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2 December, 2019 10:49:33 AM
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Ensuring consumer rights remain elusive

Being ignorant of our rights as consumers, we fail to act and protect those rights
Syed Mehdi Momin
Ensuring consumer rights remain elusive

The exorbitant price hike of onions that we are witnessing now is yet another example of consumer getting the short end of the stick in Bangladesh. It is widely believed that the hike in the onion price is a planned one by a syndicate or syndicates. Although the onion price has gone up exorbitantly over the past two weeks, the initial price hike started on July 2, one month before Eid-ul-Azha. From July 2 to October 31, the onion price fluctuated 24 times. It is easy to assume that a strong syndicate is pulling the strings behind this price hike. The excuses of short supply and an increase in import cost as claimed by traders for the hike in the onion price does not hold water. Many observers believe that consumers are being scammed in the name of low supply and high import cost of onion. There must be continuous drives against syndicates responsible for the price hike.
To add to the woes of the people came the transport strike.  Chaos ruled over roads across the country causing sufferings to passengers and disrupting commodity supply as goods vehicle owners and workers joined bus workers on strike in protest at the Road Transport Act 2018. Last year all the super shops of the country went on a wildcat shutdown. Bangladesh Supermarket Owner’s Association (BSOA) decision came just four days after the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA), under the food ministry, began its function by conducting mobile courts in the city’s Shantinagar area. During the drive, the BFSA mobile court fined two mega shops Agora and Meena Bazar, and bakery shop Cooper’s for selling rotten and date expired food items. It also sentenced the Agora branch manager to two years in jail.

The reason for the shutdown as claimed by BSOA was that they “were being harassed by mobile courts for a long time in the name of rotten or expired foods”. Curiously they did not deny that rotten and date expired food items were being sold by their affiliate supershops. So what is this harassment are they talking about?

By the same weird logic students can shut down their institutions because a few were “harassed” by teachers while copying during their exams. What next? Thieves of the country will stage demonstration to stop the police harassing them. Thankfully Food Minister Qamrul Islam reassured the people that such types of mobile court drives would continue as the super shop owners were not maintaining quality of food items and denying quality products to customers.

Sometime back the government decided to cut the price of petrol and octane by taka ten per litre. One does not need to be an economist to expect transport price to come down. Well, it didn’t. The buses and other public transports are charging the same prices if not more. And long distance travel has become only marginally less expensive. In fact so marginal that the price of a Dhaka to Rajshahi–a distance of 245 kilometres– bus ticket has been lowered the princely sum of taka seven.

Every citizen of the country is a consumer. In every 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. These laws–which include These include Control of Essential Commodities Act 1956, Pure Food Ordinance 1959, Standard of Weights and Measures Ordinance 1982, Drug Control Ordinance 1981 and 1982, Breast Milk Substitutes (Regulation of Marketing) Ordinance 1984 and 1989, Standard and Testing Institution Ordinance 1985 and 1988–  are designed to prevent businesses that engage in fraud or unfair practices. The laws to preserve consumer rights are a form of government regulation aimed at protecting the interests of the consumers. As is the case in many other fields the problems lie in the implementation of these well-intentioned laws. The consumers, though huge in numbers are not organised and do not usually get the support form the concerned authorities. On the other hand unscrupulous traders have managed to build up an unholy nexus with rogue law enforcers and corrupt officials who often turn a blind eye to the interests and rights of 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 Institute) 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 Ramadan season) 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 earn money may waste. So, this is the hard fact that, in addition to 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 (recipient) 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 year 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 another case we might have everything like mobile warranty card, the purchasing receipt and other documents and we claim the warranty. The shop keeper simply looks at the mobile and after checking for some time he may explain that we are not able to replace it as this type of fault is out of our warranty scope ( like the moisture in the mobile).

This situation gives you a very bad feeling and you think that you might have lost every thing. That might be the hardest time when we curse ourselves and blame the whole damage for such action.

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 organizations, 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 organizations should also share their onus by raising awareness among the masses.

In spite of the prevailing situation the consumers can take some steps that will ensure their rights to some extent. As indicated earlier in Bangladesh the problem is both in the implementation and then the informed decision of the public. Many of the consumers, if faced with a problem, just don’t know where to go and get their issues resolved. As consumers it is very important to preserve the documentation of our purchase (receipts).

Often people just don’t care about them and throw it away. They are under the impression that the gadget they have purchased is of good quality and there will be no problem in the future. Many of the products come with a one year or two year warranty. However if there is any problem with the gadget the warranty card is nowhere to be found.

The writer is the 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.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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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