Consumer laws you must know

If you think you have been cheated by a product or service provider, know what the law says. Only then can you protect your interests

A product or service falling short of expectations is not uncommon. But while we accept the deficiency uncomplainingly more often than not, it is important to know that every product needs to abide by certain laws, rules and regulations before it reaches your hands.

If wronged on this front, consumers have certain rights which can be asserted and legal remedies that can be availed. To borrow from the Ministry of Consumer Affairs’ campaign, “An aware consumer is an empowered consumer.”

Here is relevant legislation that you must know about, so that you can ensure your interest is served.

Legal Metrology Act, 2009

In July 2013, a Mumbai-based customer bought a pair of shoes, tempted by a mouth-watering 50 per cent discount. He paid ₹1,345 for it. Later, he discovered there were two stickers on the shoe — one with an MRP of ₹1,345 and another with an MRP of ₹2,690 printed on it. Was the dealer honestly giving a discount or was he just selling at the actual MRP by simply jacking up the price first? When the customer raised a complaint by email, the dealer responded by saying that the MRP of ₹1,345 was after the discount.

 

 

Quite often we too have faced such predicaments. If we know the law, the seller cannot hoodwink us easily. As per the Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules, 2011, obliterating, smudging or altering the retail sale price indicated by manufacturer/packer/importer on the package or label is not allowed. Besides, discount should be on the MRP and not included in it. Thus, the seller’s act of using two stickers as well as saying that the discount is included in the MRP is illegal.

Similarly, selling products above the MRP is also illegal (except when packaged water or juice is served at hotels as part of a composite billing/service – as per a Supreme Court ruling in December 2017).

Similarly, another area where customers could be taken for a ride relates to the quantity, size or weight of products. From November 1, 2012, standard sizes for several products, such as biscuits, baby food, bread, butter, coffee, tea, water, soft drink, salt, edible oils, cereals, rice, flour, soaps, cement and paints have been enforced. For instance, laundry soap can be packaged only in multiples of 25g, 50g, 75g, 100g, 125g, 150g and thereafter in multiples of 50g. For consumers, this ensures comparability of prices of similar products.

Also thanks to this, companies cannot resort to reducing the grammage to compensate for their cost escalations, without customers realising it. Only products up to the price of ₹10 can come in non-standard sizes. Besides, products have to declare weight net of the packaging on their cover (and not the overall weight). Thus, for instance, when you buy sweets in a mithai shop, the weight of the box should not be counted.

Only when it comes to soaps, creams and lotions are companies allowed to use the words “when packed” next to the weight as their weight could vary due to environmental factors. But even then, an unbridled variation is not allowed. Error limits for all products are prescribed. For instance, if an item has a declared quantity of 500 to 1000 g or ml, the maximum permissible excess or deficiency is only 15g or ml.

Thus, if a product is not packaged as per the specifications of the Act, you can raise the matter with the retailer or the manufacturer or escalate it further.

Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006

In December 2012, Delhi resident Sharmistha purchased imported ‘Dortios’ sauce. It had a ‘green mark’ on its label indicating it was a vegetarian product. After consumption of sauce by the family, her brother noticed that beef and pork were mentioned in the list of ingredients of the product. When confronted, the shopkeeper told her that since it was an imported product, she should have read the list of ingredients before purchase.

 

 

The Food Safety and Standards Act is comprehensive legislation covering all matters related to food, be it food imports, adding additives, detecting adulteration, packaging food or licensing food businesses. For instance, the Packaging and Labelling regulations for imported food clearly state that the importer or his authorised agent must carry out labelling changes such as affixing of vegetarian or non-vegetarian logo, adding the name and address of the importer, etc. in the customs warehouse itself. The authorised officer is expected to clear the goods from the warehouse only after the labelling changes are satisfactory. Hence, in the case mentioned above, the shopkeeper was clearly wrong in placing the onus of verification on the buyer.

Under this Act, not only manufacturers but also distributors and sellers are liable for food that does not meet the laid out standards. So, if you find that the product is sold after the date of expiry or has lost its quality because it was kept in inappropriate conditions, a complaint against the seller will hold good.

Besides, customers have the right to purchase any food item and have it analysed by a Food Analyst appointed under the Act. In case the sample is found to have substances that are in contravention with the Act, has certain ingredients in excess of the allowable limits, etc, the manufacturer can be prosecuted. To protect the interest of consumers at large, the Act provides for ‘Food recall’ by the manufacturer on their own in case it is found sub-par. This happened with Nestle in early June 2015, when it recalled about 27,420 tonnes of Maggie Noodles lying in/with its factories, distribution centres, distributors, wholesalers, retailers and customers.

Another important aspect of the Food Safety Act is the provision for compensation in case of death or injury of consumer. A compensation of not less than ₹5 lakh in case of death, not exceeding ₹3 lakh in case of grievous injury and ₹1 lakh in all other cases of injury has to be paid within six months of the occurrence of the incident.

Bureau of Indian Standards Act, 2016

In August 2015, a Hyderabad-based customer ordered 50 g, 24-carat Lakshmi gold coins for about ₹2.85 lakh through an online retailer. When he received the coins, he found that there was no information about the purity of the metal on the product. Was it really 24 carat as the company claimed or was he being fooled ? He did not want to take a risk and hence sought to return the product and take a refund. Hallmarking for gold has only been optional until now and gold of any caratage is being sold in the market. Thus, chances that customers could be taken for a ride when purchasing jewellery or coins are high.

 

 

This could become a thing of the past sooner than later. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) Act, 2016, (brought into force from October 2017) enables the Central government to notify mandatory hallmarking of articles made of precious metals such as gold, silver, platinum, palladium. As per reports in the public domain, work on bringing in Hallmarking regulations under the new BIS Act is afoot at the Department of Consumer Affairs. When it is introduced, mandatory hallmarking would not only vouch for purity but also ensure that only 14, 18 and 22 carat gold (standards are presently available only for these) is sold in the country.

Not only precious metals, the Act also enables the government to bring under a regime of compulsory certification of any goods or article which it considers essential in the public interest. Similar to food recall, a provision for repair or recall of products bearing the BIS mark but not conforming to standards has been introduced.

Simultaneously, strict liability provisions have been brought in for any default on the part of sellers/companies when selling products which have a standard mark but do not conform to BIS standards. Accordingly, if there is a deficiency in the product, it is the duty of the seller to repair or replace or reprocess the standard marked goods, article, process, system or service or pay compensation to the consumer as may be prescribed by the Bureau or be liable for the injury caused by non-conforming goods or article, which bears a standard mark. It is interesting to note that this facility has so far been available in some form for jewellery. Consumers can get jewellery/sample tested from any of the BIS recognised assaying & hallmarking centres. If it is found to be of less purity than what is marked, the jewel is to be replaced by the seller.

This apart, for any offence under this Act, companies are not allowed to take cover by claiming that it was committed without their knowledge, consent or connivance. The persons responsible for or in charge of the company will be presumed to be guilty irrespective of whether they knew about it or not. A list of products for which standards are available can be found in the BIS website.

Consumer Protection Bill, 2018

The most important of all legislationthat consumers need to know is the one on Consumer Protection itself. Unlike the older Consumer Protection Act, 1986, the revamped Bill brings within its fold all forms of selling — offline/online sales, teleshopping, direct selling and multi-level marketing.

The highlight of the new law is the inclusion of the product liability action. Thus, when you suffer any harm due to a defect in a product made by a manufacturer, serviced by a service provider or sold by a product seller, you can take this matter up in the consumer forum and claim compensation under this law, once the Bill is enacted.

 

 

Consumer Protection Councils at the district, state and national levels are prescribed under the 1986 Act. But this is only an advisory body and hence does not have powers of enforcement. To overcome this drawback, the new Bill brings in a regulator for consumer affairs called the Consumer Protection Authority, much like SEBI for the markets or the IRDAI for insurers. An aggrieved consumer can also complain to this Authority. Non-compliance with the order issued by the Consumer Protection Authority is punishable with imprisonment of up to six months, or a fine of up to ₹20 lakh, or both.

 

 

Where to complain?

Grievances can arise across all product and service categories. You may be aggrieved when buying a car, a packet of biscuit, an insurance policy or even when trying to get a phone connection. The first step will be to approach the dealer/retailer/agent you transacted with. You can also get in touch with the company whose product/service you have bought/availed. Packaging norms for instance, require manufacturers to print the name, address, phone number and email of the office/person to be contacted in case of consumer complaints.

 

 

At the next level, the authority to which the complaint can be escalated varies depending on the industry. For example, complaints related to weights and measures can be directed to the Legal Metrological Officer at the District or State Level. Food safety issues can be addressed by the Local Health Authority of a District or the Commissioner of Food Safety in the State.

Many service industries such as banking, insurance, electricity, etc., have their own Ombudsman to deal with grievance redressal. However, others such as automobiles, consumer durables, etc, don’t have any. In all such cases and even in circumstances where the issue remains unresolved after taking it up with the appropriate authorities, you can move to the consumer forums/commissions at the district, state or national levels.

If you need some guidance, you can get in touch with the National Consumer Helpline (http://nationalconsumerhelpline.in/) through its national toll free number 1800114000. This helpline provides information on companies and the regulatory authorities, filing of complaints, gives information on available grievance redressal options and also enlightens you on your rights and responsibilities.

 

In future, moving to a consumer forum will not be the only option. The new Consumer Protection Bill 2018, provides for an alternative dispute redressal mechanism. The Bill envisages setting up of mediation cells attached to the district forums, state and national commissions. Already, the Bengaluru-based National Law School of India University is running an online mediation centre for e-commerce disputes under the aegis of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, as a pilot project.

Misleading advertisements

Health drinks that claim to increase the height of your child in a given time frame, face creams that promise fair skin in no time or oils that claim to grow y our hair manifold are aplenty in the market. But do they really do the trick or is it just a marketing gimmick? If you find that you are cheated, you can complain against the company at https://gama.gov.in/Default.aspx

The noose is tightening on those that make tall or false claims. With a view to deterring celebrities from endorsing misleading claims, the Consumer Protection Bill 2018 imposes a penalty on the endorser of a misleading advertisement. The Bill also empowers the new regulatory authority that will be set up — the Consumer Protection Authority — to impose a penalty of imprisonment of up to two years and fine of  up to Rs 10 lakh for false or misleading advertisements.

Read the rest of this article by Signing up for Portfolio.It's completely free!

What You'll Get





Related

MORE FROM BUSINESSLINE


 Getting recommendations just for you...
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor