursued the matter going to the Skoda head office in Aurangabad with his complaints. At that time, Srinivas Sudhir, customer care, after sales, Skoda head office, Aurangabad had told this paper, "Yes, certain parts have been replaced. We contemplating serious action against the dealer."

Says Kanchan about that battle that has begun way back in 2008: "I did the biggest mistake by going to Consumer Court. Before I went to court, Skoda had to reply to questions posed by either the media or car portals. After the case went to court they had an excuse and all they had to say was: "We cannot comment. Matter is sub-judice." In fact going to Court benefitted them.

"I went to court on 17/07/2008. Thereafter on 17/09/2008, the District Consumer Forum gave an interim ruling for Skoda to pay for the repairs and hand over the car to me.

"Skoda appealed against the ruling at the State Forum and got a stay on that interim order in April 2009. The State Forum also ordered the District Forum to hear the complaint expeditiously within a period of three months.

"Thereafter Skoda and both their dealers, one after another, kept delaying their replies in The District Consumer Forum for a time. Skoda has still not filed their written reply. It is six years to date. No solution.

"In between there was no President at the Forum in Court no 2 for as long as almost 1.5 years. He was appointed a few months back. Thereafter, I have seen the bench always empty or with one single member on my dates. Hence, we still keep getting date after date. Now I hear he is set to retire in June. I am not sure."

In the end, Kanchan says that his strong advice to all Indian citizens is: 'Do not go to Court. Settle instead. Even if it is at a loss. Or you will be putting your good money to no use at all."

Genesis and what to do about a crisis
On March 15, 1962 President John F Kennedy gave an address to the US Congress in which he formally addressed the issue of consumer rights. He was the first world leader to do so, and the consumer movement now marks March 15 every year as a means of raising global awareness about consumer rights.

How to complain:
Consumers should approach Consumer Organizations of Mumbai like Consumer Conexion on their toll-free helpline number 1800-11-4424 or www.consumerconexion.org The first step for an unhappy consumer is to complain to the manufacturer or service provider, which is normally available on the product literature or service manual. In case the consumer needs help, they should approach their nearest consumer organization or the dealer who would have sold the product or the service for guidance or call the National Consumer Helpline 1800-11-4000.

 

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