Gaps in consumer rights protection in Northeast

The diversity in consumer demographics influenced the markets and brands to innovate new strategies to woo them.
Gaps in consumer rights protection in Northeast

The diversity in consumer demographics influenced the markets and brands to innovate new strategies to woo them. The spread of digital technology has revolutionized advertising of products at a much faster pace than the spread of awareness about consumer rights. India’s northeastern region grapples with a unique challenge in protecting consumers. The states in the region depend on long-distance supplies to meet the demands of various consumer goods. Improved access to the internet, on the other hand, has exposed the consumers of the region to all kinds of advertisements, genuine as well as fraudulent and deceiving, influencing their demand and purchasing behaviour. If consumers are not made aware of their rights, fraudulent producers and sellers will continue to exploit them through online marketing of defective and inferior-quality products supplied by producers and sellers located far away. Implementation of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019 in the right spirit can shield consumers in the region against unfair trade practices, but ground realities reveal a gloomy picture in the region. A recent report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs, and Public Distribution has brought to light that during the last 10 years, an amount of Rs. 27.19 crore was released as a grant-in-aid for legal metrology, of which Utilisation Certificates (UC) for Rs 12.49 crore are still pending. Except for the State of Arunachal Pradesh, most of the states don’t furnish UC for the majority of the grants they receive. Against the States of Assam, Manipur, and Sikkim, 100% of the grant released is still pending, notes the parliamentary panel, which speaks volumes about the poor implementation of consumer protection schemes and laws in the region. Ironically, the central government released the grant for the construction of laboratories for the verification and calibration of commercial weights and measures in the markets. Lack of optimum calibration and verification allows fraudulent retailers to dupe consumers by using faulty weights and scales to sell goods. The report highlights that there are two ongoing schemes to strengthen the consumer commissions in the region. The two schemes are: ‘Strengthening Consumer Commission (SCC), under which assistance is provided by the Central Government; and  ‘Computerization and Computer Networking of Consumer Fora (Commissions) in the country (CONFONET), under which hardware, software, and technical manpower are provided to the Consumer Commissions. However, the parliamentary panel finds that during the financial year 2022–23, an amount of Rs 18.62 lakh was released to Assam, while one proposal each submitted by Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh seeking financial assistance for the State Commission is under consideration, and one proposal from Nagaland has been sent back for clarification. The rest of the Northeastern States either did not seek financial assistance or failed to submit proposals seeking assistance under these schemes, it adds. Ironically, CONFONET was launched during the 10th Plan period in March, 2005 for fully computerizing all Consumer Commissions at all the three tier-district, state and national levels to enable digital access of information and quicker disposal of cases. However, all district commissions in the region are yet to be fully equipped with digital access, which has been posing hurdles to faster entry and quicker disposal of consumer cases in the region. While an online case monitoring system has been developed and implemented in the country to facilitate the entry of consumer cases online in consumer commissions with facilities like quick search using case number, complainant name, auto SMS and email alerts, etc., commissions being equipped with the required hardware and software and consumers being aware of the facilities are critical to the protection of consumer rights through timely registration and disposal of the case. An online application portal has been developed that enables consumers to file complaints and also pay fees online. States in the region undertaking a survey as to what percentage of consumers in the region are aware of the portal and facilities it offers will help identify areas and consumer demographics which need more attention on awareness. The recommendation by the parliamentary panel for strengthening the infrastructure of the consumer commissions in the region so that the resolution of consumer disputes is speedy, simple, and inexpensive deserves the urgent attention of the central and state governments. Strengthening awareness of consumer rights parallel to strengthening the commissions at all levels requires innovative campaign strategies. With the faster spread of digital technology in the region, leveraging social media along with traditional mass media campaigns can play a crucial role in raising awareness. Wide publicity of cases disposed of and grievances of consumers redressed can boost their confidence about the protection of their rights against fraudulent acts by producers, sellers, and advertisers. The government and informed sections of society need to collaborate. The consumers, whose grievances have been redressed, also have a responsibility to help other consumers move the commissions against violations of their rights.

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