ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Consumer Protection Act

An Unequal Fight

Twenty-five years after the Consumer Protection Act was put in place as a uniquely beneficial social legislation offering "simple, speedy and inexpensive" redressal, all three characteristics seem to have disappeared. Amendments to the Act now being proposed will further erode consumers' rights instead of addressing existing lacunae.

The author would like to thank the reviewer for comments on an earlier, longer version of this article.

Complaint no 1809/2012 before the Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum, Bangalore Urban District (Karnataka) typifies the multitude of problems that citizens face today, in seeking redress under the Consumer Protection Act. The complainant, aged 70, acquired a Sony digital camera costing Rs 5,417, in March 2012, and took it to Europe in May, to take pictures at a special international conference organised to mark her scientist husband’s 80th birthday. However, she found that the narrow plastic strip cover of the battery compartment had got warped and would not close, so she could not use the camera. The chance to add photos to the family archives, of an international honour abroad, was lost. On her return to India in July, she asked Sony to replace the camera or refund the money. Sony refused, citing its “No refund, no replacement” warranty clause, and merely pressed the strip back to straighten it. She filed a complaint under the Consumer Protection Act, seeking replacement or refund, plus Rs 5,000 token compensation for loss and distress caused by being unable to use the camera at an important event. The district forum (popularly known as consumer court) dismissed her complaint in February 2013, on grounds that Sony’s warranty clause said “no replacement, no refund”, and that it would be “unfair to a manufacturer to claim replacement, if the defective part has been replaced.”

This was a manifestly flawed order, on several counts – first, the defective part (warped strip) had not been replaced, it had only been pressed down and straightened; and a thin 4 mm wide plastic strip that has to be opened repeatedly for charging the battery is bound to break at the point where it had got warped – the complainant had even produced a similar broken plastic strip from another gadget of the same brand bought by a friend. Secondly, the rulings of the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC), the apex body for consumer complaints are binding on all district fora around the country, and a list of 12 relevant NCDRC orders in similar cases was submitted by the complainant to the forum, which ignored them. The National Commission had ruled in December 1992 that, “If a complainant was denied the use of a product at a time when he needed it most it would amount to deficiency of service.”1 The NCDRC has also clearly declared in several judgments that a manufacturer cannot draw up arbitrary warranty clauses that are unfair to the buyer. Section 14(1) of the Act gives powers to a consumer forum to order replacement of goods saying, “In spite of exclusionary clauses in the warranty aimed at restricting or excluding the liability of the seller”.2 National award winning consumer activist Jehangir Gai says, “No manufacturer can formulate a warranty in a manner overriding the statutory provisions of the Act which entertain claims for replacement of faulty goods”. The forum ignored these guidelines. Thirdly, the law says a copy of the complaint should be sent to the opposite party within 21 days; in this case the Bangalore forum took two months to send a copy to Sony. The stipulations of the law got thrown out of the window. There was also the curious issue of the court demanding stamps worth Rs 45 and envelopes, for forwarding the complaint to Sony – the statute authorises no such collection towards postage (as confirmed by the legal cell of Consumer Education and Research Centre, Ahmedabad).3 Besides, only some complainants were asked to bring stamps (in complaint Nos 1735/2011, and 2118/2012 no stamps were demanded). Walter Vieira, chairman of Consumer Education and Research Society of Ahmedabad and M S Kamath of the Consumer Guidance Society of India at Mumbai both concede that “things have gone from bad to worse in the implementation of the Act”.

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