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Examining the Consumer Protection Bill, 2018

August 10th, 2018 No comments

The Consumer Protection Bill, 2018 was introduced in Lok Sabha in January 2018. The Bill replaces the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. Previously in 2015, a Bill had been introduced to replace the 1986 Act. The 2015 Bill acknowledged that the rapid change in consumer markets, introduction of practices such as misleading advertisements, and new modes of transactions (online, teleshopping, etc.) had necessitated the need for a new law. The Bill was subsequently referred to a Standing Committee, which recommended several changes to it. The Bill was withdrawn and replaced with the Consumer Protection Bill, 2018. The Bill is listed for passage in the ongoing Monsoon Session. In this post, we analyse the Bill in its current form.

How is the 2018 Bill different from the 1986 Act?

The Bill adds various provisions for consumer protection that were absent in the 1986 Act. Key among them are the provisions on product liability and unfair contracts. Under product liability, when a consumer suffers an injury, property damage or death due to a defect in a product or service, he can file a claim for compensation under product liability. The Bill outlines cases in which the product manufacturer, service provider and seller will be held guilty under product liability. Under the proposed law, to claim product liability, an aggrieved consumer has to prove any one of the conditions mentioned in the Bill with regard to a manufacturer, service provider and seller, as the case may be.

An unfair contract has been defined as a contract between a consumer and manufacturer/ service provider if it causes significant change in consumer rights. Unfair contracts cover six terms, such as payment of excessive security deposits in an arrangement, disproportionate penalty for a breach, and unilateral termination without cause. The consumer courts being set up under the Bill will determine contract terms to be unfair and declare them null and void.

What are the different bodies being set up under the Bill?

The Bill sets up Consumer Protection Councils as advisory bodies, who will advise on protection and promotion of consumer rights. However, it does not make it clear who these Councils will render advise to. Under the 1986 Act, the Consumer Protection Councils have the responsibility to protect and promote consumer rights.

To promote, protect, and enforce consumer rights, the Bill is setting up a regulatory body, known as the Central Consumer Protection Authority. This Authority can also pass orders to prevent unfair and restrictive trade practices, such as selling goods not complying with standards, and impose penalties for false and misleading advertisements.

The Bill also sets up the Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions (known as consumer courts) at the district, state and national levels. These Commissions will adjudicate a broad range of complaints, including complaints on defective goods and deficient services of varying values. These Commissions are also present under the 1986 Act. However, their pecuniary jurisdiction (amount up to which they can hear complaints) has been revised under the Bill. The Bill also adds a provision for alternate dispute redressal mechanism. As part of this, mediation cells will be attached with the Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions.

What are the penal provisions under the Bill?

The Bill increases penalties for different offences specified in it. It also adds penalties for offences such as issuing misleading advertisements, and manufacturing and selling adulterated or spurious goods. For example, in case of false and misleading advertisements, the Central Consumer Protection Authority can impose a penalty of up to Rs 10 lakh on a manufacturer or an endorser. For a subsequent offence, the fine may extend to Rs 50 lakh.  The manufacturer can also be punished with imprisonment of up to two years, which may extend to five years for every subsequent offence. The Authority can also prohibit the endorser of a misleading advertisement from endorsing any particular product or service for a period of up to one year.  For every subsequent offence, the period of prohibition may extend to three years.  There are certain exceptions when an endorser will not be held liable for such a penalty.

Are there any issues to think about in the Bill?

The 2018 Bill is a marked improvement over the 2015 Bill and addresses several issues in the 2015 Bill. However, two major issues with regard to the Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions remain. We discuss them below.

First issue is with regard to the composition of these Commissions. The Bill specifies that the Commissions will be headed by a ‘President’ and will comprise other members.  However, the Bill delegates the power of deciding the qualifications of the President and members to the central government.  It also does not specify that the President or members should have minimum judicial qualifications.  This is in contrast with the existing Consumer Protection Act, 1986, which states that the Commissions at various levels will be headed by a person qualified to be a judge.  The 1986 Act also specifies the minimum qualification of members.

Under the current Bill, if the Commissions were to have only non-judicial members, it may violate the principle of separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.  Since these Commissions are adjudicating bodies and will look at consumer dispute cases, it is unclear how a Commission that may comprise only non-judicial members will undertake this function.

Second issue is with regard to the method of appointment of members of the Commissions. The Bill permits the central government to notify the method of appointment of members of the Commissions.  It does not require that the selection involve members from the higher judiciary.  It may be argued that allowing the executive to determine the appointment of the members of Commissions could affect the independent functioning of the Commissions.  This provision is also at variance with the 1986 Act.  Under the Act, appointment of members to these Commissions is done through a selection committee.  These section committees comprise a judicial member.

As mentioned previously, the Commissions are intended to be quasi-judicial bodies, while the government is part of the executive.  There may be instances where the government is a party to a dispute relating to deficiency in service provided by a government enterprise, for e.g., the Railways.  In such a case, there would be a conflict of interest as the government would be a party to the dispute before the Commissions and will also have the power to appoint members to the Commission.

More food for thought – the Food Security Bill

May 9th, 2013 3 comments

The 15th Lok Sabha is close to the end of its tenure. A key legislation that proposes major reforms in food security was listed for discussion in Parliament. The National Food Security Bill, 2011 has been scrutinised by a Standing Committee. In January, we compared the Standing Committee’s recommendations with the provisions of the Bill. Since then, amendments to the Bill have been introduced in Parliament. Debates on the Bill have revolved around the method of delivering food security, the identification of beneficiaries and the financial implications of the Bill.

Method of delivery

The Bill aims to make the right to food a statutory right. It proposes to use the existing Public Distribution System (PDS) to deliver foodgrain to 75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population. However, the Bill also allows for cash transfers and food coupons in lieu of grains as mechanisms to deliver food security. While the PDS is known to suffer from leakages as high as 40%, cash transfers and food coupons are known to expose recipients to volatility and price inflation. Each method of delivery would have its own implications, financial and otherwise.  The table below compares these methods of delivery.[i]

Advantages and disadvantages of PDS and other delivery mechanisms

MechanismAdvantagesDisadvantages
PDS
Insulates beneficiaries from inflation and price volatilityPoor identification and targeting of beneficiaries
Ensures entitlement is used for foodgrains onlyLow offtake of foodgrain from each household
Well-developed network of FPS ensures access to foodgrain even in remote areasLarge leakages and diversions of subsidised foodgrain
Adulteration of foodgrain
Lack of viability of FPSs due to low margins
Cash transfersCash in the hands of poor expands their choices Vulnerable to targeting errors
Cash may relieve financial constraints faced by the poor, make it possible to form thrift societies and access creditCash can be used to buy non- food items
Administrative costs of cash transfer programmes may be much less than that of centrally sponsored schemesMay expose recipients to price volatility and inflation
Potential for fully electronic transferThere is poor access to banks and post offices in some areas
Food couponsHousehold is given the freedom to choose where it buys food Vulnerable to targeting errors
Increases incentive for competitive prices and assured quality of foodgrain among PDS storesFood coupons are not indexed for inflation; may expose recipients to inflation
PDS stores get full price for foodgrains from the poor; no incentive to turn the poor awayDifficult to administer; known to have delays in issuing food coupons and reimbursing shops

Identification

The Bill does not universalise food entitlements. It classifies the population into two categories of beneficiaries, who shall be identified by the centre and states. Mechanisms that aim to target benefits to certain sections of the population have been prone to large inclusion and exclusion errors. A 2009 expert group study headed by N.C. Saxena that evaluated PDS, estimated that about 61% of the eligible population was excluded from the BPL list while 25% of APL households were included in the BPL list. Beneficiaries under the Food Security Bill will be identified through a similar process. It is unclear how these errors in identification of beneficiaries under the PDS will be addressed by the Bill.

Financial implications – cost sharing between the centre and states

A Bill that aims to deliver food security to a large section of the country would have significant financial implications. Costs shall be shared between the centre and states. Costs imposed on states (partial or full) include: nutritional support to pregnant women and lactating mothers, mid-day meals, anganwadi infrastructure, meals for children suffering from malnutrition, transport and delivery of foodgrains, creating and maintaining storage facilities, and costs associated with District Grievance Redressal Officers and State Food Commissions.  Although the centre shall provide some assistance, states will have to bear a significant financial burden on account of implementation.

It is unclear whether Parliament can require states to allocate funds without encroaching on the powers of state legislative assemblies. If a state chooses not to allocate the necessary funds or does not possess the funds to do so, implementation of the Bill could be seriously affected. The Standing Committee examining the Bill had recommended that an independent body, such as the Finance Commission, should be consulted regarding additional funds to be borne by states. The Right to Education Act with similar centre-state sharing of funds provides for such a consultation with the Finance Commission.

Cost of implementation of the Bill

Another contentious issue is the cost of implementing the Bill. The Bill estimates the cost at Rs 95,000 crore. However, experts have made varying estimates on the costs ranging from Rs 2 lakh crore to Rs 3.5 lakh crore. Ashok Gulati, Chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, estimated the cost at 2 lakh crore per year whereas the Minister of Food, K.V. Thomas was reported to have estimated the cost at Rs 3.5 lakh crore.

The passage of the food security Bill in Parliament will depend on the ability of the government to build consensus on these issues. It remains to be seen how the Bill is debated next Parliament session.

 


[i] Kapur D., Mukhopadhyay P., and A.  Subramanian.  “The Case for Direct Cash Transfers to the Poor.” Economic and Political Weekly. Vol 43, No 15 (Apr 12-18, 2008). Khera, R. “Revival of the Public Distribution System: Evidence and Explanations.” Economic and Political Weekly. Vol XLVI, Nos 44 & 45 (Nov 5, 2011). Shah, M. “Direct Cash Transfers: No Magic Bullet.” Economic and Political Weekly. Vol 43, No 34, pp. 77-79 (Aug 23-29, 2008).

Food security: some food for thought

January 23rd, 2013 2 comments

The right to food and food security have been widely discussed in the media.  The National Food Security Bill, 2011, which makes the right to food a legal right, is currently pending in Parliament.  The Bill seeks to deliver food security by providing specific entitlements to certain groups of individuals through the Targeted Public Distribution System, a large-scale subsidised foodgrain distribution system.  The Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution presented its report on the Food Security Bill on January 17, 2013.  It made recommendations on key issues such as the categorisation of beneficiaries, cash transfers and cost sharing between the centre and states.

A comparison of the Bill and Committee’s recommendations are given below.

Issue

Food Security Bill

Standing Committee’s Recommendations

Who will get food security?  75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population (to be divided into priority and general categories). Of these, at least 46% of the rural and 28% of urban populations will be priority (the rest will be general). Uniform category: Priority, general and other categories shall be collapsed into ‘included’ and ‘excluded’ categories.Included category shall extend to 75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population.
How will they be identified? The centre shall prescribe guidelines for identifying households; states shall identify the specific households. The centre should clearly define criteria for exclusion and consult with states to create inclusion criteria.
What will they get?  Priority:7 kg foodgrains/person/month (at Rs 3/kg for wheat, Rs 2/kg for rice, Rs 1/kg for coarse grains).General: 3 kg foodgrains/person/ month (at 50% of MSP). Included: 5 kg foodgrains/person/month (at subsidised prices).  Pulses, sugar, etc., should be provided in addition to foodgrains.
Reforms to TPDS Doorstep delivery of foodgrains to ration shops, use of information technology, etc. Implement specific IT reforms, for e.g. CCTV cameras in godowns, use of internet, and GPS tracking of vehicles carrying foodgrains.  Evaluate implementation of TPDS every 5 yrs.
Cost-sharing between centre and states Costs will be shared between centre and states. Mechanism for cost-sharing will be determined by the centre. Finance Commission and states should be consulted regarding additional expenditure to be borne by states to implement the Bill.
Cash Transfers Schemes such as cash transfer and food coupons shall be introduced in lieu of foodgrains. Cash transfers should not be introduced at this time. Adequate banking infrastructure needs to be set up before introduction.
Time limit for implementation The Act shall come into force on a date specified by the centre. States to be provided reasonable time limit i.e., 1 year, after which Act will come into force.

To access the Bill, a detailed comparison of the Standing Committee recommendations and the Bill, and other relevant reports relevant, see here.