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A rough ride for the consumer

A rough ride for the consumer
For the record
Politics & Policy
Refugees have no place to go

From Sher Khan
August 02 - 08, 1999

But then, who doesn't get a rough ride or a raw deal in this blessed country, in any sphere of activity, including dealing with "public servants" who at least nominally are paid by the public to serve its interests, whereas in practice these people take pride in callings themselves "government Servants" add serve only the government the day besides of course themselves; and care two hoots for the people at large, except those who matter or carry immense clout.? For the moment, though, let's stick to the consumer who gets a raw deal at every turn, thanks in large measure to the government's (of any hue and colour) apathy if not active connivance.

As in so much that is marked by gross neglect in this country, and especially in the sphere of social services which affect the daily lives of millions of hapless people, the rights of the consumers of goods and services too are prominent by their complete neglect and virtual non-existence. Where as in the West, apart form governmental agencies that are in place to ensure that the consumer is duly protected, there are numerous private organizations and groups who are active in this field. In the USA there are over three hundred such groups at the national level; at the state and county level the number must run into thousands. The name of Ralph Nader has become a household word in this respect, because he has championed the cause of the consumer against the might off biggest enterprises and mega-corporations and made the latter buckle under; he won plaudits particularly for his book, "Unsafe At Any Speed" in which he highlighted defects in a Motor car made by one of the biggest automobile manufacturers in the USA. In our immediate neighborhood, there are very strong emerging consumer lobbies in India, Malaysia. etc. However in Pakistan, sadly, consumer protection is a much neglected area. Apart from a handful of groups just beginning to get involved in creating awareness in this field, there is general apathy, even amongst the educated and the influential who can make a difference if they were to take an interest in such matters. One can count the number of such groups on the fingers of one hand alone, and still have a finger or two to spare. In Islamabad, there is The Network which has won renown in promoting that rational use of pharmaceutical drugs, and the Consumer Rights Commission of Pakistan (CRCP), a new group which is trying to influence public policy. In Karachi there is HELPLINE. And that just about sums it up, as private croups go.

From the government's side, which has yet to come up with comprehensive legislation on consumer protection, there is nothing to sing or dance about. The issue was raised and debated in the National Assemblyman 1988, and as a result, was declared a provincial subject. A Consumer Protection Bill for Islamabad Capital Territory was passed in 1994, but in practical terms nothing has been done even in the Capital to date. The NWFP stole a march on the other provinces, and in 1996 enacted a provincial Consumer Protection Act; what benefits have actually accrued to the hapless consumers in the province can be easily conjectured. In the Punjab, the largest province of the country and home to over half the population, a Consumer Protection Bill has at last been moved in the Assembly as a private Bill (the government not being interested in such mundane matters?), and is being deliberated upon. Its salient features include the establishment of Consumer Courts and District Consumer Councils through out the province. CRCP, while welcoming the initiative taken by the Punjab assembly, has expressed serious reservations about some of the Bill s provisions, and has proposed several amendments to the sponsors of the Bill to make it more user-friendly. As and when passed, and howsoever implemented, the Bill at least will provide a legal frame work to redress aggrieved consumers in the province, i.e. those who have the time, the energy and the financial resources to seek redress as individuals. This is where the need for motivated and active NGOs Can feature prominently and make a significant difference; for the moment the field as practically wide open.

Enactment of the Punjab Consumer Protection Bill will be a step forward in this neglected sphere, but it is surprising that the other two provinces, and Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas, have not taken any steps in this regard; perhaps they will be shaken out of their apathy before the new millennium dawns. But as they say, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

While on the subject, it would be worthwhile to touch upon the deceptive advertising that goes on day in and day out with impunity, like much else in this country. A prime example is the relentless promises of the nationalized commercial banks (NCBs) to make their account holders multi-miliionaires overnight. Not one of these NCBs advertises, indicates or even hints that there will be a withholding tax on every prize, which the Finance Minister increased form 7.5% to 10% in his budget speech (apparently the same applies to the Prize Bond scheme too). Then there is the NCB which is offering cars for those of its account holders who maintain a certain minimum balance; it doesn't say which of the several models in each category will be given to the lucky winner, but take it from Me that it will be the cheapest model. Being government-controlled banks one would expect them to be clean, honest and forthright in their advertising and their public and private dealings; but then again, it might be too much to expect such ethics and morals ford State-controlled organs and institutions when no governments itself has in the last several decades been known for such morality.