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Historical Background Of Consumerism

Historical Background Of Consumerism

Consumer Protection has its deep roots in the rich soil of Indian civilization, which dates back to 3200 B.C. In ancient India, human values were cherished and ethical practices were considered of great importance. However, the rulers felt that the welfare of their subjects was the primary area of concern. They showed keen interest in regulating not only the social conditions but also the economic life of the people, establishing many trade restrictions to protect the interests of buyers

Consumer Protection in Ancient India

In ancient India, all sections of society followed Dharma-sastras "Dharma", which laid out social rules and norms, and served as the guiding principle governing human relations. The principles of Dharma were derived from Vedas. Vedas were considered the words of God, and law was said to have divine origin which was transmitted to society through sages. Thus, Vedas were the primary sources of law in India.

Many writers and commentators of the ancient period documented the living conditions of the people through their innovative and divine writings, including Smriti tradition and sruti revelation, and also prescribed codes to guide the kings and rulers about the method of ruling the State and its subjects. Consumer protection was also a major concern in their writings.

Manu Smriti

Manu Smriti describes the social, political and economic conditions of ancient society. Manu, the ancient law giver, also wrote about ethical trade practices.He prescribed a code of conduct to traders and specified punishments to those who committed certain crimes against buyers. For example, he referred to the problem of adulteration and said "one commodity mixed with another must not be sold as pure, nor a bad one as good not less than the property quantity or weight nor anything that is at hand or that is concealed."

The punishment "for adulterating unadulterated commodities and for breaking gems or for improperly boring them" was the least harsh. Severe punishment was prescribed for fraud in selling seed corn: "he who sells for seed-corn that which is not seed-corn, he who takes up seed already sown and he who destroys a boundary mark shall be punished by mutilation."

Interestingly, Manu also specified the rules of competency for parties to enter into a contract. He said "a contract made by a person intoxicated or insane or grievously disordered by disease and so forth or wholly dependent, by an infant or very aged man, or by an unauthorized party is invalid." During the ancient period, the king had the power to confiscate the entire property of a trader in two instances:
  1. When the king had a monopoly over the exported goods; and
  2. When the export of the goods was forbidden.

There was also a mechanism to control prices and punish wrongdoers. The king fixed the rates for the purchase and sale of all marketable goods. Manu said "man who behaves dishonestly to honest customers or cheats in his prices shall be fined in the first or in the middle most amercement."There was a process to inspect all weights and measures every six months, and the results of these inspections were duly noted.

All these measures show how effective ancient society was in regulating the many wrongs of the market place. These measures also show how developed the system was in identifying the market strategies of traders. Thus, Manu Smriti effectively dealt with various consumer matters, many of which remain of great concern in modern legal systems.

Kautilya's Arthasastra

Written subsequent to Manu Smriti, Kautilya's Arthasastra18 is considered to be a treatise and a prominent source, describing various theories of statecraft and the rights and duties of subjects in ancient society.19 Though its primary concern is with matters of practical administration,20 consumer protection occupies a prominent place in Arthasastra. It describes the role of the State in regulating trade and its duty to prevent crimes against consumers.

Between 400 and 300 B.C there was a director of trade whose primary responsibility was to monitor the market situations. Additionally, the director of trade was made responsible for fair trade practices. The director of trade was required to be "conversant with the differences in the prices of commodities of high value and of low value and the popularity or unpopularity of goods of various kinds whether produced on land or in water and whether they... arrived along land-routes or water-routes, and also should know about suitable times for resorting to dispersal or concentration, purchase or sale." The director of trade advised to:
"Avoid even a big profit that would be injurious to the subjects. . . . He should not create a restriction as to time or the evil of a glut in the market in the case of commodities constantly in demand."

During Chandragupta's period in which Kautilya lived, good trade practices were prevalent. For example, "Goods could not be sold at the place of their origin, field or factory. They were to be carried to the appointed markets (Panya Sala) where the dealer had to declare particulars as to the quantity, quality and the prices of his goods which were examined and registered in the books." Every trader was required to take a license to sell. A trader from outside had to obtain permission. The superintendent of commerce fixed the whole-sale prices of goods as they entered the Customs House.

He allowed a margin of profit to fix retail prices. Speculation and cornering to influence prices were prohibited. Thus, the State bore a heavy responsibility for protecting the public against unfair prices and fraudulent transactions. There were severe punishments for smuggling and adulteration of goods. For example, public health was guarded by punishing adulteration of food products of all kinds, including grains, oils, alkalies, salts, scents and medicines.Also during Chandragupta's period, easy access to justice for all, including consumers, was considered of great importance.

The king was the central power to render justice. According to Kautilya, "The king should look to the complaints of the people of the town and village in the second part of the day. The mobile and circuit courts worked at night, when necessity arose. They also must have worked on holidays in urgent matters."The king was required to pay full attention to the truth and he was primarily responsible for administering justice.

Consumer Protection in Medieval Period

In the medieval period, consumer protection continued to be of prime concern of the rulers. During Muslim rule, a large number of units of weights were used in India. During the Sultanate period, the prices used were determined by local conditions. During the rule of Alauddin Khalji, strict controls were established in the market place. In those days, there was unending supply of grain to the city and grain-carriers sold at prices fixed by the Sultan. There was a mechanism for price enforcement in the market. Similarly, shop-keepers were punished for under weighing their goods.

Consumer Protection in Modern Period

In the modern period, the British system replaced the age old traditional legal system of India. However, one of the outstanding achievements of British rule in India was "the formation of a unified nationwide modern legal system."During the British period, the Indian legal system was totally revolutionized and the English legal system was introduced to administer justice. However, it is important to note that the traditions and customs of the Indian legal system were not ignored.

Some of the laws which were passed during the British regime concerning consumer interests are: the Indian Contract Act of 1872, the Sale of Goods Act of 1930, the Indian Penal Code of 1860, the Drugs and Cosmetics Act of 1940, the Usurious Loans Act of 1918, and the Agriculture Procedure (Grading and Marketing Act) of 1937. These laws provided specific legal protection for consumers.

For fifty-five years, the Sale of Goods Act of 1930 [SGA] was the exclusive source of consumer protection in India. The SGA, drafted with precision, is "an admirable piece of legislation." It is also praised as a "Consumer's Charter." The main protection for the buyer against the seller for defective goods is found in Section 16 of the Act .It provides exceptions to the principle of Caveat emptor ("let the buyer beware") and the interests of the buyer are sufficiently safeguarded.

Consumer protection was also provided within India's criminal justice system. The Indian Penal Code of 1860 has a number of provisions to deal with crimes against consumers. It deals with offenses related to the use of false weights and measures,49 the sale of adulterated food or drinks, the sale of noxious food or drink, and the sale of adulterated drugs.

Consumer protection legislation enacted after India's independence from Britain include: the Essential Commodities Act of 1955, the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act of 1954 and the Standard of Weights and Measures Act of 1976. A benefit of these acts is that they do not require the consumer to prove mens rea.

The Indian Consumer Protection Act of 1986 and the Evolution of a New Legal Culture.

The Indian legal system experienced a revolution with the enactment of the Consumer Protection Act of 1986 "CPA", which was specifically deigned to protect consumer interests. The CPA was passed with avowed objectives. It is intended to provide justice which is "less formal, and involves less paper work, less delay and less expense". The CPA has received wide recognition in India as poor man's legislation, ensuring easy access to justice.

However, the CPA simply gives a new dimension to rights that have been recognized and protected since the ancient period. It is rightly said that "the present-day concern for consumer rights . . . is not new and that consumer's rights like the right to have safe, un-adulterated and defect-free commodities at appropriate prices has been recognized since ancient times.

Consumer protection is always a matter of great concern. In ancient India, effective measures were initiated to protect consumers from crimes in the market place. Ancient law givers ably described various kinds of unfair trade practices and also prescribed severe punishments for wrong doers. Mainly, acts of adulteration and false weights and measures were seriously dealt with. In ancient India, the king was the supreme authority to render justice, but his authority was circumscribed by the rules of Dharma.

In the medieval period, some Muslim rulers developed well organized market mechanisms to monitor prices and the supply of goods to the markets. During the British period, the modern legal system was introduced in India and many laws were enacted to protect the interests of consumers generally.

Today, the civil justice system is tainted with deficiencies that discourage the consumer from seeking legal recourse. However, the Consumer Protection Act of 1986, which provides easy access to justice, has brought a legal revolution to India as a result of its cost effective mechanisms and popular support. At the same time, these mechanisms pose a great legal challenge to the traditional courts which conduct litigation in orthodox ways. In this age of consumers, the regime of Indian consumer law will undoubtedly rule Indian markets and bestow a new phase on the existing Indian legal structure with its strong ancient legal foundations.

Written By: Arush Bhardwaj, BA-LLB , Central University of Kashmir.

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