Putting consumer protection in its place

Sucheta Dalal writes that Sahara Airlines diverted its planes for the Sahara family wedding leaving the passengers out cold.

The latest example of how the air travellers’ romance with private airlines received a severe jolt last week with the twin weddings at the Sahara parivar. As the only group without any profit pressure mounted the most surreal orgy of ostentation, its airline schedule was sent on a spin and paying passengers spent hours cooling their heels at airports around the country.

Anywhere else in the developed world, such deliberate delays and diversions would have been immediately compensated if the airline hoped to retain consumer loyalty and avoid expensive litigation. In India, angry passengers can fight it out at consumer courts, but with little prospect of being able to collect any proof that delays were caused due to the wedding festivities of ‘Managing Worker’ Subroto Roy’s sons. [The Indian Express]

She raises a larger question of whether industry regulators are taking sufficient measures to protect the interests of consumers. She argues that since the judicial system is slow and overburdened the regulators should step in to protect consumers.

This is dangerous and counterproductive in the long term.

Firstly, the judiciary remains constitutionally charged with the responsibility of dispensing ‘justice’. Even if the regulator is given the responsibility to decide on consumer matters, its decisions are always subject to challenge at courts of law. Therefore getting the regulator to enhance its role as a resolver of consumer disputes will only draw out the process.

Secondly, independent industry regulators may not be able to uniformly interpret similar complaints across different industries. This could result in a travesty where an airline passenger’s plea for refund is handled differently from that of a telecom subscriber. The advantage of generalist civil courts is their ability to apply general principles to specific cases…a process called rule of law.

Thirdly, getting an industry regulator to get into complaints raised by millions of individual consumers in a large, noisy democracy will only weaken its efficiency in handling its key role as a body that makes and implements industry policy. Yes, the regulator must certainly ensure that its policies and regulations are designed to protect consumer interest; but their interpretation should be left to the judiciary.

There is an urgent need is to retune the judicial system to the meet the needs of an ‘accelerating India’. Many rules and practices of the Indian judiciary are antiquated – they still take long ‘summer breaks’ following the example of the colonial British judges who could’nt take the heat (no pun intended). The judiciary could perhaps beef up its small claims courts and its consumer disputes courts first to tackle this problem.

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