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Consumer rights: How Indian consumers made system accountable despite long court battles

Some consumers in India fought for as little as one rupee and won their case despite the wheels of justice in consumer courts grinding slowly. Other consumers continue to fight long-drawn court battles to make companies and the government accountable.

By Vikas Mavi
New Update

Consumer Rights In India Consumer protection | Representational image | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

A One-Rupee Fight : Consumer Rights In India

Consumer Rights In India: Bhagwan Karia, a senior citizen and an RTI activist, fought a one-rupee case with a consumer court in Mumbai and won against the Indian Railways and a private limited company. What started as a mere exercise of checking weight on a weighing scale in a railway station in Mumbai later turned out to be a pitched battle that exposed an enormous scandal and lurking corruption within the system.

Dr MS Kamath, General Secretary of the Consumer Guidance Society of India speaks to The Probe on the state of consumer rights in India.

"Around eight years ago, I went to the Mulund station in Mumbai, used the weighing machine there, and put in a two rupee coin to check my weight. I didn't even get a ticket or reading in one machine; my weight was shown as 15 kgs more in the second weighing machine. Then I went to the Mulund station master and told him, "sir, pls give my 4 rupees back". So, he called me a "madman". I told him, "I am not a madman. I am a common man. Today, you may think of me as a madman, but tomorrow you will know the power of this common man whom you identify as a madman," reminisces Karia speaking to The Probe about Consumer Rights In India.

publive-image Bhagwan Karia, an RTI activist and the man who filed the one-rupee case | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Karia notes that he immediately filed an RTI petition and found out that the railways had a 60 per cent margin in the income from the weighing scales installed in the railway stations, and the private limited company had a 40 per cent share. "I later learned that even part of this margin used to be grabbed by the Station Masters and the private limited company's agents, causing a huge revenue loss to the Indian Railways. I went to consumer court in Bandra and lodged a one-rupee case. Do you know that these one or two rupee machines give a turnover of one to two crores all over India, and this money is tax-free? There is a monopoly related to the company involved in providing this service," claims Karia.

Finally, when the consumer court's verdict came in, Karia said the company was slammed with a 50 lakh rupees penalty for not displaying their licence number on the weighing machines. "All this happened because of my one-rupee case. People always ask me why I fought a one-rupee case. It is not a question of one rupee. I spent more money from my pocket and fought for one rupee. The reason is not to get back the amount. The reason is to make the system more transparent and accountable to the common man."

publive-image KR Srinivas, the man who fought and won against an insurance company | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Man Who Brought An Insurance Company To Its Knees

Like Karia, another consumer KR Srinivas from Bangalore, filed a case against an insurance company after they refused to give him the assured sum after he had a severe heart ailment. “I had taken an insurance policy from the Syndicate Bank, and the insurance company was United India Insurance Company. Then the Syndicate Bank merged with the Canara Bank, and my insurance was forcibly shifted to Bajaj Allianz. This was not my choice. I had chest pain and was admitted to Sagar hospital in Bangalore. The doctors did an angiogram on me and said a stent had to be placed. The hospital authorities gave me the documents, but Bajaj Allianz refused to give cashless approval and I wasn’t paid anything,” states Srinivas.

Srinivas, too, like Karia, went to the consumer court and filed an application and argued his own case and won against the insurance firm. “My bill was 1,62,000 rupees. I went to the consumer court in Bangalore. I produced all the papers to the court, and I argued on my own. Judgement came in my favour. I finally got my money and was also given a compensation of 25,000 rupees for the mental agony that I went through and 10,000 rupees for legal expenses with 12 per cent interest per annum for the entire amount from the date of discharge from the hospital to the final settlement day,” adds Srinivas.

Consumer Rights In India Consumer rights | Representational image | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

While World Consumer Rights Day was observed on March 15, many consumer rights activists say India’s record for delivering justice to consumers is abysmally poor. Speaking to The Probe, Dr MS Kamath, General Secretary of the Consumer Guidance Society of India, says that consumer courts do not redress grievances on a fast-track basis, because of which the consumers’ faith in the justice delivery system has taken a beating.

“Every consumer knows that he has rights, but the implementation is not that great. That is why the number of people escalating their complaints is not as high as it should be. A consumer in India is always at the receiving end when he buys some goods or services. Until he buys the product or uses the services, sellers are always after him. But after he buys, then he has to run after them. That’s because our country’s consumer rights regulatory mechanism is not strong enough. On average, a consumer court takes three to five years to give orders. The implementation of consumer rights is abysmally low in our country,” affirms Dr Kamath.

publive-image Neelam Palkar, the woman who has been relentlessly fighting for nine long years after a phone she purchased for 5000 rupees stopped working | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

A 5000-Rupee Fight For Nine Long Years

Neelam Palkar's long and tireless battle bears testament to Dr Kamath's statements on India's poor justice delivery mechanism. Neelam, a makeup artist in Vile Parle in Mumbai, bought a phone in 2014 from a showroom in the city for 5000 rupees, and the phone stopped working within a month. Neelam claims the company refused to keep up their assurances, and she filed a case before the consumer court. For nine years, Neelam has been fiercely contesting her case in the consumer court, hoping that one day she would be able to make the company accountable.

"In 2014, I bought a phone from Vijay Sales showroom for 5000 rupees. They also gave me papers that said that the phone would be repaired if it got damaged within a year. But within a month, the phone got damaged. The battery used to get constantly discharged. I approached the repair centre many times, but they refused to change the battery. They also started misbehaving with me when I told them about the warranty and the promises they made to me, which were in the documents. Then I decided they needed to be taught a lesson and shouldn't take consumers for a ride. That's when I took them to the court," asserts Neelam.

Neelam contends that the long court battle caused her huge mental agony, but she refused an out-of-court settlement with the company and promised to fight until she got justice. "I gave an application to the consumer court. The court sent notices to the company, but they did not answer the court at least twice. The case is still in court. The case is not moving forward. Whenever I approached the court, they kept saying that there was a dearth of professionals in the court, including judges. Then they said there were issues because of the pandemic, and that's why the case is not being heard. I have been fighting for nine long years. In between, someone from the company approached me and said they would pay me 5000 rupees and asked me to stop my fight. I refused and told them that now that I had chosen the legal route, I wanted to take this fight to its logical end. I don't want to give up my fight. I want them to know even a commoner like me can fight for her rights."

Dr Kamath notes that most consumer cases do not reach a logical end because of a lack of unity among consumers. He says that justice cannot be delivered to the Consumer Rights In India until those who are unaffected are as outraged as consumers who have been cheated off or victimised.

“Raising the voice for wrongdoing is a citizen’s fundamental duty. For instance, if I am travelling by train and someone is carrying petrol, kerosene, or some other inflammatory material, I must call the nearby authorities and alert them. Like how consumers have rights, they also have their duties. But we can only bring about change by focusing on consumer unity. If consumers can get together and stop using a bad product, then they can bring the company to its knees. I know of cases where, for even two rupees, people fought and won cases. Consumer fights can be pretty taxing. It will drain your time, energy and resources, but in the long run, you are doing a great favour to society,” maintains Dr Kamath.

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