Golam Rahman, president of the Consumer Association of Bangladesh, talks about consumers rights violations and campaigns against it in Bangladesh in an interview with Shaikha Shuhada Panzeree
New Age: Tell us about the history of Consumer Rights Association of Bangladesh, what has prompted you and others involved in its formation to organise around consumer rights issues in 1978?
Golam Rahman: Globally, consumer rights movement was initiated in the 1960s. In Bangladesh, a few concerned citizens established CAB. At its formation, in 1978, there were journalists, university professors and other walks of people were involved. In 1983, CAB was registered under the Societies Registration Act. In 1986, it was registered with the NGO Affairs Bureau.
Sometime in 2000, when I was the commerce secretary, the president secretary of CAB came to me to make a law for consumers’ rights protection. I noticed that the energy adviser professor M Shamsul Alam was attending the public hearing representing CAB and the organisation was working for general people. The price of gas was increased in two terms which was not lawfully done. There was a committee where architect Mubasshar Hussein and professor Shamsul Alam were members, I suggested them to file a lawsuit against it. The government was taking Tk 950 for two burner gas stoves. Apparently after filing the lawsuit, a verdict was made directing the authority to take no more than Tk 800. My affiliation with CAB started back then.
CAB works with the matters related to consumer rights, our main task is to make the buyers and consumers aware of rights and to help the government preserve these rights. With these aims, we take up programmes, enlighten people on consumer education and safe food, monitor market price of products, take complaints and bring resolutions, examine product quality, conduct anti-smoking campaigns etc. Apart from that, we represent general consumers at the ministries and participate in the policy making process. In the last few years, we have presented our opinions on taxation policy during the preparation of the national budget, which is why in the last three to four years no tariff was imposed on essential goods.
CAB has its representatives in the different committees of Bangladesh Standard Testing Institute. We have our people in the committees of Drug Administration, we keep pressing them to keep the prices lower. Recently cardiac stent price was going up boundlessly, but it is brought under control, our representative had a role to play in this. The problem in these administrations is that most of the representatives are from different companies, but there is no one to represent the voice of the consumers. When we speak to the authority, they take consumers’ concerns into consideration.
New Age: In recent times, what forms of consumer rights violation have been noticed in Bangladesh and to what extent? Has the scenario been different for urban and rural consumers?
Golam Rahman: Food adulteration and fake products are quite common these days. We have open market economy in our country, and profit is its driving force. Today, ethics and values have been so compromised that some people will go to any extent for profit. This profit-motive circle started in the ‘90s.
America is the most regulated market. Our country has to regulate its market too. In open market economy, the competition is the key. Here, rather a few people have a grip on the market. The Competition Act was introduced in 2012 to ensure that no one can control the market single-handedly. However, this act is yet to be strictly enforced.
In 1992, it was found in a survey that on 90 per cent of packaged biscuits is marketed without a logo of the BSTI. CAB wanted to make sure of the quality and labeling of products, now the situation has improved in the country. There was time when people smoked freely in public transports, cinema halls etc. CAB raised awareness among consumers about the direct and passive effects of smoking. It has campaigned against the advertisement of tobacco on newspapers, radio and television.
Currently we are taking steps to make food items safe. We campaigned to inform people of the severity of food adulteration — food items were tested at laboratories and general people were informed about these results. Along with that we informed the government, related businessmen and institutions to take actions. At present, the wide-scale food adulteration has been tackled to some extent, although it couldn’t be put to an end. Food adulteration is still a huge problem.
For a long time now, CAB has been suggesting and explaining to the government about the necessity of having a strong authoritative body like the US Food and Drug Administration. It has not happened yet. It is hoped that the Safe Food Act 2013 will work towards this end. It is not an equivalent to food and drug administration.
Now, as regards incessant increase in electricity price, the government paid no heed to anyone and increased the price arbitrarily. The Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission made regulations on it later. It still couldn’t fix a price for fuel oil. Somehow the government is the impediment here. CAB has filed a petition to the government to hand over the decision-making authority to BERC for fuel oil pricing. The government is dilly-dallying in this regard.
If we talk about rural and urban customers, I would say there is a difference in these two scenarios when it comes to medical products. In rural areas, the medications that are sold are mostly from unknown brands, people in villages do not know how to look for BSTI seals, they are less aware of this too. The poor people of villages are the victims of this mischief. The poor and the marginalised are the major victims whether it is in the cities or in the villages.
New Age: In your experience, how do you find the role of the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection? Along the same line, do you think the Consumer Rights Protection Act 2009 is adequately equipped to address the prevailing violations?
Golam Rahman: CAB had a big role in the drafting and enactment of the Consumer Rights Protection Act 2009. The initiative for this act was taken sometime in the early ‘90s. The caretaker government issued an ordinance and the current government turned that ordinance into the Act. The Directorate of National Consumer Rights has zilla offices currently, but the human resources are still in lacking. Ideally, if any consumer is deceived or harmed in any way, they can make official complaints to the directorate and if the person/company is found guilty as charged, the aggrieved consumer will get 25 per cent of the fine as compensation. Consumers are becoming aware of this grievance mechanism, it is making them aware of their rights. Since the enactment, the directorate realised Tk 20–22 crores in the form of fine. But, we do not want them to fine anyone, rather consumer rights violations should be contained. If the political leaders are given more independence, if they work with a missionary zeal, it will work out for the better. I think a TV commercial should come from the directorate to inform people about the work of the directorate. The Act is adequate to punish the violators, what is needed is strict enforcement.
New Age: From gross adulteration of food to unjust hike in power price, it seems a syndicate consisting of traders, political leaders and corrupt government officials has a role to play when it comes to rampant violation of consumer rights. Do you agree with the allegation?
Golam Rahman: The profit-motive has gotten an upper-hand when true competition is constrained. The government is business-friendly; it has a tendency to patronise the businessmen, then to claim that the government is bringing benefits to the consumers. Government lets the businessmen play in the market just like a football match, which is fine, but the moment anyone commits a foul, it is also the government’s role to show them a red card. We have a complaint against the government that it plays a flexible role when they are needed to act strictly and to intervene. There’s no doubt that the government wants good for the consumers, but we want them to do a better job for us. Local governments have to play an effective role too.
New Age: Despite the fact that every citizen is affected by the situation, the consumer rights movement has not gained momentum in Bangladesh. Why is that?
Golam Rahman: It is not that there has been no improvement. In the last few years quite a few pertinent laws have been adopted. You must give credit to the government for this. Projects have been taken to build the institutional structure that is needed to implement these laws.
New Age: The consumers may very well be guilty of tampering with the rights, how do they worsen the situation? As a consumer and conscious citizen what role do you expect of them?
Golam Rahman: The consumers’ first fault is that they do not know about their rights. If they become aware themselves, spread the awareness around and protest when a violation has been conducted, the situation would have improved automatically. Along with our awareness, the implementation of laws, and teachings of ethics, altogether will bring better days for the consumers of our country.
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