The victimisation of consumers by some form of negligent or shoddy dealings is a common problem not just in Bangladesh but across the world. Often a common feature of this sort of practice by businesses is that the individual victim may not have sufficient incentive to seek redress from the court of law. A consumer would be simply unlikely to have a stake significant enough to fight a full-blown court battle needing the investment of substantial time and money. There is also a concern about the disproportionate clout between individual consumer victim and big businesses. Hence, often the Parliament provides for a quasi-judicial procedure for protecting the rights of consumers which is simpler, expeditious, and cost-effective. The quasi-judicial procedure may also reduce (though not dispel) the gap in the clout between big businesses and individual consumers. In Bangladesh too, the Consumer Rights Protection Act, 2009 has been passed for protecting the rights of consumers. In a bid to incentivise consumers, Section 76 of the Act provides that when an individual consumer would lodge a complaint and be successful in proving it, the person would be awarded twenty-five per cent of any fine that is imposed on the concerned business entity. This write-up will seek to advocate the modification of a public reporting practice associated with the operation of this law.
Since September 2014, (though there was a hiatus for around 16 months and it again commenced in January, this year) the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection (DNCRP) is publishing press releases on its market monitoring activities and the various public hearings on complaints lodged by consumers, conducted in its head office in Dhaka and the regional offices across the country. As of 18 December 2016, there are 232 press releases available on the DNCRP's Website. These releases give a snapshot of the daily enforcement measures of the DNCRP: the inspections conducted by the officials of the DNCRP and the sanctions imposed on the businesses found to violate the law and the sanctions imposed upon investigation of complaints lodged by consumers.
There is no doubt that the press releases of the DNCRP may play a role in apprising the interested members of the public about the monitoring activities of the DNCRP and settlement of complaints lodged by consumers. However, a closer scrutiny of the press releases would reveal that in their current form, they are too unsystematic, sketchy, and would have a limited value. First and foremost, the press releases only contain a very brief summary of the reasons for imposing fines on the concerned businesses. If one wants to know about the record of a particular business entity, the only way for one is to sift through the hundreds of individual press releases which would be a very time-consuming task for individual consumers and day by day, the ever expanding number of press releases would make it even more time consuming. If there was a business-specific listing of the sanctions imposed and the reasons that triggered them, every interested consumer could have a readily accessible record of the various business entities. A simple list of sanctions inflicted on large businesses and the reasons for the sanctions may go a long way in apprising the consumers of the unfair practices by these businesses. If this happens, the concern for goodwill could surely then push them to get their act together.
It is also probable that media and researchers could use systematically presented business-entity specific data to inform the public and conduct thorough research. Such reports and studies could give more insight on the type of malpractices and play a role in raising greater awareness among the consumers which could potentially give impetus to a more active role by consumers. Even the policy makers could have used such reports for further legal and policy interventions.
Of course, regarding the preparation of a business-entity specific list, there may be a budgetary concern. However, there may be an easy way out to redress that concern. In particular, for a start, the business-establishment specific information may be limited to only large businesses. For example, the large businesses may include incorporated entities with a threshold of minimum paid-up capital or the number of staff employed or the number of outlets etc. or any combination of these. This would mean that only errant practices by specific type of businesses of sizeable presence would come under a closer, readily-available scrutiny. This, of course, is not to say that the practices of small businesses are more ethical or have no public importance. However, from a logistical point of view, a selective list of businesses may be a sensible starting point. Again, small businesses (excluding those selling services) are often only or pre-dominantly sellers and generally, the impact of their malpractices may not be as prominent as that of the large businesses would be. And, resources permitting, the distinction between small and large businesses may, in future, be easily dispensed with.
The writer is an Associate Professor at School of Law, BRAC University.