Even though it may seem excellent in theory, the pursuit of justice is unviable under the new Consumer Protection Act, and it will spell the death knell of consumer rights, defeating the very objective of the legislation.
To get a perspective, let us consider the scenario under the old Act. The District Consumer Forums, with a pecuniary limit of Rs 20 lakh, are located mostly in premises that are too small, especially in urban areas where more cases are filed and there is a scarcity of space. So, files spill over into the corridors and there is hardly any place for movement. The Forum is manned by just one or two clerks, who find it difficult to cope with the workload of accepting complaints, scrutinising them, preparing and despatching notices, accepting deposits and investing the money during the pendency of appeals, issuing certified copies of orders, etc. Similarly, there is just one stenographer who has to take dictation of judgements from the presiding officer and members. So, it takes a long time to get the judgement even after the case has been argued. Besides, when the clerk or steno proceeds on leave, there is no substitute to attend to the work. All this has resulted in a huge backlog of over 5.5 lakh cases at the district level.
Even though the Act stipulates that cases must be decided within three months, or within five months if laboratory testing is required, the reality is that it takes between four and 10 years, and sometimes even longer, for a consumer complaint to be decided, especially in cities.
With a five-fold increase in pecuniary jurisdiction under the new Act, it is likely that a case may now take 15 to 25 years to get decided. A consumer whose fridge or television is defective cannot wait so long for his grievance to be redressed. He will prefer to abandon his rights rather than fight for them for so long.
Under the old Act, initially the procedure for enforcing orders was the same as that applicable to decrees of civil courts. It required the filing of a separate application before the Civil Court for attachment of property by the bailiff, publishing of newspaper advertisement for auction of property, etc. making it a tedious as well as costly procedure, and often not worthwhile for realising a paltry sum. The Act was amended in 2003 to make recovery proceedings simpler by adopting the procedure laid down for recovery of arrears of land revenue by the collector or other competent authority. Even though this procedure was working well, the new Act surprisingly reverts to the civil court procedure for execution.
The new Act provides for mediation. There will hardly be any scope to mediate in a dispute pertaining to defective goods or services, which would have been filed only after attempts to redress the grievance failed. Mediation could be helpful in resolving cases where there are high claims for compensation, such as those dealing with medical negligence. Yet matters relating to medical negligence resulting in grievous injury or death are prohibited from being referred to mediation.
The new Act will be counter-productive and act will as a deterrent to the filing of consumer dispute cases, which in turn will be a boon for manufacturers, traders and service providers. Under the garb of protecting the consumer, the Act will, in fact, serve the interests of industrialists.
The writer is a consumer activist