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March 28, 2004

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World consumer rights day and right to water

Quazi Faruque

We often talk about quality of life. But to ensure quality of life rights of people are to be protected properly. And these are the constitutional rights of a citizen which are mostly absent in our day to day life for various reasons. We observe that the rights being abused are virtually human rights. And it is needless to say that the consumer rights are the part and parcel of human rights. We are all consumers. In our everyday life we are buying commodities from the market and services from different sectors. Consumerism may be defined as an organised movement of citizens and government to establish rights of the buyers and to protect the interest of the people as consumers'. Consumer rights had evolved in the sixties in USA first and then approved by the United Nations (UN) with eight rights and five responsibilities of the consumers. United Nations also urged the individual country for enactment of separate law for the protection of the consumers. Since then many countries have passed the law. But in our country such law is still absent. We all have been hearing that very soon it would go to the parliament. Actually Cabinet Committee has approved the draft law in principle two years ago. Further by the initiative of the Commerce Ministry there was a two day workshop where experts from Consumers International (C.I), Consumer Council, Hong Kong, Consumer Leader from India and other countries gave their valuable inputs and urged the Government that there was no alternative but to pass the bill earlier to keep pace with the changing global situation. As because this is an age of open market economy, trade liberalisation and so many things where consumers are really a matter. Their rights are to be protected through laws of the land.

However, although not many at least some of us know that 15 march is the World Consumer Rights Day. It is observed throughout the world. This year's theme of the day was 'Water is a Consumer Right'. We all know that people's quality of life, health, even their survival depend on the access of water. It is learnt from a source that nearly 30,000 people die each day of illness linked to drinking water or sanitation. Water is also a deplectable natural resource and water scarcity is a real threat to human society. The United Nation Environmental Programme (UNEP) reports that by the year 2025 two thirds of the world's population will live in water stressed conditions. At present 1.1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, despite some progress made in the past ten years to improve coverage. Many more do not have effective sanitation. In many cities and towns of our country supply, distribution and metering systems are antiquated and suffer from a lack of maintenance. These are the almost common pictures in the different places of the country.

But access to pure water and sanitation is widely recognised in principle as fundamental human rights. The United Nations Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights adopted a general comment on the right to water on November 2002. This puts an obligation on the governments to extend access to sufficient, affordable sanitation services to all citizens without discrimination. This right is also established in Agenda 21, in the Declaration of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) and by the 4th P7 summit.

To meet the Millennium Development Goals of access to water and sanitation by 2005, 3000 new connections will need per day which requires a huge amount of money estimated approximately in US $ 25 billion. Debates about water policy focus on how to find the money for such large investment and how to mange water resources, existing storage, distribution infrastructure and necessary major improvements to these to meet the basic rights of all. And CI's own research shows that private sector involvement (which can take many forms) has in some cases been successful and in others has been disasterous for consumers. In the same way, some public supply systems are really excellent and others are poor.

With these experiences CI therefore promotes a set of principles which should be applied to all water supply systems whether in the public or private sector or a mixture of the two. And these principles reflect and support statements adopted within the United Nation. As water is a vital issue and fundamental right to all the consumers irrespective of countries great importance are to be attached to it. We all know about the water supply situation in our country. Scarcity of safe water has given the opportunity to many business people to make crores of taka selling bottled water to our helpless consumers. Sometimes they are selling the plain water as mineral water rather compelling the consumers to change their habit. They publicise misleading advertisements which amounts to forgery with the consumers, but due to appropriate protective laws there is very little scope to punish them for their offences. So, on the eve of the World Consumer Rights Day we the consumers urge the Government to get the Consumers Protection Law in the Parliament.

Quazi Faruque is General Secretary of Consumer Association of Bangladesh ( CAB).


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