08 Feb 2019 05:04am IST
With political and economic turmoil raging, the passing of the Consumer Protection Bill 2018 in the Lok Sabha went almost unnoticed. Tabled on the December 19, 2018 by Ram Vilas Paswan, the Consumer Affairs Minister, no discussion was possible because of the pandemonium prevailing in the House. The Bill was passed the next day, again without any discussion. What intrigues more is how the Bill reached the House. The previous December the Vice-President, Venkaiah Naidu, brought up the issue of him being fleeced by an online marketing advertisement for a medicine for weight loss. He never got the medicine and lost money. In response, the Consumer Affairs Minister promised that the existing Consumer Protection Act (CPA) 1986 would be updated to include digital, multi-level and tele-marketing, and online transactions. The Bill now awaits passage in the Upper House to become the new CPA 2018.
The most alarming change in the proposed Bill is in the pecuniary jurisdiction at each level. For District Commissions (formerly called district forums) it has been increased from Rs 20 lakh to Rs 1 crore. For State Commissions from Rs 1 crore to Rs 10 crore and the National Commissions above Rs 10 crores with no upper limit. More disturbing are the changes in the composition of the commissions. The 1986 Act required a chairman who was a district judge at District level, a High Court judge at State level and a Supreme Court judge at National level; in each case current or former. In the new Bill the chairpersons will all be appointed by nomination with unspecified qualifications. This applies to members also, and risks being misused as rewards for political loyalty. Whether this would violate the principle of separation of powers remains to be seen.
The provision for penalising frivolous and vexatious complaints has been removed and the number of members at State level has been increased to a minimum of four from two.
These changes have been highlighted because they affect the medical fraternity the most. Strangely when the Bill was put in public domain for comment, there was no representation from any medical association, including the Indian Medical Association, which boasts of the largest number of members. Claims in crores apply largely to hospitals and medical practitioners; no other service provider, including consumer goods manufacturers, advocates, engineers and advertisers of bogus medical products are subjected to such high claims. Even if death occurs due to a pilot’s fault, compensation in an air accident is limited to Rs 1 crore and Rs5 lakh. (Air Carriage Amendment Bill 2015 passed in 2016). In a railway accident the limit is Rs 4 lakh, as per Railway Accidents and Untoward Incidents (Compensation) Amendment Rules, 1997. And these are healthy individuals.
In case of claims against hospitals and doctors, the compensation is unlimited even though the patient may have been at death’s door on admission. How do these changes translate at the ground floor level?
Quite obvious. A complainant is now free to file a claim of Rs 1 crore at District level without the fear of penalty for what may be a frivolous complaint; whereas in the past he would have had to do so at State Commission level. It is almost as if the purpose is to encourage more complaints frivolous or otherwise at district level. It is not difficult to imagine the district commission getting swamped with complaints. I cannot see any Commission disposing of complaints in three months as mandated. Even in the present form of the Act, I have personally experienced a complaint dragging on for two years, till I vociferously protested.
The complaint will be assessed by a team appointed at the pleasure of the government for political largesse, rather than qualifications. In other words, complex medical issues may be decided upon by people who do not have the educational qualifications to even understand the nature of the complaint. My reaction is: yet another institution bites the dust going the way of the CBI, the police, the judiciary, the RBI and many others. What are the chances of a fair hearing and assessment of a complaint? Nil. The complaint may be lodged at the complainants’ place of work or residence to make it more convenient to the complainant. This means that defendants, in many cases tertiary care referral hospitals will have to run around the country to defend themselves in various district courts. As it is, it is generally believed that consumer commissions and the judiciary are unfairly biased against the medical profession.
The most direct effect will be a much higher quantum of indemnity insurance will be required, jacking up premiums to astronomical levels. Small and medium healthcare facilities will be forced to shut down with no new start-ups. Fresh graduates will make a beeline for foreign shores to escape the persecution, leaving the field open to the babas’ and quacks who in any case practice without fear of litigation.
There are a few redeeming features. Bollywood actors and VIPs appearing in unsubstantiated and fraudulent advertisements, can now be prosecuted under the Bill. A Central Consumer Protection Authority is proposed, with an Investigation Wing headed by a Director-General of Investigations. In case of an appeal the appellant has to deposit 50% of the awarded amount; increased from the previous limit of Rs 35,000. Claims for product liability can be made against manufacturers, service providers, and sellers. Digital transactions and e-commerce have been included.
But in none of these cases are the claims likely to be in crores; such sums being largely targeted at the medical profession. The medical fraternity must wake up and raise objections to the new provisions before the Bill reaches the Upper House, and not wait till after the horse has bolted, as in the case of the CPA 1986 and the CEA. Protesting with black arm bands is not going to impress anybody.
Meanwhile the VP should try dieting and exercises.
(The writer is a founder member of the Voluntary Health Association of Goa.)