The history of Consumer Movement

For the first time in 1856 a select committee recommended that a cheap and easy remedy, by a summary charge before a magistrate, should be afforded to consumers who received adulterated or falsely described food. This suggestion was taken up in the Merchandise Marks Act, 1887. Section 17 of the Act provides as follows:

That a person applying a trade description to a product was deemed to warrant that it was true, so that a false trade description constituted breach of both criminal and civil law.

 In a leading English case Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932) A.C. 562, where the consumer claimed to have suffered injury as well as result of drinking from a bottle of ginger-beer containing a decomposed snail. Over a strong dissent the majority held that the manufacturer would be liable. The case did not herald strict liability but it facilitated more claims than were provided under the nineteenth century approach. Lord Atkin enunciated the manufacturer’s duty of care in the following words:

…the preparation or putting up of the products will result in an injury to the consumer’s life or property, owes a duty to the consumer to take that reasonable care.

26. This theory of strict liability already exists under the consumer Protection Act, 1961.

27. The organized English consumer movement started after the Second World War. The Labour Party for the first time gave slogan of “battle for the consumers” in Parliament. In the decade of 1960, number of legislations were introduced in Britain for the protection of the consumers. The consumer Safety Act, 1978 was enacted.

United States of America

The consumer movement in the United States of America developed in the beginning of the 19th century when in Donald C. MacPherson v. Buick Motor Company 217 N.Y. 382, 111 N.E. 1050 the New York Court of Appeal observed that a car manufacturer had to compensate a consumer who had been injured when one of the car wheels collapsed because of defect. The court held that the manufacturer had been negligent because the defect could have been discovered by reasonable inspection. In 1972, the consumer Product Safety Act was enacted.

Paul S. Boyer, a distinguished author, in his article on “consumer Movement”, published by The Oxford Companion to United States History, 2001, has mentioned about the modern consumer movement. The relevant following extract is instructive and is reproduced as under.

The modern consumer movement arose in the Progressive Era, as citizens concerned about unsafe products and environmental hazards used lobbying, voting, and journalistic expos‚s to press for government protection. In the same vein, the consumers Union (1936), publisher of consumer Reports, tests products for safety, economy, and reliability, to give consumers an objective basis for choice.

…Such socially engaged consumerism actually had long historical antecedents, including Revolutionary Era patriots who had boycotted English tea and textiles and abolitionists who had refused to purchase goods made of slave-produced cotton.

consumer activism revived in the late 1960s, flourished in the 1970s, and, despite a conservative backlash against government regulation, survived in diminished form in the 1990s. A by-product of 1960 social activism, consumer advocates insisted on citizens’ rights to safe and reasonably priced goods and services and to the full disclosure of product information. The lawyer Ralph Nader gained fame for Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), which detailed safety hazards plaguing General Motors’ (GM) Corvair automobile. Using $425,000 won in an invasion-of-privacy suit against GM in 1970, Nader founded numerous consumer groups, nicknamed “Nader’s Raiders,” that pursued legal challenges to unsafe products and demanded greater government protection for consumers. The formation of the consumer Federation of America (1968), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (1970), and the consumer Product Safety Commission (1972) attested to the movement’s success but also to its regulatory and legalistic bent. Focused on consumers’ rights, the modern movement downplayed the power of consumers to effect social change.

 Ralph Nader played an extremely important role in consumer movement in the United States of America. A note appears in “America in Ferment: The Tumultuous 1960s –

Ralph Nader and the consumer Movement.’ An extract is reproduced. It reads: Ralph Nader has been called the nation’s nag. He denounced soft drinks for containing excessive amounts of sugar (more than nine teaspoons a can). He warned Americans about the health hazards of red dyes used as food colorings and of nitrates used as preservatives in hot dogs. He even denounced high heels: “It is part of the whole tyranny of fashion, where women will inflict pain on themselves…. for what, to please men.” Since the mid-1960s, Ralph Nader has been the nation’s leading consumer advocate.

Ralph Nader is an extraordinary example of total devotion to the cause. It is men like him who leave an imprint and make history. consumer movements all over the world have taken great inspiration from Ralph Nader.

Every year 15th March is observed as the World consumer Rights Day. On that day in 1962 President John F. Kennedy of the United States called upon the United States Congress to accord its approval to the consumer Bill of Rights. They are (i) right to choice; (ii) right to information; (iii) right to safety; and (iv) right to be heard. President Gerald R. Ford added one more right i.e. right to consumer education. Further other rights such as right to healthy environment and right to basic needs (food, clothing and shelter) were added. Unfortunately, in most of the countries these rights are still not available to the consumers. In India 24th December every year celebrated as National consumer Rights Day.

The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a set of general guidelines for consumer protection and the Secretary General of the United Nations was authorized to persuade member countries to adopt these guidelines through policy changes or law. These guidelines constitute a comprehensive policy framework outlining what governments need to do to promote consumer protection in following seven areas:

(i) Physical safety;

(ii) Protection and Promotion of the consumer economic interest;

(iii) Standards for the safety and quality of consumer goods and services;

(iv) Distribution facilities for consumer goods and services;

(v) Measures enabling consumers to obtain redress;

(vi) Measures relating to specific areas (food, water and pharmaceuticals); and

(vii) consumer education and information programme.

Though not legally binding, the guidelines provide an internationally recognized set of basic objectives particularly for governments of developing and newly independent countries for structuring and strengthening their consumer protection policies and legislations. These guidelines were adopted recognizing that consumers often face imbalances in economic terms, educational levels and bargaining power and bearing in mind that consumers should have the right of access to non hazardous products as well as the importance of promoting just, equitable and sustainable economic and social development.

Indian perspective

35. It was in this background that the Indian Parliament had enacted the consumer Protection Act, 1986. The declared objective of the statute was “to provide for better protection of the interests of consumers.” It seeks to provide a speedy and inexpensive remedy to the consumer.

The consumer Protection Act, 1986 is one of the benevolent social legislations intended to protect the large body of consumers from exploitation. The Act has come as a panacea for consumers all over the country and is considered as one of the most important legislations enacted for the benefit of the consumers. The consumer Protection Act, 1986 provides inexpensive and prompt remedy.

The consumer Protection Act, 1986 is dedicated, as its preamble shows, to provide for effective protection of the rights of the consumers. According to the Statement of Objects and Reasons, it seeks to provide speedy and simple redressal to consumer disputes. The object of the Act is to render simple, inexpensive and speedy remedy to the consumers with complaints against defective goods and deficient services and for that a quasi-judicial machinery has been sought to be set up at the District, State and Central levels. The consumer Protection Act has come to meet the long-felt necessity of protecting common man from wrongs for which the remedy under the ordinary law for various reasons has become illusory.

The consumer Protection Act, 1986 was amended in the years 1991, 1993 and in 2002 to make it more effective and purposeful.

To effectuate this objective, a provision has been made in Chapter II of the Act for the constitution of ‘the Central consumer Protection Council’ and ‘the State consumer Protection Councils.” The purpose as indicted in Section 6 is to “promote and protect the rights of consumers” against the “marketing of goods and services which are hazardous to life and property; the right to be informed about the quality, quantity, potency, purity, standard and price of goods or services, as the case may be, so as to protect the consumer against unfair trade practices; the right to be assured, wherever possible, access to a variety of goods and services at competitive prices; the right to be heard and to be assured that consumer’s interests will receive due consideration at appropriate Forums; the right to seek redressal against unfair trade practices or restrictive trade practices or unscrupulous exploitation of consumers and the right to consumer education.”

A perusal of Chapter II clearly shows that the statute seeks to protect the ‘consumer’ of goods and services in every possible way. It aims at providing a speedy and inexpensive remedy. Any interpretation of the provisions of the 1986 Act and the rules framed there under must promote this objective of the enactment.

SOURCE:  (2011) 9 SCALE 479 : JT 2011 (10) SC 207 : (2011) 9 SCC 707  (SUPREME COURT OF INDIA) IN C. Venkatachalam Versus Ajitkumar C. Shah and Others

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