The concept of consumer rights, where a consumer has the right to safe and unadulterated food, and to services without being cheated, is something quite new to us here. For decades there have been headlines in the news about food being adulterated, fruit being forcibly ripened with chemicals, colouring and formalin being added to meat and fish. Citizens’ rights activists have long demanded a supervisory organisation that will ensure the protection of consumer rights. Finally, it was only in 2009 that the government enacted the Consumers Rights Act. The Directorate of National Consumers Rights Protection is the institution in charge of ensuring the rights of the consumers.
Like the other government institutions to protect the rights of the people (the human rights commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission), the national consumers rights protection directorate has also been allowed to function, albeit with its hands tied. As a result, consumers’ rights remain a far cry.
Everyone is caught up in this vicious cycle of adulteration and fraud
If the rights of the consumers could be ensured in accordance with the Consumers Rights Act 2009, perhaps people’s welfare would have prevailed. Under this law, the consumers can resort to the law if the retailers do not use the product wrapper, do not have a price list on display, do not have a list of services on display, overcharge for any product, hoard products, sell adulterated items, mix prohibited additives with food products, manufacture goods in an illegal process, publicise misleading advertisements, fail to supply the goods as promised, cheat in weight and measurement, use tampered measuring tapes, make counterfeit items, sell date-expired items, and show negligence.
This means that under the consumer rights act, a consumer can lodge a complaint with the consumer rights protection directorate regarding any product bought from anywhere, from a super-shop to the footpath. If that was actually true, by now the consumer rights website or email would have crashed under the deluge of complaints. And if the complaints came through the postal service, the staff would exhaust their office hours opening the envelopes and sorting the complaints. But nothing of the sort is happening. That means the people are not clear about their rights as consumers.
The government enacts a law, creates an organisation and recruits some people, and therein ends its responsibility. But to carry out such a responsibility, it is essential to build up institutional capacity. Has it really taken any measures to ensure that the people get safe and unadulterated food and other products?
From the very outset there had been complaints that the consumer rights protection directorate only stirred if anything appeared in the news media. The inert nature of the directorate came under further question particularly during the Covid pandemic when certain reputed and as well as certain relatively unknown e-commerce and f-commerce companies cheated consumers in a big way. Many said that even when they submitted complaints, it took an inordinately long time for the issue to be settled.
In recent times the consumer rights protection directorate has carried out quite a few drives. Videos have appeared on social media about these drives. The videos reveal a shocking picture of how crimes such as adulteration, cheating and overcharging, have become a deeply embedded culture. Manufacturers, importers or retailers blatantly carry on with such crimes, particularly where food is involved. This is true of the super-shop just as it is true of the roadside food sellers. There is a propensity to cheat among the renowned brands and the individual enterprise. Cockroaches float in the syrup of sweets in the air-conditioned costly shops of sweet brands, colouring and artificial pungency is added to mustard oil while it’s being crushed in the oil press, fabric dye is added to cakes and pastries. It is compulsory for markets selling vegetables and essentials, fish and meat, to display price lists, but no one does. Retailers buy watermelons per piece, but sell it per kg. Clothes are brought in luggage from abroad, evading duty and taxes, and sold at exorbitant prices. The expiry date of even infant formula is erased and the product sold after its shelf life. Clothes are being sold at huge ‘discount sales’ simply by adding a new price tag.
Every video indicates such violations of the law. Wherever the consumer rights protection directorate launches a drive, disturbing instances of irregularities and cheating emerge. When those conducting the drive ask why they have resorted to such underhand dealings, almost all reply that they were unaware of the rules or, “Everyone does this, this is the norm.” The officials explain to the sellers, admonish them, sometimes fine them, but does the mindset of the manufacturer or the seller change? Or do they just continue in their old ways?
The man who adds food colouring to the fish he sells, also buys the cockroach infested sweets for his children. The fruit vendor who ripens mangoes with chemicals, buys mustard oil mixed with artificial colouring from the market. Everyone is caught up in this vicious cycle of adulteration and fraud. The question is, who is allowing this suicidal opportunity? It is the undisputable right of every citizen to avail safe food or unadulterated products and products at fair prices. It is the government who must ensure this.
The decision to protect consumer rights is political. The drive against adulterated food and cheating is a lot like the futile search for a needle in a haystack. How far can consumer rights be protected by keeping the hands of the directorate tied and carrying out controlled drives?
* Monoj Dey is a senior sub-editor of Prothom Alo
* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir