Promoting consumers’ interests

Before declaring the national budget every year, the finance minister in his pre-budget consultations–as has been the practice for some years– can be expected to meet with representatives of different interest groups to get their views and recommendations for possible consideration and incorporation in the budget.
The business community is seen specially active on these occasions to get their suggestions favourably acted upon and they usually are found considerably successful in these efforts. Thus, the producers and sellers get the opportunity to be heard by the government on the eve of the declaration of the national budget which is very important for all kinds of production and selling activities involving the producers, the financiers, the distributors and others in the entire business chain.
But the consumers or the preponderant number of people in the country who are to consume the products and services of businesses are not seen similarly consulted. This, on the one hand, reflects the weaknesses of whatever consumer organisations there are in the country and, on the other, government’s callous attitude towards consumers’ interests.
This is very undesirable because proper economic management essentially calls for giving a boost to right type of not only production activities but equally, the consumption activities. The productive efficiency or allocative efficiency of resources in an economy is determined not only by how goods or services are produced but whether these can effectively satisfy the maximum demand of consumers at prices they can afford as well as meeting consumers’ expectation in respect of quality or safety of the products and services.
If consumers are persuaded by lack of regulation and information or misinformation to consume more demerit goods that provide no social benefits or negligible such benefits but create high costs to society from their consumption, then hardly the goals of positive consumption are attained. Consumption should be more and more in areas that generate much greater social benefits than costs so that the economy can grow in the right direction or the right economic growth can be sustained.
Powerful consumers’ groups in many countries act as a go between the producers and the government and contribute to government’s policy formulation so that consumers’ interests as well as the best interests of the national economy are promoted. The absence of such groups in Bangladesh or their presence in rather feeble form has meant inadequate representation of consumers’ interests . But that does not absolve the government of its responsibility to act on its own and doing its best to safeguard the interest of consumers because this is not only highly desirable from the perspective of consumers but also very necessary for the economy’s efficient functioning to ensure best utilisation of resources or maximising their value.
Specific laws have been in existence to uphold consumers’ interests but the same are weak in their provisions and bite and, therefore, the need for a comprehensive and tougher consumer protection law was felt long ago. The irony is that such a law was also drafted probably more than a decade ago and several times it was made known that it would be introduced in parliament and approved. But even the introduction of it in parliament was delayed for very long for unknown reasons. Probably the producers’ lobby was active to withhold the passing of this law which they feared would create compulsions on them to take much greater care as regards the quality, price and safety of their products.
Only a few years ago, the comprehensive consumer protection law was finally approved in parliament that created a great deal of expectation among consumers. They were inspired by a feeling that perhaps from that time they would be able to get appropriate redress for their grievances. But even after some years of the passage of this law which was earlier visualised as the panacea for the consumers in all respects, they are yet to find any practical use of the new legislation. It exists in name only lacking the tools for its enforcement.
No one knows, for instance, to whom the complaints of the consumers should be lodged or how the same would be taken up for investigation and the manner in which offending producers or distributors would compensate the consumers or be penalised for their offences. Thus, only having a legislation on paper without the mechanisms to enforce it adequately and effectively, is proving like a big joke for the consumers. Consumers are really facing mockery in the name of promoting their interests. The time that passed since the coming into force of this law has been not too small a period to get the mechanisms or institutions in place to be able to enforce the crucial consumer protection act to which is pegged so much of the aspirations of the teeming millions of consumers in the country.
Government would indeed do best to realise the depths of people’s eagerness to benefit from this act and should, therefore, take steps on very urgent basis to ensure its widespread and effective enforcement at the fastest.