Help for the harassed

Pushpa Girimaji on the national consumer helpline for everyday problems

The New Year is going to begin with a cheerful note for consumers. By the end of January, consumers will have a helpline on which they can call for information and guidance on the problems they have to face with the providers of goods and services. A project mooted by the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs, the National Consumer Helpline will be run by the Department of Commerce, University of Delhi.

The call centre for the helpline, which will also be located at the Department of Commerce, will operate from 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. It will be managed by a qualified person, with a team of eight assistants who will be trained specifically for the job. The university will draw heavily on the knowledge and expertise of faculty members from different disciplines to put together the information required by consumers. Dr Sriram Khanna, Head of the Department of Commerce and leading consumer rights activist, will be the project coordinator.

The Consumer Affairs Ministry will grant Rs 3.3 crore over three years for the project. A considerable amount of this money, coming from the Consumer Welfare Fund, will be spent on publicising the helpline number.

For the time being, the calls to the helpline are not toll-free, which is a pity because that will mean that while consumers in Delhi and surrounding areas will be accessing the line at local call rates, those staying outside the region will be paying STD rates. But then, consumers can access this information sitting at home and if one considers the travel cost to get out for help, the call rate is not a big amount.

Meanwhile, the helpline and the collaboration between the ministry and Delhi University marks a new beginning in the area of consumer education. This has also added a new dimension to the consumer movement which needs to be strengthened further.

A major constraint in the enforcement of consumer protection laws like the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act and the Drugs and Cosmetics Act is the inadequate number of well-equipped laboratories for testing food and drugs. Even consumer courts find it difficult to get products tested for the purposes of adjudicating over complaints pertaining to sub-standard or defective goods.

So instead of investing in new laboratories, the ministry should fund colleges, particularly medical, pharmaceutical and engineering colleges, to institute state-of-the-art laboratories. By facilitating the testing of samples lifted by law enforcement agencies, such laboratories can also bring in transparency and accountability in the entire process of testing and implementation of the law. And for students too, this would open new avenues of learning.

In the recent years, several colleges around the country have taken a keen interest in spreading consumer awareness among the students as well as the local community. Following these developments, the ministry has also set up a scheme of funding universities, colleges and research institutions for consumer welfare work. However, for a number of colleges to take interest in this kind of work, the ministry also needs to conduct training programmes for college teachers, particularly those teaching in small towns and rural areas. The ministry should also facilitate greater interaction between universities and consumer groups.

This year may well be the beginning of a new bonding between academic institutions, consumer groups and the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs for better protection of consumers in the country.