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World Consumer Rights Day and the Developing world

"Customers don't expect you to be perfect but they expect you to fix things when they go wrong." - Donald Porter

Introduction
The modern 21st century is interdependent and globalization is contributing to a developed world where consumer transactions take place every day. To mark the historic speech made by the former president of the USA, John. F. Kennedy, on 15th March 1962, the world celebrates World Consumer Rights Day every year. From 1963 onwards, the consumer protection movement began and took over the world.

This year's global theme is Fair Digital Finance 1. All around the world, consumers are cheated day in and day out in innumerable forms, for instance, food adulteration, defective product, cyber-crimes, identity theft, banking frauds, misleading advertisements, black marketing, etc. Consumer protection is a socio-legal issue that the world combats on a daily basis.

History
The consumer movement began shaping in the nineteenth century in Great Britain. The historical case of Donoghue v. Stevenson 2 led to a more consumer-friendly decision and later to the society. The court with a 3:2 majority decided in the favour of the petitioner and held the manufacturers liable for negligence and failing to provide a duty of care to the consumer. The right of the consumer was safeguarded and hence, this case is one of the most prominent judgements in the history of the consumer protection par world. 3

The USA addressed the issue of consumer protection in the early twentieth century. People became more conscious of what they are consuming which led to the enactment of the Pure Foods and Drugs Act, 1906. Later, in the 1960s the movement revived again.

History of Consumer Protection in India

The history of consumer protection can be traced back to ancient India. At that time, the preponderant class of India followed Vedas and other holy religious scriptures of Hindu texts. Manu smriti is the law book, which condemned and punished people who unjustly practised non-ethical and fraudulent activities. The same is defined in Kautilya's Arthashastra, it further observed that it is the state's duty to protect the interest of consumers. In medieval India, the Sultans and Mughals took measures against malpractices as it is prohibited in the Holy Quran.4

Modern India was ruled by the British and they enacted laws to protect the consumers like the Indian Contract act, 1872, the sales and goods act, 1930, the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 among others. Independent India, historically passed the Consumer protection act, 1986 which came into force on 24th December. Recently, the act was repealed and the new act contained some provisions that were added keeping in mind the changing digital world, the act is called the Consumer protection act, 2019 which came into force on 20th July, 2020.5

Consumerism

Merriam Webster defines consumerism as "The promotion of the consumer's interest".
Consumerism is the notion that believes human happiness is directly proportional to the extent of satisfactory consumption. It is the active advocacy for the interest of the consumers. In the 1960s, the concept of consumerism developed in the USA after the president spoke at length about consumer protection and the four rights available at that time.6

The Latin term "Caveat Emptor" means "Let the buyer beware". Through a considerable number of fraudulent undertakings, the consumer or buyer are being fooled for centuries. This principle warns the buyer to be beware that when the buyer would be aware of his rights and the remedies, he can recourse, the society would lead to a consumerist society.

According to Federal Trade Commission data, there was a 70% increase in frauds in 2021 as compared to 2020. Consumers lost 5.8 billion USD, mostly the cases were of imposter and online shopping scams.7 As per reports of UK Watchdog, there has been a 30% increase in consumer scams primarily consisting of investment scams.8 According to Microsoft 2021 Global Tech Support Scam Research report, Indians faced up to 69% of online frauds.9

The above-mentioned trends show that on one hand, consumer frauds are increasing, the sellers are indulging in online scams the most, while on the other hand, society is moving towards a fair market where customer satisfaction is the supreme goal. Consumerism compels the consumers to pursue the government or the local bodies if their right is being violated.

International consumer law
The United Nations conference on trade and development laid down guidelines for consumer protection that countries ought to obey for healthy trade and satisfactory legislation. The UN adopted these guidelines for the first time in 1985 and recently the UN General Assembly revised them in 2015. The member states are encouraged to create awareness on consumer protection with the aim of a smooth transaction between the countries.

The guidelines seek to promote sustainable development, an ethical code of conduct, and international cooperation among other regulations. In the United Nations Guidelines on Consumer protection (UNGCP), the guidelines emphasize the most educational and informative programmes. Apart from UNCTD, there are other organizations that regulate consumer grievances of member countries such as the EU Consumer protection cooperation network, European consumer centre network, ASEAN Coordinating committee on consumer protection, International financial consumer protection organization, among many others. These organizations have their own set of laws that the member countries agree to follow unanimously.10

Indian consumer law

In India, the Consumer protection act of 2019 regulates the behaviour of the authorities in settling the disputes of consumer grievances on time. This act repealed the previous act which was in force for almost three decades. The objective behind replacing this with the former one was to meet the need for changing society which is evolving as tech-savvy. According to the Department of consumer affairs, over the last four years, over 22% of the consumer complaints filed were on e-commerce. A new provision is added in the act under section 2(16) which defines e-commerce.

The new consumer protection act is a boon for people says the former Justice Pappala Jagannadha Rao.11

The act same as the previous one upheld the six rights of a consumer under section 2(9), which are as follows:

  1. The right to be protected against the marketing of goods, products or services which are hazardous to life and property;
  2. The right to be informed about the quality, quantity, potency, purity, standard and price of goods, products or services, as the case may be, so as to protect the consumer against unfair trade practices;
  3. The right to be assured, wherever possible, access to a variety of goods, products or services at competitive prices;
  4. The right to be heard and assured that consumer's interest will receive due consideration at the appropriate forum;
  5. The right to seek redressal against unfair trade practices or restrictive trade practices or unscrupulous exploitation of consumers; and
  6. The right to consumer awareness;

Important Judgements on Consumer protection

Indian Medical Association v. V.P. Shantha and Ors 12:

In this case, the Indian medical association in a writ petition sought freedom of the consumer laws and observed that they have their own guideline and ethics for the same. The Honourable Supreme court held that when the hospital is providing treatment free of cost, then it would fall under the service of consumer law.

Aashna Roy v. ITC Hotels 13:

In this case, a hair model who earned a decent living by modelling for various hair care brands filed a suit against a Salon of the ITC Hotels where she was staying, in her complaint, she stated that she suffered mental trauma and her career was affected because of the bad haircut, she got at the salon. The court awarded her damages of 2 crores as it was on behalf of the negligence of the salon, the trauma the applicant went through.

Baglekar Ashok Kumar v. More Megastore Retail Limited 14:

In this case, the respondent's retail store was charging the consumers extra for a carry bag with a logo of the company. The court awarded Rs. 15,000/- to the complaint as the company was involved in unfair trade practices.

Conclusion
A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed last year in the Honourable Bombay High Court, seeking directions to the state to implement educational and awareness programmes, information about Right to Information (RTI) and the constitution of India in the UG and PG courses but it was rejected on the grounds of judicial overreach. 15

Although, the courts cannot direct the state to implement any law, it is the onus of the citizen to remain aware of its rights. The Ministry of Consumer Affairs has filed a case of RS. 650 crores on Nestle's Maggi for unfair trade practices. The government dragged the company to the court alleging that nestle is false advertising stating that it has "Taste Bhi, Health Bhi" whereas it is alleged that the noodles contain Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).16 The state is doing its bit and now it's the time for ours.

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