I assume there is hardly anyone amongst us who has never felt cheated after buying a product or taking a service in exchange for money. On many occasions, I have felt that I was overcharged for the food items I bought from the local bazaar because I never found the price list hung anywhere. I was often overcharged for a bottle of water or the carbonated drinks at restaurants. Many times, I felt that the money I paid for a particular service was completely unreasonable given how unsatisfactory the service was.
Last year, I went to one of the reputed private hospitals in the city to see a doctor for my knee pain. I paid Tk 1,200 as visiting fee. After listening to my problems, the doctor said I needed physiotherapy, so he directed me to the physiotherapy room. Having paid Tk 2,000 for physiotherapy and after around half an hour of wait, I was called inside by a young woman. As I entered the curtained area, the woman handed me a paper where a set of exercises were shown in pictures. She took hardly three minutes to show me the exercises. And that was it. Being extremely disappointed at their service, I wanted to complain to the authorities. I wrote a one-page complaint and put it in the complaint box, as directed by the receptionist. She (the receptionist) told me that the people in charge of looking into the complaints would call me the next day to listen to my grievances. I waited. But no one called.
Just a few days before last Eid, when I came across the news of someone filing a complaint with the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection (DNCRP) against a popular fashion brand in the country, for discrepancies in pricing labels of two similar products, I suddenly became aware of the fact that I have been totally clueless about protecting my rights as a consumer all these years. The complaint against the Uttara outlet was that it charged Tk 1,315 for a panjabi on May 31 which was sold at Tk 730 on May 25. As the DNCRP found the allegations to be true, it slapped a fine of Tk 4.5 lakh on the outlet. Later, the fashion brand also admitted that the price tags were wrongly placed.
The events that followed took the social media by storm. When within 24 hours of the DNCRP’s drive at the said outlet, the magistrate who led the drive was transferred outside Dhaka (although later his transfer order was cancelled), people on Facebook started expressing their grievances against the fashion brand, which, according to many, has been charging exorbitantly high prices for their products. Some even urged the consumers to boycott the brand altogether. There were also people who expressed their views in favour of the brand, with good intentions and logic, of course.
For me, the incident was an eye-opener. Although I had some idea about DNCRP and their activities, I had very little knowledge about the procedures through which a cheated consumer can lodge complaints against any shops or service providers. Sadly, I am not the only one. There are many among us who do not have any knowledge about laws on consumer rights.
In order to protect the rights of the consumers and to prevent anti-consumer rights practices, the Consumers’ Rights Protection Act, 2009 was formulated which came into force in 2010. Under this Act, some of the anti-consumer rights practices were identified as: “to sell or offer to sell any goods, medicine or service at a higher price than the fixed price; to sell or offer to sell adulterated goods or medicine knowingly; to sell or offer to sell any goods containing any ingredient which is extremely injurious to human health and the mixing of which with any food item is prohibited under any Act or rules; to deceive consumers by untrue or false advertisement for the purpose of selling any goods or services; not to sell or deliver properly any goods or services promised to sell or deliver in consideration of money; to sell or deliver less [sic] quantity of goods than the weight offered to the consumers while delivering or selling any goods; to make or manufacture any fake goods or medicine; to sell or offer to sell goods or medicine the date of which has expired; or to do an act which may endanger life or security of the consumer and which is prohibited by any Act or rules.”
Consumers can file complaints with the DNCRP under this Act if any of their rights mentioned above are violated. For example, if healthcare professionals, hospitals and clinics take exorbitant prices for their services, or the patients’ rights are violated in any way, they can file complaints. Similarly, when the ride-sharing services hike their fares indiscriminately during holidays and rush hours, the affected passengers can also file complaints. Recently, the Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB) has introduced a call centre for the consumers to file complaints. If a complaint is proved to be true after investigation, there is also the scope for the complainant to get awarded a fourth of the realised fine (penalty) slapped on businesses for violation.
Speaking to an official of the DNCRP recently, about my experience at the hospital, I learned that I could actually lodge a complaint under this Act for not getting a satisfactory service from the hospital, but it should have been done within 30 days of the incident. What I needed was give them, in writing, detailed information about what happened to me.
So the Act, in fact, is very effective despite having some drawbacks: for example, under this Act, a cheated consumer cannot directly lodge any criminal suit against anyone. Also, many of the areas where violations are rampant have not been included in the law. The Act needs to have specific guidelines to deal with the issue of medical negligence and the negligent healthcare institutions. Also, the government needs to finalise the draft amendments to the Act to extend its vicinity for the greater protection of the consumers.
In the last few months, we have often come across news of food adulteration in the media. Essential food items such as milk and poultry have been found to be contaminated with numerous types of antibiotics, harmful bacteria and other elements. Very recently, date expired medicines were found in 93 percent pharmacies of the capital where the DNCRP has conducted drives.
Although there are different agencies and government bodies including DNCRP, Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB), Bangladesh Standard Testing Institute (BSTI) to deal with these issues, the consumers themselves should also be aware of their rights and do whatever they can at the individual level, because individual efforts to fight against anti-consumer rights practices can go a long way to prevent such corrupt practices.
At the time of writing this article, I came to know from a news report that DNCRP has taken action against a resort in Gazipur, after a consumer had filed complaints against them a few months ago for poor service, bad behaviour and for making false advertisement of their services. This incident will surely send a signal to other corrupt businesses who are regularly violating consumers’ rights without having to face any action.
Naznin Tithi is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.