The people of Sri Lanka got together on January 8 to send a repressive government home. Now it is time they get together to demand their rights as consumers. Though Sri Lanka is the first country to recognise and enact consumer laws in Asia, the country doesn’t have any consumer protection movement or a proper government body with adequate powers to protect consumer rights.
The new government and its interim budget brought in a number of concessions. Starting from a significant cut in fuel prices, the concessions were extended to major tax cuts on certain goods and services. Taxes on 13 identified food items were significantly reduced while levies on building materials such as cement and steel were deducted. But the question at large is how much of these reliefs were passed on to the people?
The general price levels in the market have not come down relatively to the relief extended by the government. This is done by traders on various pretexts such as old stock, suppliers not reducing prices etc. The prices of bakery products, excluding bread, which is strangely regulated, have not gone down compared to the reduction in wheat flour prices. Despite a significant Rs.30 per litre cut in petrol, the three-wheeler charges have not come down. It is the same with cement and so many other goods. So what has gone wrong?
A former Consumer Affair Authority (CAA) Chairman recently said the Act under which his institution was formed, has no teeth. CAA is the only consumer interest protection body the country has. With the limited power and the resources the CAA has, it cannot do much to protect the rights of the consumers.
In the meantime the lack of awareness also stands in the way. Many Sri Lankan consumers have no idea about their rights when they make a purchase. A passive mindset is largely apparent among the Sri Lankan consumers not to question about the goods and services they pay for. This has allowed the producers and traders to sell any product—even if it’s substandard or unhealthy—without any fear.
In Sri Lanka’s history there hasn’t been a single case noteworthy to mention where a victimised consumer received a notable compensation from a trader or a goods and services provider. Most of the times, customer complaints in Sri Lanka, fall into deaf ears.
In USA, UK, European Union and Japan, the customer is really the king, as the saying goes. These countries have strong consumer protection authorities and the public as consumers are mostly well aware of their rights. They also have consumer protection movements by which to lobby and exert pressure if the state-led consumer authorities are not doing enough.
The concept of civil society organisation to safeguard citizens’ rights is not very popular in Sri Lanka. But the country now has a glimmer of hope. During the presidential election civil society organisations played an extremely proactive role. Therefore, an extension of this proactive role towards consumer protection will undoubtedly be invaluable.