Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"We the people . . . . ."

From the lost Constitution of 1973 to its current structure, all incumbents have been cutting holes with amendments to fortify their power. No effort has ever been made to consolidate the power of people. Never has there been any attempt to include the parts that protect consumer rights. Thus and so, the Constitution of Pakistan does not guard the consumer rights of the citizens of Pakistan. Implicitly, first come the rights of the citizens, and then comes the Constitution. If a constitution contains adequate procedures to protect rights, it can be legitimate even if it was not consented to by everyone; and one that lacks adequate procedures to protect human rights is unfair even if it was consented to by a majority.

Future is on our head with the concept of globalization that is changing the focus of governance. Instead of territory, human rights are now getting significance. And consumer rights happen to be the component of larger human rights program.

Consumer means people. By barely defining consumers as customers, we bar millions of citizens who due to lacking resources can’t buy. So consumers are citizens. Moreover, everybody has to consume to survive—consumption is a natural process for human survival. Thus, everyone is a consumer by default.

Consumers are the largest economic group in any country’s economy, affecting and affected by almost every public and private economic decision. But they are also the only important group that is not effectively organized, whose views are not heard. Therefore, the Government, the highest spokesman for all people, has a special obligation to the consumer’s needs.

The consumer rights have a universal significance as they symbolize the aspirations of the poor and disadvantaged. On this basis, the United Nations, in April 1985, adopted its Guidelines for Consumer Protection. They include: 1) the protection of consumers from hazards to their health and safety; 2) the promotion and protection of the economic interests of consumers; 3) access of consumers to adequate information to enable them to make informed choices according to individual wishes and needs; 4) consumer education on the environmental, social and economic impacts of consumer choice; 5) availability of effective consumer redress; and 6) freedom to form consumer and other relevant groups and the opportunity to present their views in decision-making processes affecting them.

No legislator, no political scientist, no intellectual, and no so-called constitutional expert ever provided a new, realistic and philosophically rigorous theory of constitutional legitimacy that justifies both translating the Constitution according to the needs of people and, where that need is vague or open-ended, construing it so as to better protect the rights of the people. Consequently, even the general principles defined by the UN could not be realized.

The consumer protection issues are seldom included in the agendas of utility service providers, most of which are in public sector. Consequently, the rights of poor Pakistanis are being trampled even by public sector organizations like WAPDA, Sui Gas, and PTCL, to mention a few. Little attention is given to consumer protection policies, and consumer friendly market structures, incentive regulation, tariff regimes, deregulation and competition.

Consumer issues can be chronicled even before partition under the colonial rule that established monopoly regimes, when consumers had no voice at all. Same structure was adopted after independence and it continues on and on disregarding the advent of competition, which has given rise to greater concern about consumer welfare. Hence the consumers in Pakistan today feel that they remain to be excluded from the decision-making process. They believe that they are still far off from the regulatory process that provides them no opportunity to influence or even overturn critical decisions. And so consumer perceptions and opinions about the marketplace scenario are depressing.

In Pakistan lack of choice among alternative service providers due to a single or dominant operator is making consumers vulnerable. They have no right, whatsoever, for intervention where dominant operators are protected by the government, where there is no quality of service performance requirements and where dominant operators are authorized to set tariffs without rationale and beyond reach of the majority.

An informed consumer is an empowered consumer. Regulators should make every effort to empower consumers. Specific educational mass-media campaigns are needed to educate consumers about their rights. School textbooks are another useful but neglected channel to educate consumers about their rights. Education is a powerful, albeit, long-term action to shape people’s attitudes about enforcing their rights as consumers.

Activities that regulators should consider in setting up the consumer agenda include: establishing customer services, creating mass awareness of consumer rights, enforcing those rights, creating nationwide offices to address consumer issues and offering dispute resolution systems.

India is getting a global reputation for the rapid development of its consumer movement. Today that is perhaps the only country in the world, which has exclusive courts for consumer redressal of grievances that too within 90 to 150 days. One of the greatest achievements of the Indian consumer movement is the enactment of the dynamic consumer law in 1986: COPRA. Coming 39 years after Independence, it has acknowledged the rampant consumer abuses, including those of the government owned public utilities like telephones, transport, power etc.

Pakistan does not have a cohesive national consumer policy. Neither it has a national consumer protection law. The Federal List in the Constitution does not include the issue of consumer protection. Perceptibly, the provinces also don’t have consumer protection laws. The federal capital promulgated a consumer protection law in 1995 but was never implemented. Since the State has not provided any protection mechanism that consumers could use to protect them, hence they feel very helpless. Controversial amendments or litigious issues aside, our legislators ought to think about people and at least give a national consumer protection law. (Click Asif J. Mir to view his professional profile)