Industrial development across Indian markets has resulted in the influx of various consumer goods. The industries today focus on catering to the diverse needs of Indian customers and cover a variety of goods and services like banking, finance, transportation, construction, entertainment, utilities etc. While the consumers are at the top of the vendors’ priority, they may often have to suffer harm and exploitation at the hands of corporate sellers due to misrepresentation of products and services, unequal bargaining powers and lack of awareness. Consequently, to balance the powers of the consumers with that of the mighty vendors, the Government has passed various laws to protect the rights to consumers. These laws also provide ways for consumers to enforce their rights.
Are you a consumer?
A consumer in India is any person who: 1. Pays, promises to pay, partly pays or partly promises to pay for any goods.1 2. Buys goods under systems of deferred payments like loans and letters of credit.1 For instance, if one purchases a car by way of a bank loan, and the performance of the car is reduced after service, or any part of the car is damaged during service, the owner shall constitute a consumer for claims under Indian Consumer Protection Law. 3. Uses goods with the approval of the person who buys those goods for a consideration.1 Therefore, not only the persons who pay for the good or service can raise a claim as a consumer, but also the ones who use the good or service with the approval of the person who paid for it. For example, a 21 year old student may raise a claim for a faulty laptop being sold by a vendor, while his/her parents may have paid for the same. You cannot claim rights of a consumer if you obtain goods for a purpose of reselling them or for any commercial purpose.1 Commercial purpose does not include use of goods bought by a person exclusively for earning his livelihood through self-employment.2 For example, a grocer buying a weighing scale for his store qualifies as a consumer for the purpose of enforcing consumer rights against the manufacturer of weighing scale. Consumer protection does not only extend to buyers and users of goods but to the consumers of services as well.3 To qualify as a consumer, the goods and service may be procured from a sources, either online, offline, teleshopping, direct purchase or even multi-level marketing.4 Inclusion of multi-level marketing implies that sellers at each level of the production and marketing chain may be held liable by way of a consumer complaint. Consequently, claims may be raised against the seller of the product, the manufacturer of the product or even the after-sales service provider.
Rights of a Consumer
Consumer rights are the rights to be well informed about the quality, quantity, purity, potency, price and standard of goods or services.5 As the consumers are meant to be protected against consequences of any unfair trade practices, it is essential for the consumers to know their rights. Therefore, it is crucial that consumers of goods, as the ones paying for them or using them, are aware of their basic rights, the forums to approach in case of infringement and procedure to follow in case of need. The right to be protected against goods or services which are hazardous to life and property6 This right is applicable to specific areas of consumption like healthcare, food processing, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, travel, real estate, hospitality, domestic appliances etc. For example, if a customer at a restaurant is served rotten food, or food of sub-standard quality, he/she may take recourse by way of a consumer complaint, The government has enacted various related legislations to protect consumers from exposure to hazardous goods and services. Some of these legislations provide for formation of authorities like the Food Safety Standards Authority of India,7 The Bureau of Indian Standards8 and the Central Consumer Protection Authority.9 The right to be assured, wherever possible, access to a variety of goods, products and services at competitive prices10 The freedom to make choice between preferred goods is the ultimate goal of ensuring market competition. Freedom to make choices is important for consumers to express disappointment in the quality/quantity of a product available in the market. For example, if there is only one brand of coffee available in the markets, the customers will be forced to buy the same brand. Consequently, the manufacturers shall never work on improving their product and consumers will be forced to consume low quality coffee. The government has long strived to retain competition in the markets to ensure that there is sufficient competition in terms of offering lower prices and high quality products to consumers. Competition Laws have been enacted in the country to ensure that monopolistic and predatory practices of big players in the Indian markets do not hamper the consumer interest. The right to be heard and to be assured that consumer’s interests will receive due consideration at appropriate fora11 To secure the consumers’ right to be heard and to be assured due consideration, the consumer law in India provides for a three tier quasi-judicial mechanism in all districts of the country.12) This system includes the District Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission and The National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission. State13 and National level commissions14 have also been established to deal with matters in appeal and high-stake matters, i.e. complaints where the value of goods/services in question is between Rs. 1 crore to Rs. 10 crores in case of State Commission and exceeds Rs. 10 crores in case of National Commission. The commissions have the jurisdiction to entertain the consumer complaints afresh if they pertain to a specified monetary value. The right to seek redressal against unfair trade practice or restrictive trade practices or unscrupulous exploitation of consumers15 The consumers who may have been subjected to unfair or malicious trade practices can get redressal by approaching the appropriate consumer forum. Complaints may be entertained in case the consumer has been subjected to a restrictive or unfair trade practice or an unfair contract.16 An unfair trade practice would entail, for example, prices being charged more than the maximum retail price of the product, hoarding of goods by retailers or black marketing. Unfair contracts are contracts between sellers or service providers and consumers, which have such terms that may significantly impact the rights of the consumers in the contract. For example, mandating extremely high security deposits from the consumers to ensure performance of contractual obligations. Complaints may also be made in if goods or services attained by the consumer are faulty or defective,17 or are of a deficient nature or if excessive prices have been charged for them.18 Additionally, complaints may be made against unregulated sale of hazardous goods or to make the product manufacturer, seller or service provider liable for deficiency in goods sold or service provided.Section 6(iv), The Consumer Protection Act, 2019.))19 Deficiency in goods or services may include, for example, sale of expired food products by the retailer. The right to consumer awareness20 Consumer protection law has various provisions to ensure awareness or consumers towards their rights against unscrupulous trade practices and deficiency of services, as well as to aware them about modes of seeking redressal. The newly amended law21 provides for formation of a Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA).9 The CCPA is responsible for protection, promotion and enforcement of consumer’s rights as a class. The authority performs various functions including censorship of false and misleading advertisements22 and promotion/awareness of consumer rights in the country.23
Enforcing consumer rights in India: Who do you approach to complain?
For filing a consumer complaint in India, a simple application may be made before the appropriate commission. The Indian consumer law provides for consumer forums to be formed on three levels, District Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (District commission), State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (State commission) and the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (National commission).
The District commission has jurisdiction to adjudicate complaints where value of the goods or services paid for as consideration is not more than Rs. 1 crore.24 The appropriate district forum for a consumer complaint is where the opposite party(ies) reside or ordinarily carry on business or have a branch office.25 Complaint may also be filed at the district commission in the vicinity of the place where the consumer harm takes place26 or where the complainant resides or works.27 Orders of the District commission may be appealed against before the State commission. A list of available district forums in the country, and their addresses may be found here. 2. State commission The State commission has jurisdiction to adjudicate complaints where consideration paid for deficient goods or services is more then Rupees 1 crore, and less than Rs. 10 crore.28 Appeals against District commission orders are also entertained by State commissions.29 The appropriate State forum for a consumer complaint is where the opposite party(ies) reside or ordinarily carry on business or have a branch office.30 Complaint may also be filed at the State commission in the vicinity of the place where the consumer harm takes place31 or where the complainant resides or works.32 Orders of the State commission may be appealed against before the National commission.33 Every state has its own commission, if you want to find one, see here for the addresses. 3. National commission Complaints may be made directly to the National commission if the value of the goods and services in question exceeds Rupees 10 crores.34 Furthermore, appeals against the orders of the State commission or the CCPA may be filed before the National commission.35 There is a sole National commission in the National Capital Region of India. Appeals against National commission orders may be filed before the Supreme Court of India.36 See here to understand the location of the National Commission.
Why Consumer Rights?
The consumer rights and laws in the country have been enacted to provide easy and fast resolution of disputes to consumers who may have suffered due to malpractices of suppliers and manufacturers of goods and services. The law provides a three-tier mechanism to ensure that the rights of the consumer are kept in check. Moreover, a Central Consumer Protection Authority has been formed to supervise the work of not only the consumer forums in India, but also to ensure that all vendors and manufacturers do not mislead consumers or engage in malpractices. The law has been kept easy to enforce and the consumer forums have been made highly approachable to ensure ease of access and timely service of justice to consumers subjected to malpractices. __________________ Aryan is member of the Kautilya Society, an initiative of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi. He is a law student at West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences. Views are personal.