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15 March, 2019 00:00 00 AM
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Consumer is the king? Hardly

The purpose of World Consumer Rights Day is to unite consumers – a large but often fragmented group – and reiterate that corporations must not break their promises or otherwise abuse the consumers that are so vital to their businesses
Syed Mehdi Momin
Consumer is the king? Hardly

Bangladesh is called a people’s republic for a reason. This is a republic where every citizen is  to be treated equally and every citizen is entitled to certain rights. And interestingly one feature that every citizen shares is that all of them are consumers. When we order food at a restaurant we have the right to safe and nutritious food, when we purchase something from a shop that product must be of good quality, when we buy a medicine it is our right that the medicine should have all the ingredients described in the medicine literature.

Today the world is observing the World Consumer Rights Day. The purpose of World Consumer Rights Day is to unite consumers – a large but often fragmented group – and reiterate that corporations must not break their promises or otherwise abuse the consumers that are so vital to their businesses. The occasion receives international attention, and is often accompanied by panel and other discussions about current events in the consumer world.

The electronic and print media being the eyes and ears of all segments of civil society has a paramount duty to educate the citizens that they are not left at the mercy of mindless money mongers and the government and society is alive to defend their rights. The best way to highlight the cause of consumers is to make them a part of international community. It will help them to familiarise with the level of progress the other communities have made in this direction.

In 1962, the US President John F Kennedy made a speech in which he pointed out that virtually everyone is a consumer, with tremendous economic power, yet this group’s needs and concerns usually go unheard. Kennedy made his speech to Congress on March 15 of that year, which is why to this day World Consumer Rights Day takes place on this date.

The best thing we often find as a good example is the system of the western world, where the consumer rights are well protected. You may spend decades in these countries and hardly face any fraud, misleading statement/advertising or higher prices. The result is that the consumer is satisfied more than anything. Their system is based on justice and equality. In countries like Bangladesh, we have two way problem, first the lack of information on the existence of laws and secondly their implementation.  

When super shops started their journey in Bangladesh people expected that the outlets would sell products that are of superior quality compared to other stores, albeit at a higher price. What we have seen in the recent years has been extremely frustrating to say the least. Many of these super shops across the country are selling substandard, adulterated and rotten foods. They are also dealing in goods devoid of compulsory BSTI certification marks. We have seen that super stores have been fined on different occasions during drives with mobile courts detecting problems of unfit food items. The customers are being fed unfit food items as no visible improvement is seen after they were penalised.

Just recently on February 25, the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) conducted a drive in a capital’s famous agro product company and seized around 800 maunds of rotten meat along with 1200 maunds of expired dates. RAB Executive Magistrate Sarowar Alam told the media that they found 190 maunds of buffalo meat, 800 maunds of lamb, 125 maunds of chicken, 100 maunds of lamb ribs and 200 maunds of beef. All of them were unfit for human consumption. What is most alarming is that well known super shops have sold products they purchased from the said company and that means virtually nobody has access to fresh food.

Why only stores and restaurants. Overseas hospitals are now experiencing a rush of Bangladeshi patients connected to eating these foods. And the people are not being able to rely on local doctors and hospitals. The outflow of Bangladeshi patients in hordes are also being noted in  neighbouring India, Thailand and Singapore. Doctors at the Thai hospital Bamrungrad even observed that if conditions do not improve in Bangladesh in relation to catering of healthy foods, then by 2020, the number of imbecile and disabled children will rise alarmingly.

The ones going to foreign hospitals for treatment come from the affluent classes. They can afford treatment and taking care to eat safer foods. But the huge number of the poor in Bangladesh has no choice. They are forced to eat whatever things are sold to them and one shudders to think how shattering in the area of public health such forced consumption is proving to be for the poor in this country. Thus, government’s regulatory functions against these offences must be stepped up on emergency basis. And the launching of sporadic drives will not do. The drives must be sustained over the long term till extensive changes for the better are really witnessed.

Speaking a bit more on local health care facilities there have been quite a few shocking cases of patients dying, or their condition becoming worse because the medical practitioner or the hospital staff neglected their duties. The reason is the absence of accountability, especially beyond the purview of their institutions. The Consumer Rights Protection Act 2009 has the provision for a patient to file a suit in the case of negligence in the service provided by the hospital or member of the medical profession. But there are loopholes in this Act which makes it ineffectual when dealing with medical negligence. The relevant sections of the Act that could be applied to medical negligence are not sufficient in terms of meting out punishments proportionate to the crime. The convoluted process of filing a complaint to the director general or head of the department first before it can reach the magistrate, that too, if that authority thinks it is valid, makes it virtually impossible for the wronged patient to seek redress. Our lawmakers must now step in to streamline the procedure to make the errant medical practitioners accountable and ensure tougher penal provisions.  Moreover, the term 'medical profession' must be made expressly inclusive in the Consumer Protection Act.     

During the recent drive, the authorities destroyed a huge quantity of adulterated food and fined some shops, cold storages and renowned restaurants. We want countrywide inspection of food being sold round the year. According to sources, food adulteration has been on the rise due to increased investment, expansion of market and high consumer demand. Earlier this year on January 13, during an anti-adulteration drive, Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) fined popular restaurant Star Kabab’s Dhanmondi branch Tk 5,000,  Sultan’s Dine in the Satmasjid Road area Tk1 lakh and BBQ Restaurant Tk3,000 for selling unhealthy food. In early February BSTI had found bottled water marketed by five other companies substandard.

In every democratic republic country, consumers are considered the core foundations of all business activities and to secure their interests become the paramount responsibility of the state, followed by legal punishment for violators. Manufacturers and service providers are made to tailor their operations with quality products and services, which are not only profitable but also ethical, for the satisfaction of all stakeholders. However, the concept of consumer rights is yet to gain solid ground in Bangladesh. There are a few organisations who have been working hard and sincerely to raise awareness about consumer rights among the citizens. While they have been successful to some extent much remains to be done.  Consumer protection laws do exist in Bangladesh. The Consumer Rights Protection Act, 2009 was enacted by the government of Bangladesh in April 2009 to ensure consumer protection by realising consumer’s right to quality goods and services at fair prices. It also highlights consumers’ right to information regarding quality, quantity, standard and value of the goods and services. A National Consumer Right Protection Council has been established. A director general of the Consumer Rights Protection Council is appointed to oversee the consumer rights practices throughout the country. To facilitate the functioning of National Consumer Right Protection Council, there shall be a district committee in every district named District Consumer Rights Protection Committee.

Right to obtain commodities or services at a price fixed by the authority or at a reasonable price. Right to have safe and pure products. Right to have necessary and correct information about products. Right to be informed of the qualities or defects (if any) of a particular product. Right to know the accurate quantity of the product. Right to know the utility, purity, and price of the product. Right to have products or services in correct quantity and quality. Right to have choice among similar products. Right to have protection against activities relating to purchase or sale of products by which life or property may be in   danger. Right to have access to remedy in relation to violations of consumer rights. Right to have protection from concealment of information and unfair trade practices. Right to have protection from arbitrarily imposed sale conditions by the seller.  

Complaints about any anti-consumer rights practice under this Act have to be filed by any person to the director general or any person so authorised by the directorate within 30 days of the incident. The authority upon receiving a complaint shall immediately investigate or inquire into such a complaint.

If such a complaint is proved to be true after investigation, the director general or any officer authorised by him may, in his administrative action, impose fine upon the guilty person. Any person may make complaint by examining the matter of adulteration or copying of goods in a public or private laboratory at his own initiative.  And this can be a real hassle. The Consumer Protection Law 2009 does not follow the international standards in terms of dispute resolution. It does not provide for any quasi-judicial dispute resolution system for resolution of consumers’ complaints. Most of the international consumer laws allow to receive complaints directly from the consumers, but the CRPA, 2009 does not allow direct complaints to be received from the consumers.

Very unfortunately in this country there is no separate court for consumers’ rights. Also unfortunate is the fact that the consumers lack proper authority to go to the court to bring action against those who violate the consumers’ rights. They have to rely on the concerned government officials to ensure effective action against corrupt traders. BSTI (Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution) is beset with lots of problems, like it does not have modern equipment and facilities for testing of many products. In the media there have been unfavourable reports regarding efficiency and integrity of certain BSTI officials.

The lack of implementation of existing laws can and do result in artificial shortage of essential commodities (a common scenario in the various festive seasons) arbitrary price hikes, poor quality products and services, sale of hazardous products and misleading advertisements. Let’s discuss a bit more on advertisements which make false and unsubstantiated claims. We often hear or read huge settlements being made abroad between consumers and companies. For overstating the benefits of its yoghurt, Dannon had to cough up $35 million. The Wrigley gum company had to shell out $6 million for falsely claiming that its Eclipse brand gum and mints were proven to kill germs that caused bad breath. Sometime back Coca-Cola and partner Nestle were unable to substantiate claims that Enviga, the green tea energy drink, causes weight loss and had to agree to pay $650, 000 and also to disclaim weight-loss benefits.

In the modern era we are ready to buy very costly gadgets to move ahead in the challenges of the time. In spite of the multinational brands, we worry for the fact that these gadgets may turn out as faulty any time and our hard earned money may waste.

o, this is the hard fact that, while being ignorant of our rights as consumer, we don’t know how to act and protect our rights. Then another thing which is very important is the documentation of our purchase which we often do not care and through away at any place. We often think that the gadget we have purchased is of good quality and we will not face any problem in the future. Most of the time we are told by the seller that this item has one year or two years’ warranty. But when we face any problem in that Mobile, computer or any type of equipment, we suddenly remember the warranty card…..but often there are good chances that you have lost that card any way.

In Bangladesh, with the proliferation of various media outlets, the consumers are bombarded day and night by advertisements of hitherto unfamiliar products that make semi-true or false claims with little accountability. This writer is unaware of a single case being filed in Bangladesh regarding misleading claims, which lead to large and exemplary settlements like in the developed world.

Consumer protection organisations, governments, judiciary, print and electronic media are very active throughout the world by introducing consumer protection laws and consumer courts and ensuring that they are strictly enforced. It is not only the sole responsibility of government but the giant corporations or small manufacturers and consumer protection organisations should also share their onus by raising awareness among the masses.

                                           

The writer is Senior Assistant Editor of

 The Independent

 

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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