Consumer rights as human rights

JAYASHREE PILLAI

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HUMAN rights are the basis on which civil society moves towards an advanced state of social development. At every juncture the preservation and protection of human rights is a prime concern of a modern society. With the passage of time, new rights have been included in the widening scope of human rights to ensure justice and personal freedom. Today, the citizen is also armed with a set of consumer rights, which are a strong contender for inclusion within the scope of human rights.

Actually, there is no dichotomy between citizens and consumers, since consumers as members of civil society have obligations and responsibilities, besides having a set of rights.

‘A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us, we are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work, he is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business, he is a part of it. We are not doing him a favour by serving him. He is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so.’

It was Mahatma Gandhi who rightly defined a consumer thus, well before the rise of any consumer movement. Gandhi ji placed the consumer right at the centre of a business set-up, thus underscoring the popular saying, ‘consumer is king’.

The origins of the consumer movement, as it is today, can be attributed to John F. Kennedy, the US President who equated the rights of the common American consumer with the national interest of the country. In his presidential address on 15 March 1962, Kennedy underlined the importance of the consumer in the marketplace: ‘If a consumer is offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant, if drugs are unsafe or worthless, if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened, and national interest suffers.’

The modern consumer movement also owes its success to the pioneer American consumer activist Ralph Nader, whose leadership, resourcefulness, and sheer persistence changed the equation between the consumer and the providers of goods and services. He has been at the forefront of scores of progressive campaigns during the past few decades.

Who is a consumer? Irrespective of who or where we are, we are all consumers. More and more, what is defining consumers is the way they consume. Consumer rights are a popular concept in our increasingly consumerism driven society. The conflict of interest between consumers and the business organizations have forced the framing of consumer rights and laws, despite which malpractices continue to occur, even while constant efforts are on to protect the interests of both buyers and sellers with the help of a legal system which has evolved as a result of the consumer movement. The movement has gained momentum in India during the last few years, and today it is a force to reckon with. Thus, it is the right time to recognize and accept the hypothesis that consumer rights fall within the purview of human rights.

 

All people are entitled to some basic and natural rights which help them in having a purposeful existence in the world. These basic rights have been defined as human rights and have become the backbone of social life. Equivalence of these rights is the fundamental principle and equal dignity of all persons stem out of this as the universal application. Each person across the world is born with basic human rights and responsibilities. The rights of individuals are inalienable in practice and do not overlap in an ideal society. They work smoothly so that there is no cause for friction.

During the last few decades, consumer rights have gained increasing significance all over the world. This has happened in the background of the growing importance of human rights. The concept of human rights has broadened since its inception in 1948 through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Over the last few decades it has evolved to include within its ambit, civil and political rights (CP 1966), economic, social and cultural rights (ESC 1966), convention on the rights of the child (CRC 1989), right to eliminate racial discrimination (1965), convention eliminating all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW 1979), protection against torture (1984). The time is ripe in this broadening ambit of human rights to include ‘consumer rights’ in it.

In today’s globalizing and liberalized society, protection of the individual consumer assumes greater significance and protecting human dignity becomes an important cornerstone, especially against multinational corporations and big business monopolies. Consumer protection is often associated with efficient and effective implementation of regulatory laws in a democratic set-up. The state plays a major role as the protector of citizens’ consumer rights. Traditions in ancient India consist of many instances where the state/ruler was made aware of his responsibility towards the well-being of his people and their rights in no uncertain terms. Today, it is the responsibility of the government to revisit these texts (Gita, Yajurveda, Mahabharata, Arthashastra) and take inspiration from them and redefine them to suit the context of consumer welfare and human development.

The human development experts emphasize a people-centric model and doctrine of human rights with an emphasis on individual prosperity, honour and dignity, which can serve as the basis for a discussion on consumer rights as human rights.

Policy makers all over the world have emphasized the fact that materialistic development tends to neglect the basics of ‘human’ development. Amartya Sen rightly observed that, ‘Development is essentially the expansion of human freedoms. These expanded human freedoms enhance the capacity of each individual to fully lead the kind of life sh/e values by ensuring the environmental condition necessary to realise personal choices and opportunities.’

 

I would like to narrate two case studies which shed light on the importance of having consumer rights as human rights. The first incident occurred in 2000, and it involved my buying a branded geyser by a well known manufacturer. The geyser with proper ISI marking and guarantee burst immediately after installation, fortunately averting a fatal accident. The manufacturer and dealer, by selling a defective product violated my right to life. The risk to my life and family, and even that of the electrician was a clear violation of human rights. The Bureau of Indian Standards, the state agency which allowed its ISI stamp on the product which influenced my decision to buy it, was equally responsible for the accident that violated the human rights of many individuals like myself.

The second incident happened in 2004 and involved a giant telecom company. Their high-handed attitude towards an ordinary customer was an eye-opener. My phone was disconnected by the company stating that the monthly bill was not paid in time. However, I had not received the bill on time. The abrupt disconnection of my phone caused me serious trouble and trauma, both professionally and personally. My internet was also disconnected. The worst blow was the recorded message received by the callers who tried to contact me over the phone. The message said, ‘The phone has been disconnected due to non-payment of the bill.’ This violated my right to human dignity, which is an essential part of human rights.

In both these instances the state apparatus came to my aid as protector and ensured that my grievances were addressed, and the opposing parties were made to pay a penalty and compensation for the mental trauma and financial loss caused to a consumer.

 

The protection given to me as a consumer was possible because of the Consumer Protection Act 1986 (CPA). This act, which is known as the Magna Carta of Indian consumers, recognizes eight basic rights, namely, the right to safety, right to information, right to choice, right to representation, right to redress, right to consumer education, right to basic needs and right to healthy and sustained environment. The last two rights were not a part of CPA 1986, but added through various amendments. The protection of these rights is the responsibility of the Ministry of Family Welfare and the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

In conformity with UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection of 1985, the Government of India, through CPA 1986, has provided for a three-tier mechanism of consumer grievance redress agencies. There are advisory bodies known as the Consumer Protection Councils, which advise the government at all three levels, namely district, state and national. Besides, there are adjudicatory bodies which look into consumer grievances and provide judgements on disputes and protect consumer rights. This three-tier judicial system operating at district, state and national level, makes it easy for consumers to register their grievances at these forums as the procedures involved are simple and consumer friendly. Professional help is not required to file a complaint or to follow it through the various stages. My experience in both the above cases was not a cakewalk, but it was a great learning experience.

Besides the CPA 1986, there are several legislations to regulate business activities, thereby protecting consumer interests.

 

Drugs and Cosmetics Act 1940; Emblems and Names Act 1950; Drugs and Magic Remedies Act 1954; Prevention of Food and Adulteration Act 1954; Prize Competition Act 1955; Section 58 Companies Act 1956; Young Persons Harmful Publication Act 1956; Trade and Merchandise Marks Act 1958; Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act 1969; Prize Chits and Money Circulation Schemes Banning Act 1978; Indecent Representation of Women Prohibition Act 1986; Motor Vehicles Act 1988; Infant Milk Substitute, Feeding Bottles and Infant Foods Regulation of Production, Supply and Distribution Act 1992 and Amendment Act 2002; Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Act 1994; Transplantation of Human Organs Act 1994; Cable Television Networks Regulation Act 1995; Food Safety and Standards Act 2005; Protection Against Domestic Violence Act 2005; Right to Information Act 2005.

There are various regulatory authorities whose objective is to protect consumer interests in areas such as: Insurance Regulatory Development Authority; Telecom Regulatory Authority of India; Securities and Exchange Board of India; Reserve Bank of India; Medical Council of India; Chief Vigilance Commissioner; Banking Ombudsmen; Lok Ayuktas. Industry has also evolved a mechanism of self-regulation. Agencies such as the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAA) are a few examples.

Despite all the above mentioned provisions, the question remains whether the interests of the consumer in India are protected? I would like to share my experience as a faculty consultant to the National Consumer Helpline Phase II (1800-11-4000). I found that despite the legal provisions available for protecting the consumer, several pathetic and heart-rending cases of negligence in the area of medical services were prevalent. Medical malpractice included denying medicine in emergency cases, exploiting patients by prolonged treatment to make money, creating injury by prescribing wrong medicines, taking cuts from laboratories for referring cases, among others. We handled several cases of gross violation regarding basic right to human life.

 

During the last few decades, consumer rights have gained increasing significance all over the world. This has happened in the background of growing importance of human rights. In the US, the protection of consumer interests is ensured by various regulations carried out by various commissions. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) prevents unfair competition and regulates trade; the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates food and drugs; Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates all radio and interstate cable, phone, and satellite communications; Fair Credit Reporting Act (FRCA) regulates the collection, dissemination, and use of consumer credit information; Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) eliminates abusive consumer practices to ensure fairness. These are a few examples.

 

This indicates that no amount of written legislation and acts can protect consumer interests unless they are implemented in letter and spirit. The acts would be meaningless if not followed by action on the part of regulatory agencies.

In fact, all theories such as the theory of justice, rights, equality, democracy and development reflect the principle of fairness and protection of human dignity in a society. This is also the aim and objective of consumer rights. Thus consumer rights serve as the foundation of human rights. On a closer look, consumer rights and human rights act as the two sides of the same coin.

Consumer rights are an integral part of human rights and vice versa. The fine division between them occurs only in expression, and might be traced to the perceived split between a citizen and a consumer. Understanding that these sets of different rights are an extension of each other makes it easier to define and understand the inherent cohesion between them. For all practical purposes, human rights and consumer rights are intertwined.

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