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.