The Dilemma of a Disillusioned Consumer Rights Activist

Published: 08th March 2016 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th March 2016 10:47 PM   |  A+A-

On December 9 last year, a group of labourers  working for a contractor engaged by  the Bengaluru municipal corporation to replace pavement slabs, broke the water pipe  leading to my flat, and water was  left flowing  on to the road. The gang had also caused extensive  damage to the concrete  base of  my  entrance. I was not home, and seeing the lock on the door, the workers had  apparently swung their  crowbars with abandon, whereas  other dwellings  adjacent to mine, where residents were present,  had suffered no damage. 

The supervisor was nowhere in sight ; he turned up five hours later,  but  declared that his job  only involved  laying  new  stones, not repairing damage to  private property. I ran to the water board  office, and was told that since the BBMP had broken my pipe, it was their job to repair it. I phoned the corporation  engineer. He said plumbing is not the  BBMP’s job. In the meantime, the water  was flowing out. 

Someone  suggested I contact the local corporator — a woman, but  apparently  it is her husband who takes all decisions. He came two hours later, with a retinue of hangers-on, declared that the “water pipe would be replaced” but the damage to my entrance was my responsibility, and pushed off.  (Replaced when? I asked, worried  about lack of water. He ignored  my question.)

I went to the MLA. I sent an email to the BBMP commissioner. Nothing happened. There was not even an acknowledgement. Six days later, the water pipe was replaced — but a gaping, one-foot deep  jagged hole was left  at my entrance, because “that is masonry work, not a plumber’s job”.  The  contractor collected his money from BBMP and pushed off.   BBMP didn’t bother to check the work done. (Six weeks later, the new slabs are already dislodged , leaving gaping, treacherous  holes on the footpath. Who  cares?)

Of the  dozen  activists  I  contacted  to muster  support against  such  atrocious  lack of accountability , one called up the MLA (and was told “nothing can be done”) while another merely commiserated:   “These  people  have no ethics, there’s nothing we can do.”   In that case, who upholds citizens’ rights? Doesn’t  an  MLA  have the power to  call the contractor or the BBMP commissioner who engaged the contractor, to ensure justice? After three  decades  as a consumer activist, I am now wondering  if I and my  colleagues in the consumer movement are wasting our time and energy, especially against public utilities,  administrators and politicians.

BBMP and BWSSB are ‘service providers’. Corporators and MLAs are elected to oversee, protect and promote citizens’ interests. If a citizen has a grievance, can they all just say ‘Nothing can be done’? Finally, I   had to spend  `8,800  from my pocket to  get the damage repaired. Last year, a  contractor engaged by the water board  disconnected my sewage line while laying new pipes, and  demanded a bribe of `3,500 for reconnection. The BWSSB office where I complained, advised me to plead with the contractor that I was an “aged  lady, so he should reduce the demand”. Where does one turn to, against such rampant goondaism?  My  complaint to the BWSSB chairman brought no reply. If this is the helplessness of someone who has been a consumer activist and knows the rules, what is it like for lay citizens?

I have filed  cases under the Consumer Protection Act   and obtained some precedent-setting orders during the 1990s.  Today, a quarter century after the law was introduced, we activists  find  that even the consumer courts are proving ineffective and  inefficient, with scant attention devoted to monitoring  their working.  Many district courts  and state commissions around the country   are in shambles, vacancies don’t get filled, infrastructural facilities are dismal, and what was meant to be a “quick, simple and inexpensive” redressal  mechanism is anything but, reduced to a frustrating caricature of the original intent.  The law says complaints have to be resolved  within 90 days; today cases from 2008 are still dragging on.

Citizens  are slapped with fines for even a day’s late payment of dues. Who fines service providers, for  delays and dereliction?  As  consumers of services, why are we - the urban educated middle class -- not mobilizing in sufficient numbers to claim our rights, to  better administration,  safety and satisfactory services? That is the question we should be addressing as another Consumers Day  comes  round.

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