In the last part of the interview, Amit recounted his experience of fighting a consumer court case on MRP overcharging. In this part of the interview, Amit talks about being vigilant when signing a contract and other common issues such as overcharging by autorickshaws:
You have several times written in frustration on lack of awareness about rights. How do you think awareness could help the cause of consumer rights?
First, people might not understand this, but we are agreeing to contracts everyday, throughput our lives, as “consumers”. People think that contracts are fancy legal documents, written by lawyers, prepared on matters of grave importance. But that’s not true. Contract law deals with every transaction that we make in the marketplace, and as consumers we enter into what is called implied contracts. Which by the way, have the same legal sanctity as express contracts. Whether we buy goods or services, as consumers we are using contract law all the time. Therefore, it is imperative that we have knowledge and awareness of what each contract implies or expressly states.
Neha Das sums this up quite nicely on this webpage from which I quote:
Thus it would not be an exaggeration to point out that the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, is one of the most important legislations that governs the life of every human being in his transactions with the society for availing goods and services provided by others. It not only comes into daily use but prevents the exploitation of common man, the consumer, at the hands of the affluent and moneyed business man or service provider…
Information, as always, is power. Why do you think consumer rights are taken so seriously in the western world? Simply because people are aware and they fight for their rights. Take MRP for instance. Do people know that MRP is the MAXIMUM price, not the only price to be paid to a retailer? There is nothing to prevent sale of goods at prices lesser than the MRP. Are people aware that most retailers have margins in excess of 40% for most goods? Isn’t it your right to question why the retailer should be making this margin, is it justified, can this be passed to the consumer?
Take the case of service providers in India. Every one of them is taking the customer for a ride, be it Citibank, ICICI, Air Deccan, Reliance, BSNL, Airtel, Hutch, Foodworld, Karvy, you name it. I can write about so many issues that each has been guilt of, overcharging/overbilling, billing for unwanted services, flight cancellations/delays, no compensation paid, marketing calls and SMSes, spam e-mails, bad customer service, and in some case outright lying and fraud.
The ONLY way we can help ourselves is by being vigilant, and before that by being knowledgeable. Caveat emptor was not coined by a bunch of fools.
What are the other cases you have fought in consumer court? Other issues of consumer rights that you may have addressed?
This is the first one I’ve personally fought in the consumer case.
The previous case was a bit complicated and dealt with the issue of woman harassment and consumer protection. It started when my wife refused to pay the excess amount demanded by the milk vendor and said that she would complain to KMF. The milk vendor threatened her with physical and sexual harm. We filed a case at the police station against the milk vendor mainly under IPC 509. It backed up the primary police case with a secondary consumer case for overcharging. I did all the leg work, fact finding, writing the complaint, dealing with the legalese, etc. But the hearings were actually attended by my wife and she was the one who argued it in the court. We won the consumer court case.
My wife and I have spent a lot of time traffic issues, notably errant autorickshaw drivers. I’ve written to the Joint Comm for Transport, Bangalore and the DCP, Bangalore Traffic regarding various traffic issues. Most of the times, the e-mail addresses don’t work or I don’t get a reply. Once I got a reply from the DCP, Bangalore Traffic division stating that there are too few policemen and too many vehicles, so nothing can be done.
I’ve lost count of how many rashly driving taxi cabs and overcharging/refusing to ply autorickshaws I’ve complained against. My wife even followed up some complaints she had made against autorickshaw drivers to the DCP’s office. The officers there were very helpful and courteous, and they showed her this gigantic Excel sheet they have that lists down all details of autorickshaws. She gave up when she saw the policemen manually searching through the Excel sheet to find the details of the drivers she was complaining about.
Loudspeakers at temple
Then there was this temple opposite my house that used to make an awful racket all day, in festive season, especially early in the morning with blaring loud speakers and some drums and what not. First I tried talking to them. The temple authorities reduced the volume, but soon the noise pollution would be back to its intolerable level. This went on for a few months.
Then I began to make complaints to the local police control room. This kept the temple quiet for a few months, but the problem started again. Many conversations with the temple authorities and many verbal complaints to the police control room later, I decided to end the matter once and for all. Some research on the topic threw up the various Indian laws on noise pollution, as well as rulings by various courts (including the Supreme Court) on the matter of noise pollution. ALL these were directed at religious institutions.
I met the local Police Inspector, explained to him my complaint, gave him my complaint letter in which I’d quoted from the Noise Pollution Rules, 2000 and the court rulings. In the letter, I also threatened to approach the Police Comm, and thereafter the Courts if the problem was not resolved by him. To my wonder, this written complaint in person finally did the trick.
Over-charging by autorickshaws is a common problem in every Indian city. You had made few efforts in Bangalore to complain about overcharging? What happened?
Ah, overcharging autoricks, my favorite topic. I’ve complained about autorickshaw drivers wherever I can: to the police control room, to the Dept of Weights and Measures, to the local police station. I’ve ridden in an overcharging auto to the police station and have the driver run away while I was making the complaint inside. Absolutely nothing has come out of our efforts.
As explained earlier, my wife followed up the issue to the DCP’s office, but finally gave up. The problem is very simple. Bangalore traffic police is understaffed and there is no adequate infrastructure to track errant drivers. A gigantic excel sheet maintains the records of all the autodrivers. Smart tech savvy Bangaloreans might expect this to be par for the course, but there is no online record linked to the RTO!
How do the police men search data? By doing a manual search, row by row. Ever heard of Cntrl + F? Fine, the record is found and a complaint in logged.
But, due to the sheer logistics of the problem, the fine is collected only once a year. And now comes the icing on the cake. When the police go to collect the fine, they find that the address on record is usually false. Ha Ha ha. My wife was so devastated by the state of affairs that she simply refused to make any complaints after that.
How did you gain the awareness about consumer court?
It actually started from awareness of various judgments made in the US by consumer protection agencies awarding huge compensations to aggrieved consumers. So this was a kind of a joke for me… hey look, another silly consumer who spilt hot coffee on herself and won millions …But over time I began questioning why we didn’t have similar protection. That’s when I found out about this (frankly, quite good) Consumer Protection Act, and what are the pseudo-legal recourses open to the general public for settling consumer oriented grievances.
It is claimed that some people misuse Consumer Protection Act to earn money from the companies. How much do you agree with this notion?
Ha ha hahahah. In my (extremely limited) experience, I have seen poor consumers running from post to pillar: first trying to get the opposite party to respond, then to gather evidence, attend hearing after hearing, argue the case, maybe hire lawyers, convince the judges. Remember, the onus of proof is on the party bringing the charge. And if they win, running months and sometimes even years to court, trying to get the paltry compensation. The odds are stacked so heavily against the consumer, that only the most grieved consumer will go to all this trouble.
Quite a silly notion, would be my understanding. It might be true in, say a country like the US, where the courts have awarded millions of dollars for simple consumer complaints. But in India? I seriously doubt it.
Did you specially take out time to be well-versed with consumer laws?
Actually, I’m not. I know a few laws and previous judgments that are relevant to MRP, but that’s about it. And this is fairly easy since there is tons and tons of information on the Internet.
Have you got any general tips to the consumers?
1. Be aware, be knowledgable. Don’t let the seller take you for a ride. Read the fine print. I know it sucks. But you’ll be amazed to discover what things you are agreeing to if you don’t bother to read the fine print carefully. There’s no point in making a song and dance later if you have entered into a contract (and I stress this again) with the buyer, implicit or explicit, without knowing what you have agreed to. Ignorance is no excuse.
2. And when your contract has been breached, fight for all its worth. Small issues, large issues. Whatever takes your fancy. Fight with the retailer, fight with the service provider, threaten and then follow up your threats, complain to who ever will listen. You’ll be surprised how many people are willing to listen when you shout loud enough. And always, always fight till the issue is sorted out. The courts and governmental watchdogs are not sitting all day to help consumers.
Any last word you have to say to the readers of this blog?
We know that there are so many tiny injustices being committed everyday. And we know that these wrongs can be corrected by a watchful society. So then why don’t we make an effort to fight against the injustices? The people who are causing the problems are not necessarily the more powerful or the stronger. No, they just know that people today, basically people like me, have more money than sense, are too lallu to fight. They will always recede behind their money and cars and gated communities and watchmen. As if fighting for one rights is below our dignity. I’m ashamed of people who ask me “dude, is it worth your time to fight for this stuff?” Get off your high horse and go pick a fight with the service provider who is surely is duping you and laughing all the way to the bank.
Thank you, Amit, for taking time out for the interview.