Treat citizens with respect
Pushpa Girimaji

WHEN public utilities formulated their citizens' charters or customers' charters, one of the first promises that they made was that consumers would be treated with due respect. Now the apex court is forcing them to keep up that promise. By holding service providers accountable for rude and disrespectful behaviour towards consumers, the court has in fact redefined the word 'deficiency' in the consumer law lexicon, thereby forcing an attitudinal change in the service provider.

In an order of far-reaching significance, the apex court has held that any rude, rough and uncivilised behaviour towards consumers in general and senior citizens in particular constitutes deficient service, and the provider will be held accountable for such service. The order has its origin in the fight put up by a senior citizen against the way he was treated by the Delhi Transport Corporation almost 10 years ago in 1998. B.L.Sood's complaint was that as soon as he boarded a DTC bus, a ticket checking party found him 'guilty' of travelling without a ticket. His explanation that he was yet to push through the crowd to reach the conductor sitting in his chair, failed to register with the checking party, which manhandled and misbehaved with him, before forcing him to get off the bus.

Humiliated and upset, Sood decided that he would not allow the service provider to get away with it. So much so that when the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission brought down the compensation of Rs 2,000 and costs of Rs 1,000 awarded by the district forum to Rs 800, he filed a revision petition before the apex court. While restoring the order of the forum and awarding further costs of Rs 2,500 to the consumer, the court made it clear that such uncivilised behaviour, particularly towards senior citizens, would not be tolerated. Said the commission:" In a civilised society, rough behaviour with a senior citizen or with any person by an employee of a service provider cannot be permitted. All employees are expected to behave in a civilised manner and with respect. Once again we reiterate that this amounts to deficiency in service by the service provider".

In several earlier cases, too, the apex court has censured service providers for their insensitivity to the rights of senior citizens. In the case of Kusum Pandey vs Union of India, for example, it came down heavily on BSNL for not rectifying the telephone of a senior citizen, a heart patient at that. For three years, Dr Pandey kept on complaining about the telephone but the service provider did not bother.

Eventually, when he suffered a heart attack, his wife had to run to a nearby house to call the doctor and this delay proved too costly. Said the national commission in this case: "Irrespective of the fact that whether the non-functioning of the telephone at that crucial time did or did not contribute to the death of Dr Pandey, it is abundantly clear that the non-working of the telephone over a period of three years had been a cause of constant mental worry, tension and stress to the late Dr Pandey, a heart patient, and his family members." The commission enhanced the compensation of Rs 50,000 awarded by the Lucknow State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission to Rs 75,000. In the case of 64-year-old Shipra Sengupta, who was harassed and detained overnight by the Railways on charges of 'traveling without a valid ticket', the apex court had said it was a fit case for awarding exemplary damages. For her travel from Kolkatta to Chennai, Sengupta had availed of the concession available to senior citizens. At the Chennai railway station, she was asked by a railway official to show proof of her age and subsequently forced to pay a penalty on the ground that the proof—a hospital ID card— shown by her was inadequate. Condemning the treatment meted out to her and describing it as " abuse of power by a government servant," the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission said this was a fit case for awarding exemplary damages of Rs 25,000.

Even though in these two cases, the court criticised the service providers for their behaviour in the strongest of terms, in the case of B.L.Sood it redefined the boundaries of deficiency, thereby empowering the consumer courts to take stringent action against those service providers who are insensitive to the rights of senior citizens. Orders such as this should go a long way in ensuring that senior citizens are treated with due respect by service providers.