CONSUMER’S RIGHT TO CHOICE: A VIEW
Choice is something one gets used to, which is why it is a sensitive issue. Choice with out information is not a real choice. But the crucial questions are what sort of information is appropriate, how much and given by whom.
Right to choice lies at the centre of the idea of consumerism. Choice is inextricable linked up with morality notions of right and wrong, good and evil. Choice is something one gets used to, which is why it is a sensitive issue. As individuals everyone likes to believe that they have choices, even if they may not be exercising those choices The last thing people will surrender, when everything else is lost, is the right to make choice. The concept of choice will become meaningful only when it is accompanied by information. It should be noted that choice without information is not a real choice.
WHAT IS RIGHT TO CHOICE?
Right to choice can be regarded as an assurance, wherever possible, of availability, ability and access to a variety of goods and services at competitive prices, and to consume them in a sustainable manner. Apart from this, the right to choice is also important with respect to the provision of commodities and services where competition is not possible and government regulation is supreme. In this case, the right to choice means assurance of satisfactory quality at fair price. In strict economic terms , their right to choice is justified by the equity principle. However, this right is also related to the efficiency principle unless there are efficient production and distribution systems consumers will have little or no access to choose between alternatives.
EFFECTS OF GLOBALIZATION AND LIBERALIZATION ON RIGHT TO CHOICE
Globalization and liberalization policies in the last eighteen years have changed the contours of consumer demand for goods and services The consumer now expects the domestic producers to supply him/her quality goods and services at 'globally competitive prices' The trade liberalization in the area of consumer goods has allowed the consumer to exert his / her power of right choice. It is being experienced in recent years that consumer goods imports are flooding the Indian market and the Indian manufactures producing similar goods have either had to close down or have had to sell their sheds or had to sell their ownership rights. This kind of situation could give rise to a possible oligopolistic market in the future wherein the consumer might be stripped off his right to choose or would have the opportunity to honour his right but under the dictated price structures of the producers
One may be tempted to say that the right to choice is the basis of laissez-faire (free market) economics. The answer to this query can be both negative as well as affirmative. This ambiguity is due to the erroneous interpretation of the fundamental theorem of welfare economics. The correct interpretation of the fundamental theorem lies in its assumptions. The fundamental assumption is that individuals are to act within certain societal norms and regulations. Consumer's Welfare needs to be maximized within the boundaries of such norms and regulations. In the context of the right to choice, such norms and regulations are provided in the UN Guidelines.
THE UN GUIDELINES ON RIGHT TO CHOICE
The Guidelines, under the section on protection of consumers' economic interests, have stated the objectives behind the right to choice. It has sated that the Government policies should enable the consumers to obtain optimum benefit from their economic resources as well as intensify their efforts to prevent practices which are damaging to the economic
interests of consumers by ensuring the manufacturers, distributors and others involved in the provision of goods and services adhere to established laws and mandatory standards. Similarly it has stated that the government should develop strengthen and maintain the measures relating to the control of restrictive and other abusive business practices, which may be harmful to consumers, including means for the enforcement of such measures. The guidelines also pin point the need for encouraging fair and effective competition in order to provide consumers with the greatest range of choice among products and services at lowest costs. It suggests that the promotional marketing and sales practices should be guided by the principle of fair treatment of consumers and should meet legal requirements and encourage the free flow of accurate information on all aspects of consumer products.
POLICY OF GOVERNMENT OF INDIA:
In India the Government's policy with respect to the right to choice can be divided into two broad parts. Firstly, the Constitution's various provisions directly and indirectly relate to the objective of the right to choice. Secondly, various Acts (and related administrative measures), are enacted by both the Central and the State Governments. The right to choice inherently relates to secure and protect the welfare of the people, as very often development is also referred to as enlarging people's choice. In other words, this right is one of the basic pillars of a democratic State.
The preamble to the Indian Constitution adopts, enacts and promises to secure for all its citizens social, economic and political justice and also liberty of thought and expression. The right to choice cannot be maintained unless there are justice and liberty, i.e. the adherence to norms and regulations. Under the chapter on Directive Principles of State Policy (Chapter VI), Article 38(1), it is the duty of the State to promote the welfare of the people by Securing and protecting as effectively as it can, a social order in which justice shall govern all the institutions of national life.
Apart from these legislative (though not justifiable in a Court of Law) provisions, certain Acts have been passed by the Union Government to secure, protect and enable consumers to exercise their right to choice. Such Act/Laws can be broadly divided into three sections those regulating business, those relating to compensation/redress, and the general laws. The Essential commodities Act ( ECA), 1955 provides to disadvantaged consumers access to essential commodities, and also plays the role of 'checks and balances' on marketing of essential commodities. The Standards of Weights and Measures Act, 1976 ensures that certain commodities can be sold only in certain measures or weights. This Act also appends rules regarding the sale of packaged commodities.
The aforesaid analysis makes it clear that in India the government seems to be sincere in ensuring the consumers' right to choice. But the proper implementation of the regulations remains a serious issue. The new economic policy has opened a floodgate of consumer products in the market without an effective regulatory mechanism. In such a situation, consumers are saddled with the problem of choosing between too many products with too less information. This is the situation where consumers need effective regulatory institutions for supplying of reliable information, which remains a far cry. The role of the bureaucracy in enforcing consumers' right to choice is often miss-construed.
DRAWBACKS OF THE SYSTEM:
It should be noted that even though very effective legislative provisions are there in India with respect to consumer's right to choice they are not properly implemented. The inadequate implementation of these laws is due to several factors. The major factor is that of limited information about the products. The situation is further aggravated by the absence of effective regulatory mechanism, both in product as well as in utility sectors. Often people have preconceived notions regarding the outcome of any decision process. The Indian industry is mostly engaged in price competition and not on quality competition. The lack of knowledge on the part of consumers has also contributed towards the ineffective implementation of legislative provisions.
From the above analysis, it has been observed that though in certain parameters we have been able to improve the situation, the attainment of "choice based on information" remains only a slogan and still seems to be a distant dream. In order to improve the situation, it is necessary to adopt a comprehensive and need based choice policy at the national (Macro) level. The objective should be clearly mentioned in the policy which should be aimed at the removal of constraints and ensuring fair play in business. Similarly correct information about the products should be provided by ensuring the removal of misleading advertisements. To improve the situation further, The government should take all the measures to make available unlimited goods through an effective regulatory mechanism to protect, enforce and execute the policies in such a way that consumer welfare is maximized.
There is no doubt that the consumer's right to choice is a fundamental right for citizens to live with dignity in civil society. In India, though this right has not been enshrined in the chapters on fundamental rights, it has been spelt out quite clearly in the chapters on Directive Principles of State Policy. The problem is not that of lack of effective legislative provisions in India for ensuring the consumers' right to choice, but their failure to implement. Unless the public machinery is geared properly to combat this menace the consumers will be left at the mercy of business.
1. Constitution of India. 2. Mehta, Pradeep S (1992), From Caveat Emptor to Caveat Vendor, in Consumers in the Global Age. 3. Proceedings of International Conference on Consumer Protection, New Delhi, India, 2224 January. 4. Yiannis and Timlang ( 1995), The Unmanageable Consumer: Contemporary consumption and its Fragmentation, Sage Publication, London. 5. Chakravarty, Sukhamoy ( 1986), Development Planning: The Indian Experience, Oxford University Press.