By Sanjog Maheshwari
The recent developments culminating in the Delhi High Court'sorder staying the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission'sorder restraining private distcoms from charging consumers on the basis of their newly installed controversial electronic meters have taken away the hope for speedy justice from the thousands of harried customers unhappy with the abnormally fast spinning electronic meters. While the contentions of the distcoms? lawyer such as the Commission was wrong in taking suo motu cognizance of issues in this regard and the related matters will be subjected to due legal scrutiny and decisions will be taken at the proper legal forums, whatever little hope for light at the end of the tunnel there was for the harried consumers has been shattered; as it may turn out to be a long drawn and cumbersome legal battle. The chances of respite from the highly inflated electricity bills for about half of the electricity consumers of Delhi in the near future seem remote. (The other half luckily escaped the vicissitudes that visited their luckless brethrens as by then the public fury against the replacement of earlier electro-mechanical meters by the new electronic ones gained tremendous crescendo forcing the Distcoms to retrace the step and abandon the exercise in the middle of the track). The ulterior motives of the Distcoms are apparent from the fact that new electronic meters were installed by them replacing the old ones without a proof that the earlier meters were in any way defective or faulty and when the consumers vehemently opposed the move, they were made to believe that the installation of new meters replacing the earlier electro-mechanical type is mandated by law. If not an unfair trade practice, what else it could be? As of now, the whole matter seems to have been entrapped in the cobweb of legal technicalities.
The consumer activists and organizations across the board cannot be faulted if in retrospect they view the episode as a stunning blow on the nascent consumer movement in India. While the issues remain embroiled in endless legal wrangles and controversies, the consumer-activists and organizations would perhaps draw a lesson or two from this episode. Foremost that comes to mind is that privatization particularly of public utility services such as power distribution and water supply can never be in the interest of the consumers. The reason is not far to seek. Profit-motive-driven private companies will always love to maximize their profits from their business ventures and they have many tricks up their sleeves to achieve the aim. Coupled with the formidable money power they are in an invincible position to ruthlessly exploit the hapless consumer and bleach him white with impunity. The consumers of the society have virtually no safeguard against this formidable combination. To guard against the local governments? implicit temptations to privatize these vital public utilities either openly or surreptitiously through back door, the consumer activists need to be extra vigilant and take pre-emptive actions before it is too late because it is near impossible to reverse the process once started. Though of recent origin, the Consumer Protection Law is as much susceptible to the legal technicalities as any other law of the land and, therefore, is not always helpful in redressal of consumer grievances. Supposed to ensure hassle free, cheap and speedy justice to the consumers, it seldom comes up to expectations with the result that consumers agitating law under the Consumer Protection Act mostly end up feeling cheated particularly when they seek redressal of their grievances against the government owned or government backed utilities and services. Howsoever genuine the grievance may be the legal eagles siding with the government will see to it that the matter is entangled in endless legal technicalities from which, as the things stand, the Act provides little protection. In the ultimate analysis, therefore, until the government revamps the consumer law and the attitudes undergo a dramatic change, the consumer activists will do well to be always vigilant and pre-empt the consumer-hostile moves of the government before it is too late. It is replacement of the electro-mechanical power meters by the controversial electronic meters today; it could be privatization of the water supply service tomorrow.
New electronic meters were installed by them replacing the old ones without a proof that the earlier meters were in any way defective or faulty and when the consumers vehemently opposed the move, they were made to believe that the installation of new meters replacing the earlier electro-mechanical type is mandated by law. If not an unfair trade practice, what else it could be?
Sadly enough, as the State Commission has observed in a different context, even the supposedly awakened Delhi consumers are, in fact, ?either na?ve or totally ignorant about their rights under the law.?
(The writer can be contacted at C-1-A/42 B, Janakpuri, New Delhi-110 058.)