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November 8, 2003 

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Consumers' voice to be raised more

Quazi Faruque

A big event on consumers' rights ended just two weeks back (in the middle of September 2003) in Lisbon, Portugal. Consumers' advocates and activists from all over the world gathered in their 17th world congress. Over 600 consumer leaders from 110 countries attended the congress. They participated in the series of workshops, discussion meetings etc. and took decision to make the consumer voice more strong. In the inaugural speech of the congress president Jorge Sampaio of Portugal called for responsible sustainable consumption. He said, 'who better than the organised consumers' can act against the threat that harm human rights and health'? He specially focused to a more sustainable future and stressed on the need to be responsible to find ways for protecting public assets and to integrate economic, social and environmental concerns.

However, this years congress theme was- 'The future of Consumer Protection.' It is an exaggeration to say that 'Consumers are kings.' Of course in our country it is not maintained. Rather the sellers are the kings. And most of the time consumers face mis behaviour of the sellers at the time of buying, at the time of bargaining. This has almost become a part of culture of the sellers community specially in our country. This practice can be only stopped by uniting the voice of the consumers. In this regard, consumers organisation can ply a vital role. But consumers from all levels are to be made aware of their rights and responsibilities properly. As our consumers most of the cases are far from awareness, their voices are still weak in comparison to vested interest groups. And they are being deprived of their rights by the unscrupulous business community in everyday life.

We all know that this is an age of globalisation, open market economy and trade liberalisation where consumers are the deciding force to accept or reject the commodities or services whatever that may be. In that case with the consumer organisations the Govt. related trade bodies like chambers have also the responsibilities. So far I know the apex body of the Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industries (FBCCI) has a separate cell on consumer protection. But I never found them working. We should remember the time goes fast as the science and technology is getting advanced rapidly. Since this is an age of globalisation we should look everything in the global context, present perspective. At the Consumers Internation (C.I) World Congress in Lisbon, what Director General Julian Edward said that is very much true. He told that consumers allover the world face different problems. One of the themes that came from congress was that globalisation affects everywhere, including the developing world. So it is essential that an organisation like C.I. should be just global in its leadership and strategies. In this context I want to depict the picture of C.I in brief for the clear conception of the respectable readers.

Consumers Internation (C.I) was founded in 1960 by a small group of national organisations seeking to build upon their individual strengths by working across national borders. Rapidly recognised as the voice of the international consumers movement, Consumers International remains dedicated to the protection and promotion of consumers' rights and interests world wide through institution building, education, research and lobbying of international decision making bodies.

In 2002 C.I had a membership of 271 organisations in 113 countries. By this time it has increased. Three quarter of the C.I members are NGOs, the rest are Govt. agencies, standard setting bodies and other public interest groups. Some 60 percent of C.I members come from developing countries and 40 percent developed or transition economies. The Consumers Internation is governed by an 18 member council and eight member Executive Committee. The president and council are elected by C.I's General Assembly during its World Congress which is held every three years. It's a movement oriented organisation to protect the rights of the consumers raising their voice. But it is true that to protect the rights of the consumers, legal instrument of the Individual Country is very much needed that is consumer Rights Protection Act till to-day which is absent in our country. Of course the draft consumer rights protection Act is at the final stage. We guess it will go to the Cabinet after final approval in the Cabinet meeting and then to the parliament after necessary vetting.

It is also to be mentioned here that only consumer rights protection Act will not serve the purpose. Side by side competition policy and law for fair competition is very much essential at this stage of globalisation and trade liberalisation. Where markets operate freely and effectively, completion encourages firms to improve productivity, reduce prices and innovate thus rewarding consumers with wider choice, lower prices and higher quality. Competition policy and law are the tools that help bring about efficient working markets. They help alleviate market failures. Developing countries needed to adopt competition policy and law. Virtually two sets of factors account for this. The first one relates to the liberalisation of trade and it encourages foreign investment and privatisation of state owned enterprises that many developing countries have embarked on. Reliance on a more free market arrangement means that competition policy and law become necessary. A second set of factors relate to the external pressure being exerted on these countries. Amongst the conditionalities imposed by international financial institutes like International Monitory Fund (IMF) is one that required loan recipients to adopt competition law. Further competition comes though regional and bilateral agreements. Since the World Trade Organisation (WTO) come into existence there has been even greater pressure.

At the Singapore Ministerial of 1996, competition got formal mention. The Doha Ministerial of 2001 went further. The Doha Declaration recognised the case for multilateral framework to enhance the contribution of competition policy to international trade and agreed 'that negotiations will take place after the fifth session of the Ministerial Conference on the basis of a decision to be taken by explicit consensus at that session on modulations of negotiations.' Now the Cancun conference is over and it is the time to work on it.

However, it is estimated that out of 146 countries of the WTO, 90 member countries have already implemented or put in place competition policy and law that is more then one third of the member countries do not have any experience on formulating and implementing the competition law. They have yet to workout a policy and law best suited to their own needs. So far I believe today or tomorrow consumer rights protection Act which is almost at the final stage will get passed. But at the same time the need of competition policy and law is also urgently needed.

Quazi Faruque is General Secretary of Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB).

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