By Zubeida Mustafa
The World Consumer Rights’ Day was observed internationally on March 15. As a token observance, the Helpline Trust made a single-handed bid to remind the government and the people of Pakistan about the importance of consumer rights.
The day has been observed the world over since 1983 with the idea of making consumers — which in effect means everyone who buys goods or services — aware of their rights so that they can demand protection for them.
The eight rights that are generally considered to be fundamental to ensure that a consumer is not cheated or harmed are the right to safety, right to be informed, right to choose, right to be heard, right to the satisfaction of basic needs, right to redress, right to consumer education and the right to a healthy environment. To provide redress, a government that is mindful of consumers’ rights sets up consumer courts to adjudicate on matters where a consumer has been wronged.
Given the state of Pakistan’s society and economy, these rights would appear to be too utopian to be actually translated into reality. Three consumer rights bodies, two in Islamabad — The Network for Consumer Protection (founded by Dr Zafar Mirza) and the Consumer Rights Commission of Pakistan — and one in Karachi — Consumer Protection Council of the Helpline Trust (under Hamid Maker) — have been working in the field for the past several years. What they have achieved appears to be like a drop in the ocean.
While a consumer protection law was adopted by the National Assembly in 1995 and Punjab has passed a legislation on consumer protection, the consumer courts that are essential to give teeth to the law, have not been set up so far. The other provinces have no legislation or mechanism of the kind. Sindh had promulgated an ordinance in August 2004 but it was not brought before the provincial assembly and has since lapsed.
It would be instructive to analyse why the consumer protection campaign has failed to make an impact so far. This is surprising because consumer protection is an issue of vital importance and the activists in the field have been campaigning hard to create public awareness.
Consumer protection can operate only in a competitive market where there are a number of sellers and a number of buyers. This multiplicity exerts checks and balances on all transactions and thus enables the consumers to protect their interests. In this environment one presupposes that the consumer is aware of his rights and strives to protect them. It is also important that there is a mechanism to provide redress. This cannot be isolated from the judicial system in vogue and the culture of respect for human rights. Moreover, the consumer must also have a choice in the goods and services he uses.
What we have, in the first place, is a sellers’ market. In other words one doesn’t have much of a choice. Even when the users know what is good for them they simply accept the second best because the best is beyond their reach or is not available at all. Take the case of social services such as school education and health care. We know that primary education is the fundamental right of every child. But then what?
The government has set up schools to provide free education to boys and girls but they are so appalling that an increasing number of parents are withdrawing their children from these institutions and transferring their wards to private schools. The privately owned schools, whether they charge Rs 300 per month or Rs 6,000 do not recognize the consumer rights of the parents who are sending their children to these schools. Since their standards are better than that of the government institutions to which the private entrepreneurs point to show their own excellence, they feel the parents have no right to complain. There is no redress for the aggrieved.
The same is the case with the people’s need for health care. In the absence of adequate public sector hospitals and dispensaries, they either turn to private hospitals and spend their savings of a lifetime on the treatment of a family member. If they don’t have that, they go to quacks or wait for death to relieve them of their agony. Even when a serious case of negligence leading to the death of a patient is reported, there is no redress for the family.
In such a situation, there is not much scope for the consumers to assert their rights. Even consumer resistance, a strategy widely adopted in industrialized countries, may be difficult to implement in Pakistan. If a dying person needs a life saving drug he will buy whatever is made available to him and at whatever price he is asked to pay. Similarly, when milk-sellers sell adulterated milk at a higher price than that fixed by the government, how many mothers can boycott their sales and deny their children the milk which is an essential part of their diet.
However, the consumer rights bodies can certainly play a vital role in educating the consumers about the various products which are not really essential for human life but are actually harmful for their health. They should launch campaigns against cigarettes, supari, fatty food, fast food, aerated drinks and other such unhealthy and inessential items. These would provide them the opportunity to teach the public the art of consumer resistance and how effective it can be in the protection of consumer rights.
Another problem we face today — not just in Pakistan but in all countries of the world — is the culture of consumerism that has come in the wake of the marketization of the economy. Capitalism can flourish only in an environment of a brisk turnover of consumer goods in the market. That is why the advertising sector has grown with the market to tempt, cajole and push the consumers into buying goods they do not really need. The consumer rights organizations would do a great service to the people if they also undertook campaigns to educate the people about the ills of consumerism and ostentatious living.
Meanwhile, the laws which have been adopted should be carried to their logical end by setting up consumer courts. As for the provinces which have no consumer protection law such as Sindh, Balochistan and the NWFP, a law should be adopted and courts set up to provide some protection to the consumer and to make a beginning, however small.