Consumers have rightsThe government must do everything in its power to establish consumer courts in the country.
In the last fiscal year, the Department of Food Technology and Quality Control filed cases against 148 companies and restaurants for failing to meet the hygiene standards or selling contaminated food. Many of these entities belong to big business houses in Nepal—Bottler’s Nepal, Ambe Group and Golchha Organisation, among others. But owing to the lack of focus on consumer rights protection, these companies rarely get punished. Sometimes, they receive a mild reprimand before being allowed to continue operations. For one, the new Consumer Protection Act has been considered to be ‘meek and full of flaws’. More importantly, even with the legislation talking about setting up a consumer court, the government has failed to do so. What has instead ended up happening is a random application of fines against companies found to be essentially cheating consumers, with no other follow up or punishment. The government needs to speed up the formation of such consumer courts, and it needs to do so now. Consumer rights, after all, are constitutionally guaranteed.
The lack of checks and balances on consumer goods and services in Nepal is appalling. In clothing, there have been instances of shops selling merchandise at a 2,300 percent markup. In the case of sugar—a basic commodity—the government has been complicit in allowing sugar mill owners and traders to become anti-competitive and raise prices. The government had imposed import quotas and subsidies that did not raise the income of sugarcane farmers, but allowed traders and mill owners to artificially increase prices to fleece customers.
More worrying, the government has not only failed to control unnecessary price hikes in vegetables, but also failed to rid the market of vegetables laced with toxic levels of pesticides—both imported and local. These are but a few general examples of how people can be cheated of their money and health if quality controls don’t exist. How can businesses found to be cheating people not be punished thoroughly so that consumers receive reparations and justice? Government mechanisms cannot be so weak to let off known cheats with a simple fine, and not push for harsher punishment.
One severe problem here is the Consumer Protection Act 2018 that replaced the 1998 law of the same name. While the old law had a provision to jail offenders for up to 15 years, the new law focuses more on on-the-spot fines against businesses that are found to be cheating customers than on prosecuting them for stricter sentences and jail time. While this seems to be progressive, it gives ample opportunity for favouritism and on-the-spot bribes to occur instead. The companies can deposit half of the fine amount into the government's account and then appeal the decision while continuing on with business as usual. Moreover, officials or consumers currently have to take unscrupulous companies to district courts—making the legal process lengthy and cumbersome for very little outcome.
The government must do everything in its power to establish consumer courts in the country. If it needs any cue on how to go about it, India serves as an example where such a system has been implemented with much success.