There was a time, not long ago, when the issue of consumer rights didn't seem to demand much attention in our society largely because consumers at large were not either aware that such rights do constitute an important legal stake in the marketplace or they considered unfair market practices part of the game they could do little about it. The situation has changed a lot over the years. The ever increasing wrongs and malpractices taking heavy toll on the consumers in all conceivable forms and manners do make a strong point for the consumers to be aware of the rights they are legitimately entitled to.
It is on this worrisome note that the much awaited Consumer Rights Protection Act got enacted in Parliament way back in 2009. Enacting the law was a good thing to start with in as much as it defined and stipulated wrongdoings in the marketplace providing for legal protection of the consumers. The scope of such law is wide-ranging in that it is not just the price and quality of products that are the key determinants for intervention but it spans across the entire production and marketing processes including among others product advertisements meant to attract buyers. Now that the law is in place, growing from long-pursued moves from various quarters of the civil society, it has unfortunately turned out to be no more than a pious intent -- rendered ineffective by the absence of appropriate mechanism to discipline the marketplace and thus safeguard consumers' interest.
It is obvious that protecting the rights of the consumers necessitates more than enacting a law. Consumer protection, in its broader sense, refers to the laws and regulations that ensure fair interaction between service providers and consumers. A consumer protection framework generally includes introduction of greater transparency and awareness about the goods and services, promotion of competition in the marketplace, prevention of fraud, education of customers and elimination of unfair practices.
Hence, to bring these into practice in a visible manner, the only instrument the government has to resort to is a well designed and efficient institutionalised mechanism. Unfortunately, after a lapse of more than eight years since the passage of the law, there is no effective mechanism to take care of the rights and interests of the consumers in the country. This is not to say that there has not been any institutional set-up as yet. The government has set up the Directorate of Consumer Rights Protection in line with the key provisions of the Consumer Rights Protection Act (CRPA) 2009. But as most observers will agree, setting up of the directorate has, till date, made no impression on the situation of consumer rights in the country. Newspaper reports say, function of the organisation, since its inception, is mostly confined to receiving complaints. The CRPA that led to the creation of the directorate has not clearly spelt out the precise areas it is to address and how. This, experts opine, has bestowed an indistinct administrative role upon the directorate. The directorate is also not adequately empowered to direct specific state agencies to carry out activities as and when necessary, nor has it been given sufficient institutional capacity to develop a specialised manpower for market-monitoring and supervision. Rampant violation of consumers' interest over the years goes to squarely point to the inadequacies of enforcement, largely due to the lack of precise and concrete methods of application in the CRPA.
Given the prevailing indiscipline and gross violation of even the basics of fair business operations in many fields, there can be no denying that at present consumer rights situation in Bangladesh is more shocking than perhaps it ever was. The voice of the consumers as a stakeholder in the market is too feeble to be heard. Consumers have no choice but to buy fake, poor quality goods ranging from vegetables sprayed with pesticides, cosmetics containing toxic chemicals and counterfeit drugs with no medicinal value. The endemic problem of formalin and chemical-treated fruits and vegetables is there also. These, no doubt, constitute gross violation of not only the consumers' rights but pose threats to their lives.
Redressing the problems is indeed challenging; but now that the all important law is in place and a designated authority has been created to work on the problems, one must not be deluded into believing that these are just acts of wish fulfilment. However, to demonstrate the government's commitment in the matter, there is the urgent need to sit up and devise proactive action plans as well as arrange for required manpower, logistics and enforcement mechanism for implementation of the law.
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