Every responsible government has the bounden duty to evolve workable and equitable institutional frame work to protect the consumer from unjustified exploitation in the market place. The scientific labeling regulations make it mandatory for the manufacturing industry to give truthful information on the label on the container regarding the nature of contents inside and its quality and quantity. With millions of packs coming into the market, 100%monitoring of them for violations is next to impossible and many culprits get away in spite of infringement of varying degrees. The Consumer Protection Act (CPA) 1986 was enacted to provide the consumer with a redressal mechanism which would be effective, hassle-free and fast. The provisions of the Act came into force on 15.4.1987 and it was hoped that this Act would deter the traders and manufacturers from adopting deliberate unethical practices harming the interests of the consumers. On paper India has the best infrastructure to ensure fair trade practices as the CPA is modeled after the UN principles of consumer protection but how far this has helped the consumer is a big question mark.
There is a Central Consumer Protection Council and a National Commission at the central level, 34 State Commissions and Councils, 571 District Fora to deal with complaints of varying economic dimension. Up to 5.9.2008 (21 years after enacting the CPA) a total of 25.6 lakh cases were handled by the system out of which 2.33 lakh were disposed off (to the satisfaction of the complainants or not, unknown). Though there is provision for imprisonment for those indicted and disobeying the order under CPA, no conviction has ever been reported. One of the puzzles that confront the country is why consumer complaints are only a trickle, about 1.2 lakh per year on an average in a country with a population of 1.1 billion. In spite of the time limit imposed to dispose off the cases within 90 days of filing, consumers do not seem to have confidence that they can get justice under the system because of many practical constraints. One of the important pre-requisites for filing a complaint is that it must furnish a receipt as a proof of purchase. How many traders give receipts or purchase of food items and how any one can approach the District Forum for justice without a valid receipt?
It is practically impossible to prove any malafide action on the part of a manufacturer of packed foods because the consumer will come to know about the indifferent quality of the product or deficiencies in the product only after opening the pack and with contents susceptible to spoilage once opened, the seller will always get away scot free, even if a complaint is filed. Therefore CPA is totally irrelevant as far as food sales are concerned. Besides food comes under PFA and no forum will be in a position to determine the quality of the product refereed to it by a consumer. Probably a consumer can get some relief if the complaint pertains to deficiency in weight, false claims etc which can be looked into, without opening the packet. Unless there is voluntary action on the part of the retailers to accept even opened packs when returned for unsatisfactory quality, as it exists in many western countries, Indian consumer will be left to the mercy of the retailers to get foods with assured quality and safety. Manufacturers and retailers must jointly evolve a system of product accountability and learn to respect the honesty of a consumer who comes all the way with the deficient product to get a replacement. Of course a small percentage of such complainants could be non-genuine but this has to be factored in pricing the products. Consumers will not grudge a marginal increase in price to cover for the materials returned.
It is with good intention that a provision was made to include on the label the contact telephone number or e-mail ID of the designated person of the manufacturer, vested with the job of receiving consumer complaints, so that there is a communication channel for the consumer to air his grievances. Those with real desire to get redressal under this provision seem to be discouraged by lukewarm response from the manufacturers who consider this as a minor nuisance and only very few respond positively. Some take the easy route to mollify the consumer by replacement of the product, if it is sent to them and logistical problems involved in returning the defective product to the manufacturer directly are too cumbersome for the complainant to try this route.
National Consumer Welfare Helpline of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and FICCI Alliance for Consumer Care set up with good intentions are not helpful to the consumers when it comes to consumer dissatisfaction with food purchase. German Agency for International Technical Cooperation (GTZ) is reported to be in discussion with GOI to modify the CPA, to build into it a mediation provision that hopefully can resolve disputes quickly to the satisfaction of both the parties in such cases. How far it will help the consumers with complaints on food products against the retailers and the manufacturers remains to be seen. Unless the consumer gets the respect due to him from the sellers and voluntarily come forward to redress his complaint at the point of purchase, no legal mechanism can provide socour to him under Indian conditions where "every one is honest untill proven guily beyond a shadow of doubt", a 'no-win' situation!