Nepal waits for consumer courts while business malpractices soarConsumer rights activists accuse the government of holding back on setting up consumer courts due to lobbying by manufacturers and traders.
Nobody knows how many more years the country will have to wait for the government to establish consumer courts to protect the interests of buyers, but cases of unfair market practices have doubled in the past year.
The official quality watchdog filed 115 cases against firms for producing and selling adulterated foods in the last fiscal year ended mid-July.
In the previous fiscal year, the Department of Food Technology and Quality Control filed 55 cases against business malpractices.
Consumer rights activists accuse the government of deliberately holding back on setting up consumer courts due to lobbying by manufacturers and traders.
According to consumer activists, sales of adulterated goods are rampant. Nepal has been battling for a long time to clean up its tainted image as a bad place to shop. Consumers are being cheated left and right, but the government isn't doing much to change that, they say.
There is no right place to lodge complaints either. Consumer courts were envisaged as an alternative to civil courts for providing speedy justice to consumers.
Four years ago, the amended Consumer Protection Act 2018, which contained a provision requiring the government to establish a consumer court, was passed.
In 2018, the government made the first amendment to the law in two decades in a bid to better protect the rights and interests of Nepali consumers.
One of its highlights was the establishment of a consumer court to bring unscrupulous traders under a legal framework through fast track procedures.
After the government delayed beginning the process, on February 20, the Supreme Court ordered it to establish consumer courts in each of the seven provinces.
A division bench of justices Bam Kumar Shrestha and Nahakul Subedi issued the order after the Forum for Protection of Consumer Rights moved the court. But there isn’t any indication of the consumer courts being set up.
Consumer rights activists say the delay shows how careless the government is about ensuring the rights of consumers.
“The process has taken a long time,” said Phanindra Gautam, joint secretary at the Law Ministry. “We have been waiting for advice from the Secretariat of the Judicial Council to set up consumer courts.”
He said that they had not heard anything from the Secretariat after the order was issued.
The Law Ministry has to forward the Secretariat's recommendation to the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies which will begin the process of establishing the consumer courts.
The Consumer Protection Act 1997 contained similar provisions to deal with cases related to consumer disputes and grievances, but they have never been implemented since the law was enacted.
The public has long been demanding a consumer court to bring unscrupulous traders under a legal framework under a fast-track system. The court, as envisioned by the act, will make such traders pay compensation to consumers for market malpractice.
Nepal’s Right to Food and Food Sovereignty Act not only talks about access and adequate nutritious food for people but also stresses quality.
“The government not following the order of the Supreme Court in a timely manner is disobeying the court and denying justice to consumers,” said Gauri Pradhan, former commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission. “The government should inform the court if it is not able to do things in time.”
Lawmakers, civil society leaders and the National Human Rights Commission should pile pressure to make things happen to ensure that consumers get quality food, according to him.
The constitution has guaranteed consumer protection as a fundamental right. Under this provision, the new act has outlined the creation of consumer courts under a district judge and with two government officials as members to arbitrate cases related to consumer rights.
“The government has not started any work yet. This shows how sensitive the government is about protecting consumer rights,” said Bishnu Prasad Timilsina, general secretary of the Forum for Protection of Consumer Rights-Nepal. "The Supreme Court has ordered the government to establish consumer courts in each of the seven provinces, but it has not done so.”
According to Timilsina, who is also a consumer lawyer, the government needs to prepare a draft regulation and submit it to the Supreme Court.
“It should also arrange infrastructure to establish the court and allocate a budget for it. No progress has been made on the infrastructure, human resources or budget," Timilsina told the Post. “The provincial governments are equally responsible for setting up consumer courts.”
As consumers don't want to get involved in complex court cases, particularly at the Supreme Court, unscrupulous traders have been emboldened, observers say. Once consumer courts are established, it will be easier to file complaints and there will be fewer hassles, according to them.
"Consumer courts will handle consumer-related cases and pass judgments speedily as the civil courts are inundated with myriad cases. Consumer courts assure the hearing of consumer rights in particular,” said Timilsina said. "Delaying the establishment of consumer courts will prevent timely decisions, which will hurt the victims.”
Food adulteration, sale and distribution of expired food, cheating on price and quantity and fraud with counterfeit products are widespread in Nepal, and they are on a rising trend.
The Department of Food Technology and Quality Control said that in the last fiscal year they received 91 complaints about trademark infringement, compared to 75 complaints in the previous fiscal year.
The quality watchdog had filed three cases in the last fiscal for selling and distributing adulterated honey and relabelling expired food packages.
The biggest fraud was the sale of “duplicate” honey. In January, the Metropolitan Crime Division arrested Naresh Shrestha of Sindhupalchok for producing and selling fake honey.
Police also confiscated 600 kg of the bogus product which he had made by mixing glucose and sugar. For a long time, Shrestha had been distributing his duplicate honey to wholesale and retail markets, including hotels and restaurants in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Pokhara.
In February, police raided Sparsh Food Products and Packaging Company at Sunakothi in Lalitpur which makes bread and cookies. According to the police, the factory was using expired bakery products which could cause serious health issues.
Cases related to unfair trade practices are filed at the District Court or the District Administration Offices, which involves lengthy administrative procedures and bureaucratic hassles.
“To get quality food is the fundamental right of the people,” said Pradhan, the former commissioner at the national rights body. “Adulteration and other market anomalies are sensitive issues that should be accorded a high priority because it risks human health, which is a violation of human rights.”