By Manav Bajaj
Digital technology is the driver of the 21st century, and undoubtedly, it is making consumers more choosy and empowered. E-commerce has emerged as a big blessing for both buyers and sellers, and it has greatly influenced the market mechanism. Besides a whole host of benefits of e-commerce, there are many palpable pitfalls too, that cannot be overlooked in the interest of consumers. Yes, cases of frauds and cheating further increased at the onset of virtual markets, and this problem is more frequent in the developing countries like India where consumers are not aware of their rights. A majority of customers, who are cheated by product/service providers, are least motivated to fight for their rights because either they are not aware about their rights or they hesitate to take legal actions due to slow and highly-complicated judiciary machinery. However, this languid behaviour of the deceived customers is abetting the faulty and malicious practices of e-retailers.
Need for Regional Cooperation
Being concerned with the issues that consumers are facing in the online market, governments all around the world are taking serious initiatives to safeguard consumer rights. In this realm, G20’s Digital Economy Development and Cooperation Initiative (DEDCI) is a major breakthrough in fostering consumer trust towards the online market. Complete compliance with the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection (UNGCP) in the digital market is the foremost objective of DEDCI. On the same line, an international conference on the theme ‘Empowering Consumers in New Markets’ was recently organized in India and delegates from 22 countries of Asia were invited to promote regional cooperation in this direction. Protection of vulnerable groups of consumers and consumer empowerment through education were the key agendas of this conference.
Stronger Law and Stricter Enforcement
Strict laws and their proper implementation are the parameters to judge the sincerity of a government in dealing with an issue. Unfortunately, the country is deprived of an effective consumer protection law and the prevailing system is severely afflicted with rampant corruption that further deteriorates the problem. There should be a harsh punishment/penalty for the perpetrators of laws; leniency to them is always a threat to consumer rights. Only strict laws supported by strict jurisdiction can make the market free from consumer exploitation. Otherwise, they are just mere codes of conduct for corporate and trade lobbies.
Consumer Awareness is the Key Solution
Strict enforcement of laws is more important than strict laws to protect consumer rights. That’s why awareness of rights and duties should be the prime purpose of every institution established to empower consumer because only an educated person can strive and fight for rights and justice. In the recent judgment of Florida’s Court, the court ordered Starbucks to pay a compensation of $100K in the Hot Coffee Lawsuit. The educated and well-informed woman could fight for her rights and receive a sum of $100K. The scenario seems pathetic in developing countries where consumers are not aware of their rights. Although the constitution of India clearly explains the rights and duties of consumers living inside the boundaries of the state, no significant efforts are made by public and private institutions to educate the masses about their rights in both physical and virtual landscapes. Hence, the list of fraudsters is getting bigger and bigger every new day.
The rising distrust of people in online companies is a setback to the entire digital economy that should be immediately addressed by government agencies as well as privately-managed online platforms which not only help consumers in raising their voices, but also provide them complete support; from raising a complaint to getting due compensation, without inflicting any harassment of late decisions and lawyers’ hefty bills. In fact, it is the need of the hour to develop a culture of consumer enlightenment in the country where people should be prepared to raise a voice against violation of their rights and fight for justice. They must be able to access forums which capitalise people’s collective bargaining power to get justice for them in a hassle-free manner. There is a great need to establish online and offline platforms where social actions can lead to the empowerment of consumers and an environment of fair trading.
(The author is CEO of Consumer Sathi, an online platform for providing assistance to spoofed customers)