Consumer Protection is a concept that was first introduced by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States on 15th March 1962. He spoke about this concept in a special speech to the Congress. His speech stressed protecting the consumer’s interest. Kennedy also spoke about the four basic rights of the consumer, namely:
- Right to Safety
- Right to be Informed
- Right to be Heard
- Right to Choose.
His discussion sparked a deliberation and subsequent legislation to protect consumers. 15th March is celebrated as World Consumer Rights Day, taking inspiration from Kennedy.
Another important name in the international sphere while discussing consumer protection is Ralph Nader. He is the author of the book “Unsafe at Any Speed” which indicates the faulty design of automobiles. The book led to a series of landmark laws that have prevented multiple motor vehicle accidents thus curbing deaths and injuries. He revolutionized Consumer Protection in the United States of America.
In order to understand the development of consumer protection in India, it is important to trace the beginnings of the formation of the concept.
Ancient India witnessed the supremacy of the Vedas as a religious text, coming from God himself. The Vedas was strictly followed by the majority in the ancient Indian society.Apart from the Vedas, this period also gave rise to the Code of Chanakya, Manu Smriti, Narada Smriti and so on. These ancient codes contained provisions which sought to safeguard the interests of the consumer, with the aim of consumer safety. The punishment was also granted when the consumer-related provisions were gone against.
Among the Dharmas, the most authoritative texts are:
- Manu Smriti
- Yajnavalkya Smriti
- Narada Smriti
- Bruhaspati Smriti
- Katyayana Smriti.
Among these, Manu Smriti was the most influential.
Manu Smriti was all about the social, political and economic conditions of the society in the ancient times. It stressed on ethical trade practices, punishing those who were unfair to the consumers. Its prescribed code of conduct extended to adulteration as well, which is mixing of a commodity with another, resulting in impurity. All goods had a market price or a sale price, as set by the king. All weights and measures were inspected every six months, and the results of these inspections were kept a record of. Such efficient means of consumer protection has developed in such an early stage of settlement is noteworthy.
Kautilya’s Arthshastra clearly defined laws regulating weights and measures. A penalty was proposed traders who indulged in adulteration of goods namely grains, medicine, perfumes, salt and sugar. Arthashastra describes the role of the State in regulating trade and its duty to prevent crimes against consumers. Black marketing and unfair trade practices were strictly looked condemned by Kautilya. There were punishments prescribed for different types of cheating, which were stringent. These fines could be as severe as cutting off the cheater’s hand. The rights of the traders were also well protected by the Arthashastra.
The Arthashastra was created during Chandragupta’s period. This period witnessed healthy trade practices where traders were to possess a license to sell, which was given on permission. The king granted a margin of profit to sellers while fixing sale prices. The State was responsible for protecting the consumers against unfair prices and fraudulent transactions. Such acts were punishable, including smuggling and adulteration, especially of food.Consumers were ensured this protection by an easily accessible justice system through different sets of courts. Providing justice was the duty of the king.
A shift in the time period of India from ancient to medieval resulted in a focus on Islam as a religion and the laws of Islam. The Holy Quran, the main text of the Muslims, also stressed the protection of consumers.The Quran has verses that indicate that the use of unjust weights and measures is unacceptable. During the period of the Sultanate, local conditions determined the price of commodities. Hence, both the Hindu and the Muslim scriptures that were being used together by the kings of different states of India promoted consumer protection.
Like the Hindu texts, the Quran also contained various rules and regulations for protecting consumers from the unfair and unjust malpractices indulged in by sellers.During the rule of Alauddin Khalji, the market had been controlled by various injunctions and prescriptions. The king fixed prices of the grains. There was a strict price control mechanism implemented in the market. Different shopping areas were established for different goods, namely
- Cloth, sugar, butter, oil and so on
- Horses, slaves and cattle
- Miscellaneous commodities.
Shopkeepers were also punished for under weighing their goods.
In the modern period, the previous traditional legal systems established by Indian kings were replaced by new modern laws. The British introduced the English Common Law in India along with other legislative measures for the public and in turn, the consumers.
Some of these legislations are as follows:
- The Indian Contract Act, 1872
- The Sale of Goods Act, 1930
- Indian Partnership Act, 1932
- The Agricultural Produce(Grading and Marketing) Act, 1937
- The Drugs Act, 1940
- The Drugs and Cosmetic Act 1940
These legislations proved to be immensely effective in saving the interests of the consumers during the time of the British. The rules were now uniform across the country and not arbitrary to the opinions of the various kings of the Ancient and Medieval periods.
When India attained independence, it adopted the Anglo-Saxon system of administration of justice.Hence, the previous legislation that was established by the British continued to function in independent India.
Along with the existing legislation, the country was on its path to more laws through the creation of the Indian Constitution and its adoption in 1950. Due to the democratic nature of the Constitution, the prime focus of the laws was the benefit of the general public, who were also consumers.
Certain implications of the Indian Constitution that may apply to consumers are as follows:
Article 14 of the constitution implies equality before the law and equal protection of laws. This results in manufacturers, producers, traders, sellers and consumers having an equal position before the law.
Article 39 has two clauses, (b) and (c), according to which the state is bound to direct its policy to ensure the distribution of the ownership of the material resources of the society. This distribution should be done to serve the common good.
According to Article 43, the state must strive to develop an economic organization or to make legislation in order to secure a decent standard of life to all the workers.These workers are the ones who constitute the bulk of the consumers.
The new legislation enacted after Independence are as follows:
- The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954
- The Essential Commodities Act, 1955
- The Monopolistic Restrictive And Unfair Trade Practises Act, 1969
- The Standard of Weights And Measures Act, 1976
- The Bureau of Indian Standards Act, 1986
- The Consumer Protection Act, 1986
- The Trade Marks Act, 1999
- The Competition Act, 2002
The Consumer Disputes Redressal agencies- the National Commission, the State Commission, and the District Forum soon started working and has rapidly resulted in quick action taken against those who exploit the consumers.
The efficient justice system in the sphere of consumer protection that we see today is a resulted of all these previous developments that have taken place in the past. This advanced system and its roots must be appreciated.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Which kings were in support of consumer protection?
Both Hindu and Muslim kings were in favour of the protection of consumers. Chandragupta and Alauddin Khilji were two major supporters of consumer protection.
How are the British significant in our current consumer protection laws?
The British left behind various implemented legislation that is followed in India as laws till date. The biggest example is the Consumer Protection Act, 1986.
What are the Standards of Weights and Measures Act, 1976?
The Act aims to prevent underweight and under-numbered goods by ensuring that the accurate weight, measure and number of goods are sold as per the demand of the consumer.
What is the Indian Contract Act, 1872?
The Act defines a contract and establishes all the intricacies of entering into contracts. A breach of a contract will strictly be looked into, and punishment will be granted according to the terms of the contract or otherwise.
R.P. Kangle, The Kautiliya Arthasastra. Part III A Study 116 (2000)
S.R.Bakshi, Advanced History of Medieval India Vol. 1 287 (2003)