27 Nov 2021 2:08 PM GMT
In 2019, amongst the uproar and protest against abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, the Government of India passed the Consumer Protection Act 2019 (2019 Act) through the parliament and hailed it as a tool to protect consumer rights and simplify consumer dispute resolution mechanism. However, even after two years of enactment of this legislation, the Consumer...
In 2019, amongst the uproar and protest against abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, the Government of India passed the Consumer Protection Act 2019 (2019 Act) through the parliament and hailed it as a tool to protect consumer rights and simplify consumer dispute resolution mechanism. However, even after two years of enactment of this legislation, the Consumer Dispute Redressal Commissions (consumer commissions) are plagued with issues that make consumer rights redundant. In fact, the consumer commissions are in such a dire state that the highest court in the country is having to intervene.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court in a suo motu petition (In Re: Inaction of the Governments in Appointing President and Members/Staff of District and State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission and Inadequate Infrastructure across India) expressed their concern about the poor management of consumer commissions. On 6 October, the Additional Solicitor General submitted the Legislative Impact Assessment (LIA) Report of the 2019 Act, conducted by the India Institute of Public Administration. The LIA highlighted the glaring shortcomings of the 2019 Act and raised concerns over the caseload on District Consumer Commissions, the state of infrastructure of consumer commissions and acute staff deficiency. In this article, we delve into these concerns to highlight the inadequacy of the 2019 Act and the need for comprehensive actions to fix the shortcomings of the consumer dispute redressal system.
Caseload and inordinate delays
As a result of the growing market economy, over the last decade (2009-2019), the number of cases filed in National, State and District Consumer Commissions increased by 133.9%, 102.7% and 63.6%, respectively. However, the capacity of the consumer commissions failed to keep pace with this increase in workload, resulting in inordinate delays. For instance, the official data reveals that while 28,431 cases are pending before the Maharashtra State Consumer Commission, the average disposal between 2017 and 2019 remained as low as 661 cases. The COVID-19 pandemic further crippled the functioning of the consumer commissions in 2020 and 2021. In our opinion, the 2019 Act and the rules framed under the legislation missed an opportunity to address these capacity constraints and prepare the consumer commissions to address the needs of a diverse and dynamic economy.
Infrastructure Audits to be Part of Impact Assessment
Courts in India lack basic facilities such as signages, parking, security, waiting areas, ramps and tactile pavements. The consumer commissions, expected to be consumer-friendly spaces that encourage litigants to directly represent their cases, in reality, are intimidating, unwelcoming spaces with complex processes. Absence of help desks or information centres and the legalese associated with the documentation force most consumers to take the help of advocates. Most commissions have 60-80 cases listed before them daily but are housed in leased complexes that were not designed with the intention of being used for this purpose and do not have sufficient facilities to support this footfall. Even where they are located in dedicated buildings, consumer commissions are seldom designed with the objective of being accessible and public-friendly spaces. In addition to the actions to address the infrastructure and storage requirements, pointed out by the LIA report, a comprehensive infrastructure audit is required to assess the shortcomings and gaps in the existing consumer commission infrastructure. Only such an audit would give the executive a realistic picture of the funds and resources required to rectify and ameliorate the existing situation.
Administrative Staff: Backbone of the Consumer Commissions
The contribution of the administrative staff in the functioning of consumer commissions is often overlooked. In practice, consumer commissions are mostly understaffed with the existing officers expected to juggle several roles. For instance, the District Consumer Commission in Belagavi, Karnataka having an average of 2179.67 cases filed every year (between 2018 and 2020) has been sanctioned with as low as ten persons to manage its administration. Even if all existing vacancies were to be filled, which itself seems to be challenging, it might still be insufficient to address this state of affairs. It is disappointing that the 2019 Act passed to increase pecuniary jurisdiction across tiers of consumer commissions- district, state and national without any consideration or scientific calculation of the additional number of staff it would entail managing the workload.
LIA demonstrate the quality of law-making in India
The lack of consultation and discussions over legislation not only diminishes the value of parliamentary democracy but also results in laws inadequate to address the challenges faced by the system. The key recommendation of the LIA revising the pecuniary jurisdiction, laid down in the 2019 Act, of district commissions at Rs. 50 lakhs ( from Rs. 1 crore), state commissions at Rs 50 lakhs to Rs. 2 crores (from Rs. 1 crore to Rs. 10 crores) and the National Commission at above Rs. 2 crores (from above Rs. 10 crores) is a shocking revelation of how way off the mark our legislators were in understanding the functioning of these commissions. It is definitely a welcome move that a court initiated impact assessment was able to throw light into some of these critical gaps in the new law but such assessments should become part of the law-making process with a pre and post legislation impact assessment guiding law making in this country.
Reshma Sekhar is a Senior Resident Fellow and Aditya Ranjan is a Research Fellow for the Judicial Reforms Initiative at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views are personal.