AFTER a long wait, the Government of Jammu & Kashmir has finally decided to constitute the State Consumer Commission. The Food Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Department on April 15th 2022 issued a notification on the orders of Lt Governor Manoj Sinha for constituting Jammu & Kashmir State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission.The notification under SO No: 176 reads:
In exercise of powers conferred by sub section (1) of section 42 of Consumer Protection Act of 2019 , the Government of Jammu & Kashmir hereby establishes the Jammu & Kashmir State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, to be known as state commission , for the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir.
Pertinently, Kashmir Observer has been doing dedicated advocacy over the constitution of State and District Consumer Commission for a year now.
Constitution of District Commissions
Last year, J&K Government issued an advertisement for the vacant post of president in the proposed State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (SCDRC). The advertisement, issued by the Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Department, invited applications from retired or serving high court judges for the post. The application window closed on 18 March but the State Commission is still inoperative.
The administration had not even managed to constitute one district commission, until recently, after Kashmir Observer exposed this major lapse of the Government in January this year. It is then that the Government began constituting District Commissions.
Through an official notification dated 17th March 2022 , the Food Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Department (FCS & CA) vide SO Nos:100 , 101, 102, 102,103 and 104 constituted around six district consumer commissions for Jammu, Srinagar, Budgam, Anantnag, Kathua and Rajouri.
In the Jammu district, Mr Pawan Dev Kotwal (Retired District & Sessions Judge) has been appointed as President. Ms Heema Chowdhary and Maheep Gupta have been appointed as members of the district commission. Mr Gowher Hussain Mir has been appointed as Member of Consumer Commission Anantnag. The Chairman and another member is yet to be appointed. Ms Rukhsana Farooq and Mr Noorul Ameen have been appointed as members of District Consumer Commission Budgam. Ms Rohini Parmar has been appointed as Member District Consumer Commission Rajouri. Ms Farah Deeba and Ms Sahab Munshi have been appointed as members of Srinagar District Consumer Commission.
However, the details about these appointments have not been given wide publicity in the media. Except the Retired District & Sessions Judge Mr Pawan Dev Kotwal who has been appointed as Chairman District Consumer Commission Jammu,the profile and experience of other members of the district commissions is not known to people.
Consumer Protection Act Background
Soon after the abrogation, around 800 central laws were extended to Jammu and Kashmir under the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019. Effective 31 October 2019, the Central Consumer Protection Act, 1986, was extended to the newly-carved Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
Jammu and Kashmir had its own Consumer Protection Act, which came into force in 1987 and under it, a state commission and district forums were operational. The Department of Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs directed shutting down all the existing consumer forums in an order issued in October 2019. As a result, from 31 October 2019 onwards, the 1987 state law became redundant after 24 years of being in action and the central Consumer Protection Act, 1986, took its place.
Pertinently,on 9 August 2019, the Centre repealed the 1986 central Act as well and replaced it with the Consumer Protection Act, 2019.The rules for the new Act were framed by the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, and issued on 15 July 2020.
This new central law, though it has been extended to Jammu and Kashmir, is still not operational. The result is that consumers across Jammu and Kashmir and the Union Territory of Ladakh are facing numerous difficulties.
Ever since the state and district consumer forums were shut down in the erstwhile state, there has been chaos and confusion among consumers whose cases were pending before these bodies. Since the abrogation, their cases have been eating dust in different offices of the Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs departments. Aggrieved consumers with new grievances have also been deprived of their rights under the Consumer Protection Act, 2019. They have no institution to which they can take their grievances. Even as District Commissions have been constituted, the Government is not creating any awareness among people for them to approach these commissions.
The fundamental issue is that the repealed law from the former state—the Consumer Protection Act, 1987—was similar to the central act of 1986. Jammu and Kashmir had also established institutions under it. Until 5 August 2019, the state had strong consumer rights movements, but the abrogation has changed the situation completely. However, once again, things are back on track as the notification for constitution of the State Commission has been issued. However, the appointment process should be transparent and it should publicised.
What is Consumer Protection Act 2019 ?
The Consumer Protection Act, 2019 which was enacted around 3 years back ostensibly widens the scope of consumer rights and covers e-commerce, direct-selling, tele-shopping, multi-level marketing, and other forms of commerce in the digital age.
Technically, it came into force on 20 July 2020 in the country. The 1986 law is now no-more in operation. The new act is aimed to revamp the settlement and administration process through stricter penalties. The pecuniary jurisdiction of the District Forum increased to Rs. 1 crore and the state forum to Rs. 10 crore. For unfair contracts claims, where the consideration does not exceed Rs. 10 crore, the pecuniary jurisdiction of the National Commission for claims exceeds Rs. 10 crore.
Importantly, misleading advertisements have been made actionable under the new law, including advertisements, notices, circulars, labels, wrappers, invoices or other documents in a variety of physical and digital formats. It also provides for Consumer Mediation Cells attached to District and State Commissions.
Clubbing of District Commissions
Section 28 of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, says the state government shall set up a District Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (DCDRC) in each district. It also says the state government may establish more than one district commission in a district. Every district commission is to have a president and no fewer than two members, and more members prescribed in consultation with the central government.
On 22 February 2022, the government of Jammu and Kashmir issued an order to establish ten district commissions instead of twenty. It clubbed two to three districts across Jammu and Kashmir, which violates the 2019 Act. The Anantnag District Commission will also have jurisdiction over Shopian, Kulgam and Pulwama. The Baramulla commission will look after Bandipora too. Doda will have jurisdiction over Kishtwar, Kathua over Samba, Rajouri over Poonch, Srinagar over Ganderbal and Udhampur over Reasi and Ramban.
The order of the Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Department misquotes Section 32 of the 2019 Act, which allows district officials to take charge of other districts in certain circumstances. This section never allowed the government to club districts together. The exact provision is, “If... there is a vacancy in the office of the president or member of a District Commission, the State Government may, by notification, direct—(a) any other District Commission specified in that notification to exercise the jurisdiction in respect of that district also; or (b) the president or a member of any other District Commission specified in that notification to exercise the powers and discharge the functions of the president or member of that District Commission also.”
When there are no district commissions operational under the new law and all the vacancies of the twenty district commissions are still empty, how can the government invoke Section 32 and fill only ten posts and club the other ten districts with neighbouring districts?
A need to club the district officials arises in case a president or member of a district commission passes away, resigns or is removed by the government. The law never says the government can club the districts when no district commission is operational.
If there is a vacancy of president or a member of commission in a district, the government may empower the president or member of another district to function there as a stop-gap arrangement.
Ten commissions have been created by the government but none is functional and no incumbent is in office. The question of entrusting charge of one president or one member of a district to another district does not arise. The government must appoint as many commissions as the number of districts in J&K.
In order to make the Consumer Protection Act 2019 operational, the State Commission should be constituted not only on papers but the President and members of this commission should be appointed soon, so that all the pending cases are heard and new cases are also listed for hearings. Merit should be the only consideration during these appointments and the entire appointment process should be made public through local electronic,print and social media. The credentials and experience of all the members appointed to District Consumer Commissions should also be made public. The Government must hold mass awareness on Consumer Protection Act 2019 so that people start coming forward with their complaints before the District Commissions which are almost operational now. The members and presidents be appointed in all the district commissions and clubbing two to three districts together can be avoided as this goes against the consumer protection legislation.