Consumer Protection in the light of new IT interventions
*Ram Vilas Paswan
One of the mandates of the Department of Consumer Affairs in the Government of India is consumer advocacy. The Department is laying greater emphasis on consumer education and working with the goal of reaching the next level, from Consumer Protection to consumer empowerment. To achieve this goal the Government is offering a range of services such as National and State Consumer Helplines, Publicity Campaigns through Jago Grahak Jago, funding of academic institutions and voluntary consumer organisations in conducting Consumer Awareness Programmes, and involvement of Industry Associations and Chambers of Commerce in policy consultations and joint campaigns.
Consumer markets for goods and services have undergone profound transformation since the enactment of the Consumer Protection Act in 1986. The modern market place contains a plethora of increasingly complex products and services. The emergence of global supply chains, rise in international trade and the rapid development of e-commerce have led to new delivery systems for goods and services and have provided new opportunities for consumers. Equally, this has rendered the consumer vulnerable to new forms of unfair trade and unethical business practices. Taking note of these aspects, in addition to the strengthening of legal framework to address the new challenges faced by the consumers, the Department has taken several other initiatives.
The Department of Consumer Affairs has launched an Integrated Grievance Redress Mechanism (INGRAM) portal for bringing all stakeholders such as consumers, Central and State Government Agencies, private companies, regulators, Ombudsmen and call centers etc. on to a single platform. The portal is creating awareness among consumers to protect their rights and inform them of their responsibilities. Consumers can register online their grievances through this portal. The National Consumer Helpline is also accessible now through this portal.
As value added services, a mobile application and easy to remember five digit short code 14404 have also been launched for consumers from across the country to access National Consumer Helpline.
Smart Consumer App
The Department in association with GS1 India has launched a mobile application “Smart Consumer” to enable the consumer to scan the bar code of the product and get all details of the product such as name of the product, details of manufacturer, year and month of manufacture, net content and consumer care details for making complaint in case of any defect.
Online Dispute Resoluion
Online dispute resolution uses technology to facilitate the resolution of disputes between parties. In this respect it is often seen as being the online equivalent of alternative dispute resolution(ADR). ODR is a wide field, which may be applied to a range of disputes including Business to Consumer disputes (B2C). It seems to be particularly apt for these disputes, since it is logical to use the same medium (the internet) for the resolution of e-commerce disputes when parties are frequently located far from one another.
Online Consumer Mediation Centre (OCMC)
The Online Consumer Mediation Centre (OCMC) has been established at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru under the aegis of Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Government of India. The Centre aims to provide for a state-of-the-art infrastructure for resolving consumer disputes both through physical as well as online mediation through its platform. The Center will provide innovative technology for consumers and organisations to manage and resolve conflicts and to propel online mediation as a first choice to resolving consumer disputes. This is an innovative tool that affords consumers better access to justice through quick and easy redressal mechanism and at the same time provide opportunity for businesses to maintain good customer relations.
As a result of the Government of India’s mission to encourage public to adopt the digital payment system, in the near future, several crore of hitherto digital non literate consumers are going to use internet for the first time for buying goods and services and pay for the same. In order to protect the consumer on the online environment, a comprehensive one year campaign for raising awareness about internet safety amongst Indian consumers is being run in partnership with Google. The campaign will integrate the internet safety message into everyday tasks that Indian consumers undertake over internet – whether it be doing financial transactions, using emails, doing e-Commerce or simply surfing the internet for information in collaborate with Government of India in the Jago Grahak Jago campaign.
The partnership will also extend to training of select VCOs, government officials and National Consumer Helpline counselors through a series of train the trainer’s programmes who will further conduct mass training programmes. Awareness generation is also going to be through a knowledge management portal which will be in the form of a micro site on the department website.
Online Consumer Communities
In association with the Local Circles, a social media platform, the Department has launched a platform ‘Online Consumer Communities’ for citizens to discuss and
opine about, consumer related issues. With Local Circles, a citizen can get connected with their Government, City, Causes, Neighborhood, Interest, needs and any other communities they are a part of. When citizens get connected and become communities, it leads to transparency, easy availability of trusted information, easier collective action to address common issues and an easier/better urban daily life. Using Local Circles, organizations can reach out to citizens and understand collective issues, challenges, solutions, opportunities, and pulse at macro or micro levels.
Price Stabilization Fund for Pulses
Pulses are important component of the food basket in India and is a major source of protein for the population. Despite India being the world’s largest producer and importer of Pulses, availability is not always sufficient to meet the requirement, which puts pressure on the prices.
Production, Imports and Demand of Pulses over time has been shown at the table below:
Various initiatives have been taken by Government to enhance domestic production and productivity of pulses. However, the gap between demand and supply of pulses is likely to continue at least in short to medium term due to the increasing population, improved disposable income of the people, change in food preferences in favour of protein, etc. Taking cognizance of these facts, Government has been permitting import of pulses at zero per cent duty since June 2006 to improve availability at reasonable prices. There is also a ban on exports of pulses except for Kabuli Chana and up to 10,000 MT per annum for Organic pulses and Lentils since June 2006. However, despite these measures, prices of pulses remained under stress during last two years. This may partially be explained by insufficient imports of pulses during the last two years when domestic production fell due, inter alia, to adverse weather conditions. As imports were almost entirely through private channels, it was guided more by profitability than welfare concerns.
In view of recent experiences of price volatility of pulses due to its less than sufficient availability because of lower than desirable imports and the significance of pulses in consumption bundle Government considered and approved creation of buffer stock of 1.5 lakh MT of pulses in one of its landmark decisions in December 2015 which was subsequently revised upto 20 lakh MT of pulses in September 2016 to be funded through Price Stabilisation Fund Scheme of Department of Consumer Affairs. Of this buffer of 20 lakh MT, 10 lakh MT was to be procured domestically and the remaining was to be imported to improve domestic availability. However, this distribution between domestic procurement and imports was tentative and could be suitably amended to extend support to farmers, if need be.
For building the buffer stock of pulses, domestic procurement is being undertaken throug
Food Corporation of India (FCI), National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Ltd. (NAFED), Small Farmers’ Agribusiness Consortium (SFAC) while imports is through Metals & Minerals Trading Corporation (MMTC) and State Trading Corporation (STC). In addition, State Governments have also been authorized to undertake the procurement of specified quality of pulses up to a specified quantity on automatic basis and beyond that level with prior concurrence of central government.
In view of the enhanced limit of buffer stock of up to 20 lakh MT the domestic procurement target of Kharif pulses from KMS 2016-17 stood at 5 lakh MT. However, in view of the bumper Kharif crop of pulses and the reported distress sales by farmers Government decided to enhance the procurement target of Kharif pulses to around 9.5 lakh MT. The designated agencies have been actively engaged in procurement of the targeted quantities and the KMS 2016-17 procurement would continue till March 15, 2017. As on January 19, 2017 the domestic procurement during KMS 2016-17 stood at 3.37 lakh MT taking the total buffer of pulses, including procurement during previous marketing seasons and contracted imports, to 8.62 lakh MT. In view of the better production of Kharif pulses, it is expected that the procurement targets would be achieved for KMS 2016-17. Furthermore, additional 5 lakh MT for the buffer is to be procured domestically out of arrivals of Rabi pulses during RMS 2017-18 for building a dynamic buffer upto 20 lakh MT.
Government of India is creating a dynamic buffer stock of pulses with the objective of ensuring adequate availability of protein at reasonable prices. However, participation of States/UTs especially in distribution of pulses would be crucial for most effective use of the buffer. Distribution through States/UTs in may ensure channelization of the pulses directly to the consumers and minimize the scope of trade interests cornering gains from government’s operation. States/UTs were consulted on existence of distribution mechanism at the stage of formulation of plan for enhanced buffer. Most of them had indicated existence of channels through which pulses may be retailed directly to consumers. However, many States have not taken sufficient initiative for benefiting from the buffer by lifting pulses from it. The optimal use of buffer would be facilitated by improved participation of States/UTs, professional management of stock and making the stock dynamic.
* Author is Union Minister for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Government of India.