Profiteering in troubled timesConsumer courts are needed to stop unscrupulous practices.
With the Covid-19 pandemic causing panic all over the world, it was bound to create a surge in demand for certain products. Consequently, and somewhat comedically, people in the UK, Australia and other countries have created an acute shortage of toilet paper, of all things. However, in many countries including Nepal, panic buying has also begun to create a shortage of crucial outbreak prevention products such as surgical and N95 face masks and alcohol-based hand sanitisers.
Such panic-induced stocking of essential supplies is being condemned all over the world. Indeed, as stocks run out, medical practitioners and public health workers—the ones who need protective products the most—are worried of the reduction in access. In such times of trouble, governments and stores globally are imposing restrictions on the purchase of in-demand goods, so that more people may find them when needed. And, yet, here in Nepal, retailers have found a way to cheat the people—even during this period of crisis.
On March 10, acting on a complaint, the federal Department of Commerce, Supplies and Consumer Protection Management fined four pharmacies in Pulchowk Rs200,000 each for selling face masks at highly inflated prices. But this is surely the tip of the iceberg. If one phone complaint was enough to catch four unscrupulous retailers in one neighbourhood of the Kathmandu Valley, there are bound to be numerous cases throughout the country that remain unaddressed. For weeks now, there have been complaints on social media detailing the artificial shortage and price inflation of face masks and hand sanitisers in the country. Yet, the response from the concerned has been underwhelming.
But this goes far beyond face masks and times of viral pandemics. Nepal has always had trouble reining in corrupt practices in trade and retail. Much of this is due to the weak provisions in the new Consumer Protection Act 2018, which has been considered to be ‘meek and full of flaws’, with random fines being applied in a few cases leaving the systemic issues unresolved. While the recent fines in Pulchowk did come out of a phone complaint, it has been found that not only are people not aware of the consumer protection hotline, it apparently also remains down and unavailable most of the time. Importantly, even with the legislation talking about setting up a consumer court system, the government has failed to do so. To apply anything more than a token fine, officials or consumers currently have to take offending companies to district courts, making the legal process lengthy and taxing—for very little outcome.
Time and again, consumers have been calling for relief from unscrupulous trade. And yet, the government has very little to show for it. But if the concerned fail to stem such unethical price hikes and shortages in times of crisis, they cannot be trusted to solve the issue during regular periods. In the short run, the concerned must hold all suppliers and retailers of masks and sanitisers to account. But for the long run, the government must immediately set up an effective consumer court, and put more resources into the consumer hotline.
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