A tall building on Nellie Sengupta Sarani (Lindsay Street) houses Hotel Lindsay and an open-air restaurant. Few know it, but it is also the city’s consumer court address. The seventh and ninth floors of the building house two units of the Calcutta District Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum. The cramped courtrooms are crowded with lawyers and complainants queuing up, most of the time for a fresh date of appearance.
The “Jaago Grahak Jaago” campaign launched by the Union ministry of consumer affairs exhorts the consumer to demand his rights, whether with a shopkeeper who charges more than the MRP or an airline that refuses to pay back after the cancellation of tickets. The message is strong: the consumer is king and a system is in place. The law promises justice within three to five months.
But the ads do not prepare a consumer for what awaits him at the consumer court.
Most of the complainants sitting on the three rows of benches in the courtroom on the ninth floor look despondent. Some of them look like they have been waiting for years. A panel of three judges is examining the cases. In the din it is not possible to hear what they are saying, except when the name of a product or a bank is pronounced. A lawyer informs most of the complaints are against banks, insurance companies or hospitals about matters related to insurance.
“Once you approach the consumer forum, you learn one thing — to be patient,” says a harassed man, waiting for his lawyer. His new car had met with an accident a year ago and the insurance company was not ready to bear the full cost of the damage. He is now shuttling between the consumer forum and the repair workshop that refused to release the car till the whole amount was paid up. “When you are subject to endless delay and harassment at the hands of a powerful opposite party, you don’t feel that empowered anymore,” says the man.
It is not as if the cases drag always. A complainant suffers most when after a favourable verdict from the consumer court that entitles him to a compensation, the offending party takes the matter to a higher court. Lawyers — even those representing the accused companies — concede that it is just a delaying tactic. From the Districts Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum, a case can — and very often does — go to the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission or the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum or the National Commission. With 851 cases pending before the state commission and the national commission still tackling appeals of complaints that date back to 2006, many consumers realise that justice comes with a price, if it comes at all.
The overall statistics may look deceptively positive. Since 1990, 15,022 consumer-related cases have been filed at the state commission and 14,171 have been disposed of. Till June this year of the 93 cases that have been disposed of at the commission, consumers have been awarded compensation in 60.
Data was not available on the fate of the awardees, but lawyers say that in such cases 60 to 80 per cent of the cases are sent up to higher courts. Senior advocate and consumer activist Prabir Basu says out of six cases that he fought in 2010, three went to higher courts. Ramkrishna Roy Chowdhury, another advocate, says he fought only one case on behalf of a consumer in 2010 and that went up to the state commission. Sk. Ainul, a corporate lawyer, is fighting 40 cases for companies; the companies in six to seven cases have appealed to higher courts. Srijan Nayak claims that 20 per cent of his cases go to higher courts.
Kishore Sinha (name changed), an unemployed youth, wishes that he was not awarded the compensation at all. He had purchased a bus from a well-known Indian automobile company on December 7, 2005, shelling out around Rs 9 lakh. He wanted to run the bus commercially for his livelihood. But the vehicle’s chassis turned out to be defective. When the company’s service centre could not repair it after repeated attempts and refused to replace it, Kishore went to court seeking compensation and a new vehicle on August 14, 2006. The case dragged on for five long years. Kishore made endless rounds of courtrooms with little money to spare. Just as he had given up hope, the consumer forum ordered the opposite party to pay him a compensation of Rs 19 lakh on June 7, 2011. But nothing has happened. The company is yet to pay him the compensation. “They can always re-appeal in a higher court and stall the proceedings,” his lawyer says. Kishore will be lucky if his complaint is not challenged under Article 226 or 227 of the Indian Constitution in the high court. He, meanwhile, is in a limbo, hanging between hope and despair, and is unable to move on. “If an opposite party challenges the legality of a complaint under Article 226 or 227, a case can lie in the cold storage for years,” said Prabir Basu.
Many quit midway. Or when the cost of litigation promises to get bigger than the compensation demanded. Most companies taken to court try to delay proceedings, say lawyers. They attempt to outsmart the complainant and often succeed.
Errant companies can try anything to delay a case, hoping that the discouraged consumer would give up his claims. Some try to trap a naïve complainant in a maze of legal terminology during the cross-examination. Usually the complainant has to fill up a questionnaire submitted by the opposite party. “Once I made my client, who was taken to court, submit 134 questions. The consumer could answer only less than half of them,” admits a lawyer.
Companies take full advantage of the complainant’s ignorance of legal loopholes as Suresh Kumar (name changed), a director of a small company, found out. A wrong word in his complaint letter cost him a compensation of Rs 21,000.
He had won a photocopy machine in an in-flight lottery held by a domestic airline in 2004. The machine stopped working within days. When he informed its multi-national manufacturer, it wanted him to opt for an annual maintenance contract (AMC) worth Rs 800 before it repaired the product. Suresh complied, but the AMC papers turned out to have mistakes in them, twice.
As Suresh kept waiting for the right AMC papers, months passed and so did the product’s warranty period. Immediately the manufacturers hiked the AMC charge to Rs 5,004, almost the original cost of the product, because the machine had cost that little at the lottery. Suresh approached the consumer court, seeking a compensation and replacement of the machine. But he had drafted the complaint letter in his company’s name, an error that the opposite party cashed in on immediately. The latter proved in the district forum that since the letter had come in the name of a company, Suresh had used the machine for commercial purposes and his case did not stand. The hearing took place in 2010.
It is another story that Suresh has not given up yet. He has appealed to the state commission and is prepared for more years of battle. The multinational company, too, is willing to fight on rather than pay Rs 21,000 and lose face. But not everyone can afford such a battle; besides it defeats the basic purpose of the system.
At times, companies ignore the summons to delay proceedings. “The first summons, sent by registered post, is usually ignored by the company. So when the complainant appears in court, he seldom finds the opposite party present. The court is forced to set a second date for appearance,” says a lawyer.
Postal department employees often collude to delay delivery of a summons, he says. “The company claims that since the letter arrived late they could not make it to court. Thus a third date is set and the time-wasting tactics continue,” he adds.
The state consumer affairs department and the fair business practice bureau are supposed to conduct a free mediation proceeding between a consumer and the opposite party. But since their word has no legal binding, the opposite party usually ignores their summons too, says Prabir Basu. Since 2005 in India accused companies failing to appear before a court are fined over Rs 500 per day. But companies often find loopholes and get away. The cat-and-mouse game goes on.
“A consumer needs to be more aware. Rushing to court should be his last resort. He should first approach the grievance cells of companies or the fair business practice bureau. Taking on a company in court is not that easy, as the opposite party is always legally smarter,” adds Prabir Basu.
A system that is meant to protect him cannot be allowed to be manipulated against him. Jaago, grahak, jaago. But look sharp. You may win one day.
All India Bank Depositors Association (Piramal Mansion, 235, Dr D.N. Rd, Fort, Mumbai - 400001)
Department of banking operations and development, RBI (World Trade Centre, Cuffe Parade, Colaba, Mumbai - 400 005)
Association of Consumer Action on Safety and Health (www.acash.org)
Air travel problems
Air Passenger Association of India (www.air-passenger.com)
Post office or savings bank problems
National Savings Commissioner (www.indiapost.gov.in)