Rising petroleum product prices are the talk of the town today. As the state has imposed heavy fuel taxes, consumers complain that this is a visible violation of consumer rights.
But while the focus has been on oil prices, other aspects of consumer rights are being swept under the rug, say campaigners working in the sector. Jyoti Baniya, one of Nepal’s leading consumer rights activists, in this recent interview with Onlinekhabar on World Consumer Rights Day, said he presented several such examples.
Baniya, a lawyer and Chairperson of Forum for Consumer Rights Protection in Nepal and Chair of Nepal for Goal 12 of the SDGs, has worked in consumer rights since 1993, even before the concept was widely introduced in Nepal . With his education and experience in the field, he has made continuous efforts to raise awareness and be proactive in protecting their rights.
When you talk about consumer rights in Nepal, how aware do you think Nepalese people are of it?
It’s the bare minimum. If we look at the urban crowd, consumers are aware of consumer rights, at least what the term means, while rural crowds are not. However, neither is active when it comes to taking action against consumer rights violations. So, if we want to guarantee consumer rights, it is not enough to be aware of these rights; we must also act accordingly.
The realization can however be seen mainly in the recent price increases.
Consumer rights are violated in all aspects of the market. It is perceived in terms of the production and quality of goods and services, the evaluation of products, the proactivity of government or enforcement of the law.
Sellers are also not responsible for creating false and exaggerated advertisements that mislead consumers to buy the products.
What are the serious consumer rights issues in Nepal?
For me, it’s the rampant prices. The market is so unregulated that sellers demand outrageous prices for their goods and services. End users are paying so much more than they have to.
Let’s take an example of telephones. Where the rest of the world charges people for every second of use [1 sec=1 pulse]nepal charges people every 10 seconds at a time [10 secs=1 pulse]. So even if you don’t talk for 10 seconds, you end up paying all the time.
Legally, sellers are only allowed to charge up to 20% more than their cost price, including customs and travel costs. But, here, the cashew nuts that they import at Rs 400 per kg are sold at Rs 1,700 to 2,100, which is very unbalanced. Similarly, cars sold here cost double the price at customs points. But people still buy them.
But, don’t you think the state, not the traders, should have been blamed?
Yes, but ensuring the consumer rights of end users is also the responsibility of producers. Yet producers of goods and services are least concerned about the quality of the things they produce.
Standardization and metrology are two issues that have been a major concern in Nepal. Vendors use unequal weights and rigged (digital) scales to sell products to consumers. It is difficult for an individual to discover that he has been the victim of theft.
I agree that government authorities are the least bit worried about what is happening in the market. Managers are politicized and feel that market monitoring and evaluation is not their priority. Meanwhile, the Department of Supply Management and Consumer Protection does not even have the necessary human resources or budget to carry out the check.
Until a few years ago, the team used to conduct even random raids or surveillance routines and even take media personnel with them, giving them exposure and raising awareness. However, today, surveillance teams only respond to reports they receive. In addition, the government has weakened its oversight, following the Covid-19 situation, which has led to rampant price increases by sellers, further inconveniencing end users.
Meanwhile, if we look at the ever-increasing fuel prices, it’s also unfair to people. Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC) buys the fuel from the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) which was purchased for around six months at Rs 93 per litre. However, he is selling this at Rs 150 per litre, under the pretext of the mounting Ukrainian-Russian crisis. Despite this, he still claims he is at a loss. It’s irresponsibility on their part.
So how do you think the issues could be resolved?
People continue to be robbed or pay said amount because they do not know consumer rights and have no alternative to purchase.
According to the law, after the entry into force of the federal system, local units are required to set up a local market in accordance with the Provincial and Local Governance Support Program (PLGSP). So far, only Bagmati has succeeded in the program but he has not set up the market. Similarly, local level municipalities are not even advanced in the process.
But Nepal already has enough laws to run the market. Why are you still hopeless?
Nepal has a Consumer Protection Act 2018, which was first introduced in 1998. The Act guarantees the constitutional rights of every citizen to obtain quality goods and services, obtain information and to take legal action when their rights are violated. Although the law has been on paper for more than two decades, its implementation in all forms and ways has been kept to a bare minimum.
Protection of consumer rights only exists in theory, but not in practice, because consumers and sellers are not proactive. Consumers lack awareness. Sellers practice policies such as[goodsoldwillnotbereturnedandconsumersareacceptingitTheydonotknowitisagainstthelaw[lesmarchandisesunefoisvenduesneserontpasretournéesetlesconsommateursl’acceptentIlsnesaventpasquec’estcontraireàlaloi[goodsoncesoldwillnotbereturnedandconsumersareacceptingitTheydonotknowitisagainstthelaw
Sellers must take responsibility for providing quality products to consumers.
But perhaps the legal provisions are not enough. What do you think?
The law guarantees that any consumer whose rights have been violated has the right to obtain compensation. Likewise, it provides for fines ranging from Rs 100,000 to Rs 300,000 or imprisonment from three months to one year or both for violators of consumer rights. However, even with the growing awareness of consumer rights, violations go undetected and unreported. Of the total number of violations, perhaps only 2% are reported. The reports are also reported by the organization and really by the individuals.
I mean the legal provisions may be ineffective, but the biggest problem is public ignorance. This is because when violations are reported, the response from authorities is good.
For example, among the notable events, a Supreme Court verdict in favor of a woman who applied for a job in Israel. She filed a complaint against a health clinic that provided her with false reports without a proper health check which cost her her visa and her job. She was awarded compensation of Rs 600,000.
What can people do in the immediate future to deal with the problems?
First, people need to be aware of their rights. Then, they should not hesitate to ask the sellers the cost price of the products for them (the price they paid to buy them). The law says they can only charge 20% more than they pay for them, so if they don’t want to be robbed they have to be proactive. Asking for the invoice for the purchase is another thing to do.
In the event of a violation, they can approach the inspection officers to report such cases. They can also contact consumer rights organizations report it to Hello Sarkar and other stakeholders
Alongside consumers, government authorities must be proactive in building a systematic structure that benefits consumers, in accordance with the law. Overall, vendors, producers, and supply chain managers all need to be responsible for their parts.