New consumer protection laws worry India’s doctors, e-tailers

Mahesh Trivedi

Published: Updated:

As the general elections draw nearer, the Indian government is all set to enforce stringent, long-overdue laws for empowering every consumer but the desperate move has sent shivers down the spine of doctors, e-tailers and celebrity endorsers.

The consumer protection Bill 2018 already passed by the lower House of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, will replace the archaic, three-decade-old 1986 Act lock, stock and barrel once the Rajya Sabha green-signals the comprehensive legislation aimed at making every customer a king.

Under the new rules, redressal of the gravamina regarding defects in goods and deficiency in services will be no sweat as the aggrieved consumers will not have to hire lawyers to fight their case but will be able to file complaints through email what with the geographical jurisdiction of a consumer court now widened to include the home or workplace of the complainant.

Direct selling

While the new Bill wants pecuniary jurisdictions of consumer courts jacked up as many as ten times at all three levels – district, state and national, it also takes under its ambit, for the first time, the developments of a tech-driven consumer era like e-commerce, direct selling, multi-level marketing, and telemarketing.

The present law does not have a regulator but now a Central Consumer Protection Authority will be set up for timely and effective settlement of end users’ disputes by handling violation of consumers’ rights, unfair trade practices, false advertisements, besides having an investigation wing with powers of search and seizure.

Indeed, the new-fangled consumer rights watchdog will have the power to recall goods that are dangerous, hazardous or unsafe, to discontinue unfair practices and to penalize celebrity endorsers for misleading advertisements.

No wonder, consumer rights activists have hailed the Bill as the best thing to have happened to protect the rights of consumers, but doctors have been ranting and raving that the new laws will increase the cost of treatment, which, they say, will ultimately fall on patients and their relatives.

Medical fraternity

“In the proposed bill, they have increased the level of compensation payable to patients by 10 times. They have created a court-like structure without having a judge, and there is no provision of an expert opinion,” say members of the Indian Medical Association, which has dashed off a letter to Rajya Sabha lawmakers urging tem not to approve the Bill that, they feel, would be used to harass doctors.

In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own home state of Gujarat, doctors belonging to the Ahmedabad Medical Association submitted a strongly-worded memorandum to the collector, asserting that the ‘anti-poor and anti-democarcy’ Bill was not acceptable to the medical fraternity as it would also trigger a sudden increase in medical negligence cases and frivolous complaints against practising medicos and corporate hospitals.

Mukesh Parikh, firebrand president of the All-India Consumer Protection & Action Committee, which organized massive demonstrations in various parts of Ahmedabad recently, told English Al Arabiya that most people were not aware of their rights even in a restaurant over reservations and double-booking, adding that of the 234,888 consumer-related complaints registered so far in Gujarat, 19585 were still awaiting solution.

Digital transactions

The proposed law set to effectively deal with current challenges originating from even digital and e-commerce transactions will change the game for e-marketplace operators such as Amazon, Flipkart, Paytm, etc and food delivery platforms such as Zomato, Swiggy, and Uber Eats. These online retail platforms will no more be allowed to shrug off the responsibility for a fake, defective or substandard product or service to customers, as the company management or promoters will be penalized or even imprisoned for discrepancy of service.

“Now, a consumer can hold Uber Eats responsible if the curry is too salty. Hitherto, only the restaurant was considered responsible. True, these e-tailers are just a platform, but they cannot allow sale of fake, stolen, illegal, banned, defective, substandard products or services to the consumers,” explains Parikh, who for the past 40 years has been taking up the cudgels for gullible consumers who are led up the garden path by unscrupulous sellers.

Indeed, the digital world is full of complaints against various e-marketplace operators, and the new Bill could spell major trouble for such businesses. For the same reason, celebrities endorsing misleading advertisements are on tenterhooks.

Young generation

Since these movers and shakers are emulated by the young generation, the celebrities will now be accountable for fine and ban of up to three years, the fine being up to Rs 1 million and a one-year ban on any endorsement and, for second offence, the fine will amount up to Rs 5 million and up to three years’ ban over unfair trade practices even as some Lok Sabha parliamentarians had demanded that the popular but irresponsible figures be put behind bars.

“The long-awaited Bill will give more teeth to consumers but shows a red flag to celebrities who unknowingly and irresponsibly endorse products with false claims. After all, celebrities are influencers and opinion makers; people watch their every step and idolize them. Hence these A-listers have to be held responsible if consumers are sold a pup”, says social activist Ruzan Khambatta, who has conducted countless consumer awareness campaigns for housewives and other women.

In sum, the Consumer Protection Bill 2018 will put consumers in the driver’s seat and traders as well as marketers in the rear seat with the result that a consumer will not be an unheard man of the modern socio-economy and will not be taken for granted by greedy shopkeepers, manufacturers and service providers.