Need to enact Consumer Protection Act
Khan Ferdousour Rahman
A consumer in a developed economy is literally submerged in an ocean of alternative choices, whereas his/her counterpart in a developing economy suffers from acute lack of purchasing power. Hence question is not what to buy, but how to buy? The first and foremost fundamental right of a person is 'Right to Life'. The main reason of weak consumer movement in Bangladesh is that consumers are not aware about their rights, whereas in market economy they are the king. Here it is still in its nascent stage as consumer vigilance grows with literacy and knowledge. As her huge population is illiterate, so consumer movement is a complicated social step in her present socio-economic condition. Article 18 of the Constitution of Bangladesh makes govt. responsible to ensure food safety and public health. The immediate past government adopted Pure Food Ordinance, 2005 amending certain sections and sub sections and adding of few new provisions of half century old Bangladesh Food Ordinance, 1959. But price hike of essential commodities is in alarming stage in the market in Bangladesh.
The said government changed the portfolio of the Commerce Minister twice within their term, but perhaps all of them failed to control the price of essentials. Some of them blamed the effect of market economy which does not allow controlling the market. But from the experience it has been seen that in open market economy the government should have more responsibilities to do so. Before the expiry of the tenure the Commerce Minister of immediate past government Mr. Hafizuddin Ahmed also suggested for a separate ministry to protect the consumers' rights and control price hike of essential commodities at the monthly luncheon meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce in Bangladesh (AmCham). The newly proposed ministry would monitor the commodity market to control the price spiral of essentials. The ministry would remain beyond the purview of the much talked the Purchase and Procurement Regulation (PPR) that helps it to purchase any products in a short notice to stabilize the market. Presently the Commerce Ministry is mainly responsible for formulating export and import policies and unable to punish the syndicated people involved in the malpractice, because the country lacks a proper law in this regard, as viewed by the same minister. The country needs a powerful market watchdog including constant monitoring and effective laws to protect consumers' interests. He mentioned that the virtually defunct Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB) is such an arm of the government that could be utilized for speedy public procurement as practically TCB lacks capacity and authority.
Under the present situation, there is an urgent need for enacting the Consumer Protection Act to look after consumers' interest against hoarding in order to protect the commodity market from the syndication business. Many countries including neighboring India have such ministries and there are separate arrangements for checking supply and price manipulation. Such a ministry would be able to procure consumer goods in a speedy manner without sticking to the provisions of the existing PPR.
The United States adopted first legislation concerning product safety was the Federal Food and Drug Act, 1906 signed by President Theodore Roosevelt. The Sherman Act, first legislative to attempt to control monopoly power was passed in 1890 and the Federal Trade Commission was created in 1914 to control unfair methods of competition. The Consumer Bill of Right was proclaimed by President John F. Kennedy in a message to the Congress in 1962. In United Kingdom, King John of England proclaimed the first English Food Law in 1202, prohibiting adulteration of bread. With the Fair Trading Act, 1973 two separate organs, i.e. the Department of Trade, and the Consultative Committee for Consumer Protection were established. The Fair Trading Act, 1973 provided nomination of a Director General (DG) obliged to regulate and control commercial activities in the field of selling goods and services. If the consumers are seemed to be inequitable, the DG can induce the Minister to legislate by the statutory instrument against such practice. The Fair Trading Act, 1973 was supplemented by the Unfair Contract Terms Act, 1977 and the Consumer Protection Act, 1987. The English courts have also developed a new concept of 'Fundamental Breech' of the contract. In the opinion of the court if breech is fundamental, any limitation or exclusion of liability by mutual agreement of both consumer and seller is considered void. Sweden also enacted a new law in 1971 prohibiting unfair trade practice, which was further amended in 1975. To protect the interest of Indian consumers, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi initiated the Consumer Protection Act, 1986.
The present Caretaker Government (CG) has made a landmark move by publishing the gazette notifications of four rules relevant to separating the judiciary from the executive, which was not made by the last two elected government. There is nothing unlikely that the next elected government will not enact the Consumer Protection Act (CP Act) in there tenure and thereby will not allow the general people to escape from the higher price charges of the essential commodities by the syndicated businessmen, to whom they compelled to accept the price charges for the last five years. If it is done by the present CG, then the mass people of the country will remain ever grateful to all the Advisors specially to the Chief Advisor of the CG.
*A CP Act to be enacted immediately during the tenure of present CG through President's Ordinance to look after consumers' interest against hoarding in order to protect the commodity market from the syndication business. Food safety standard also to be covered in detail in the Act.
*With the creation of new ministry, i.e. Ministry of Consumer Affairs; a Consumer Protection Council may be formed with the Minister as chairperson and both official and non-official members. Non-official members should be so selected that they should truly represent the consumers and preferably from civil society. Same should be formed at District levels with local govt. representatives.
*Consumer Redressal Agency/Bureau to be formed both at Central and District level, with provision of heavy penalties, to look after the interest of consumers like many developed countries.
*Legal process should be made pro consumer, as due to lengthy process of legal system consumer takes less initiative to go to the court.
*Price control process should be strengthened with heavy penalties depending on severity of crime.
*Services under public sectors, i.e. BTTB, DESA, DESCO, WASA, Titas Gas, Biman, BRTC, BIWTC, BIWTA, BTV, Radio etc. also to be covered under the Act.
*The consumer individually to be authorized to sue against the violators instead of only few public agencies officials.
*Consumer Association of Bangladesh (CAB) to be more active, pro consumer, and governance of CAB to be ensured.
*Involvement of Civil Society Organizations (CSO) and local govt. representatives will bring better result.
As a philosophy and as a legal institute, consumer protection has achieved a universal character. Therefore, it is not too late to adopt those measures, to protect the interest of poor consumers of Bangladesh.
The author is freelancer and human rights activist.