In Bangladesh, currently, a lot of discussion and debates are going on in the public sphere and the social media on issues relating to the protection of the rights ofconsumers. In the recent past, there have been some concrete initiatives by the government and its various agencies in this regard. These have also given rise to some controversies and confusions about the scope and the concept of the rights to consumer protection itself. Here, it needs to be pointed out that these types of initiatives by the government are observed to be more,especially during festival seasons like the times during the two Eids, Durga Puja and Nobobarsha. During these festivals, people in large numbers buy different products and services from various producers and service providers. According to one estimate, during this year’s Eid-ul-Fitr, expenditures on goods and services crossed over TK 150,000 Crore. The consumer expenditure trend is on the rise in every successive year due to sustained economic growth of the national economy leading to increases in the disposable incomes of the nation’s citizens. Here, disposable income means ‘income remaining after deduction of taxes and social security charges, available to be spent or saved as one wishes.’ Now, it is a globally accepted fact that the consumers are supposed to enjoy certain rights. These are largely manifested in the form of various protections that are guaranteed to them. Here, consumer means ‘a person who purchases goods and services for personal use.’ Consumer protection is linked to the idea of consumer rights, or the idea that consumers have an inherent right to basic health and safety. In overwhelming cases, the consumers are not informed and united individuals who are often exploited by sellers. For those perceived reasons, they need to be protected from the unjust and unethical practices of the producers and traders. The United Nations Organizations (UNO) developed guidelines on consumer protection for the member states. The Guidelines were first adopted by the General Assembly in April, 1985. In later years, it was expanded by the UN Economic andSocial Council in July, 1999. It was further revised and subsequently adopted by the General Assembly in December, 2015. The updated UN Guidelines provide new references and updated policies to tackle emerging consumer protection issues in financial services, privacy, energy, travel and tourism. New added areas in the guidelines include access to essential goods and services; protection of vulnerable and disadvantaged consumers; new guidance on e-commerce, parity of treatment between online and offline consumers and protection of consumer privacy; new guidance on financial services, public utilities, good business practices and international cooperation; and aformation of an Intergovernmental Group of Experts (IGE) on consumer protection law and policy to monitor the implementation of the Guidelines. The Guidelines are, in fact, a set of principles on the basis of which the consumer protection laws, enforcement institutions and redress systems could be developed by different countries for protecting consumers. These are also expected to help promote international enforcement cooperation among Member States and encourage the sharing of experiences in consumer protection among them.
The Bangladeshi Constitution has provisions, especially relating to basic needs of citizens that have relevance to consumer rights. Article 15 deals with the provision of basic necessities like food, clothing, right to work, right to reasonable wage, quantity and quality of work, social security (especially for the disabled), widows, orphans, and senior or older citizens. There are various other laws that deal with many issues of consumer rights. In 2009, the Bangladeshi government specifically enacted the Consumer Rights Protection Act to protect the rights of consumers.The UN guidelines on consumer rights protection have been reflected in the new Act and it has recognised consumer rights in a comprehensive manner that include obtaining commodities or services at a fixed or reasonable price; right to have safe and pure products; right to have necessary and correct information about products; right to be informed of the qualities or defects (if any) of a particular product; right to know the quantity of the product; right to know the utility, purity and price of the product; right to have products or services in right quantity and quality; right to have choice among product offerings; right to have defense against activities relating to purchase or sale of products by which life or property may be in danger; right to education about consume rights and protection; and right to have access to remedy in relation to violations of consumer rights.The Consumer Rights Protection Act, 2009 provides for both civil and criminal remedies. A consumer is entitled to lodge a complaint with the Consumer Rights Protection Directorate for any violation of the Act. The Law on consumer rights prohibits adulteration, hoarding, smuggling, black marketing, cheating or fraud in weight and measurement or selling products at higher prices.As per the provisions of the Act, the government, for the purpose of implementation, established the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection in 2009. The Act also made a provision for the creation of the National Consumer Rights Protection Council. Consumers can file complaints against businesses to the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection. If the Directorate, after investigation, finds the complaint to be valid, may impose fines on the company or business. The directorate provides 25 per cent of the fine to the complainant for popularising the practice. However, aggrieved consumers cannot take legal action against the responsible company without the explicit permission of the Directorate. This provision has drawn criticism on the ground that the provision is, in fact, against the interests of consumers. The other government agencies that protect the interest of consumers are Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI), established in 1971 as a National Standards body of Bangladesh. The BSTI controls the standard of service and the quality of goods which safeguard the interest of the consumers in Bangladesh. Besides these agencies, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of Bangladesh Police, also protects consumer interest by identifying and penalising business enterprises that work against the interest of consumers by selling and producing adulterated, counterfeit and substandard products and services. On the other hand, the Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB), a non-government voluntary organisation established in 1978, works against commodity adulteration andartificial price-hike, and safeguards various other consumers’ rights and interests. Besides all these, the media, both print and electronic, are also vigilant in protecting the rights and interests of consumers. Media reporting on anomalies regarding products and services, to a great extent, also safeguards and protects the rights of consumers in Bangladesh. However, a closelook at the activities of these organisations and agencies, both public and private, indicates that there is a lack of coordination among their activities. It appears that they work in isolation. It also seems that there is some misconception about the purpose and scope of the protection of consumer rights. It may be pointed out here that the market economy is in operation in Bangladesh. In such a system, the laws of supply and demand determine the production of goods and services. Again, the market economy relies on the existence of an efficient market where all buyers and sellers have equal access to the same information. Price changes are pure reflections of the laws of supply and demand. However, it is a well known fact that all perfect conditions that are needed for the effective functioning of the market economy are not in existence in Bangladesh. As such, distortions in many areas, particularly in quality and pricing, are quite rampant and common which undermine the rights of consumers. These definitely call for stern actions from the regulatory agencies. However, care must be taken to not hinder the market forces which might have a detrimental effect on the overall expansion and growth of the economy while, at the same time, safeguarding of the rights of consumers in Bangladesh must also be ensured.
(The different sources of information are acknowledged with gratitude).
The writer is a Professor, Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka and Member, National Human Rights