Janaka Perera calls for greater consumer protection

Today, Sri Lankan consumers are protected by the laws and regulations stated in the Consumer Affairs Authority Act No. 9 of 2003. Among them is the prevention of any measuring system except the one recognised by the state and a ban on selling items in unsuitable locations.

Such laws also prevailed in ancient times. However, a major difference between the days of our  kings and the present is that punishment was stringent then and so the laws were obeyed. Also, there was virtually no deceptive advertising that lured people into buying low quality items or things they didn’t really need.

The situation today is different.

With the advent of the open economy in 1977 and the fierce competition that ensued, safeguarding consumer rights assumed more importance than at any time in the past.

Manufacturers are obliged to maximise profits. And although there are countless goods in the market, consumers aren’t necessarily aware of their quality. And not all manufacturers follow safety regulations for products such as electrical equipment, cement, LPG cylinders, switches, sockets and batteries.

Slogans on customer care and service are often displayed in various business establishments. But how truthful are they in their commitment to customers? And how successful have the authorities been in safeguarding consumer rights with regard to product quality and service?

Such questions have not been adequately addressed.

Consumer rights cover many areas but at the very top of the list are food products. Adulteration of food, and artificially coloured vegetables and fruits, threaten our health. Products of dubious nutritional value are being marketed with a promise to enhance cognition and improve stamina. But where’s the evidence? Have tests been conducted to prove such claims?

The sad fact is that unlike in developed countries, local consumers don’t feel empowered to challenge such assertions or compel manufacturers to withdraw products if their quality doesn’t reach the desired level.

Schoolchildren and university students are often victims of unhealthy food products.  In a TV interview a year or so ago, the President of the Restaurant Owners Association Asela Sampath lambasted  the state and school authorities for failing to provide school canteens with proper facilities and offer nutritious meals.

Sampath charged that schools were only concerned with the earnings derived from restaurants, some of which were housed in dilapidated buildings. He alleged that the food consumed at most of these canteens causes diabetes and other illnesses. The association had even complained to the WHO about this and demanded to know why the Food Act of 1980 has not been enforced, Sampath notes.

Then there are wayside eating houses where long-distance buses stop for passengers to have a snack or meal. The quality of food served at some of these establishments is questionable. Yet, passengers are compelled to have meals at these eateries because bus crews are bribed and provided free meals to stop at such places.

The situation in the developed countries is quite different.

In the US for example, the authorities regularly carry out surprise inspections. And if the quality of the food served and cleanliness is even slightly below the required standard, the establishment is downgraded.

How often does this happenin Sri Lanka? We have even read press reports of guests at some five-star hotels falling ill after consuming meals especially at functions.

Other issues include the disposal of waste associated with consumption. There should be a collective effort to ensure proper pricing and convenience of wrapping versus engineered containers – this is related to the cost of waste disposal. Therefore, product designers, packaging experts, manufacturers of wrappers, marketers, consumers and policy makers should engage in regular dialogue, to discuss the issues, consequences, ill effects, benefits and costs involved.

Another area that requires the attention of the authorities is public transport. Despite the introduction of regulations to ensure that  bus crews issue tickets to passengers, some conductors of private busses fail to do so. Likewise, many three wheelers continue to run without meters.

In some parts of the island, there are sudden power failures and drops in voltage even in the absence of thunderstorms.

President Maithripala Sirisena’s recent announcement on banning the use of asbestos and polythene in Sri Lanka by the end of next year is a positive development. However, manufacturers and importers argue that without proper alternatives, the construction industry and the public will be unduly inconvenienced by the non-availability of these materials.

Consumption patterns are changing rapidly today. The need for an organised movement to protect consumer interests is greater than ever. This is imperative if we’re to ensure the health and wellbeing of present and future generations.