NEW DELHI:Eighteen years ago, a girl in Tamil Nadu was born prematurely at a government hospital in Chennai’s Egmore. She was discharged from the hospital without a retinopathy test, a must for premature infants. By the time the lapse was discovered, the girl had lost her vision.
Her father then approached the National Consumer Forum, which awarded her Rs 5 lakh. Unhappy with the compensation, the family approached the Supreme Court.
In one of the largest compensations given in a case of medical negligence so far in the country, the apex court, in July this year, ordered the Tamil Nadu government to pay Rs 1.8 crore to the girl since she lost her vision at birth due to medical negligence at a government hospital.
Generally, many consumers would not get compensation they deserve and because of poor compensation, consumers often lose interest in the case.
Despite growing consumer awareness, pendency in consumer forums has increased in the last three years. As many as 3,72,378 cases are pending across national, state and district forums as of June 1, 2015, which include 2,73,010 cases that are pending in district forums alone.
It is not just the pendency that is worrying, some of the district forums have not been functioning at all. Of the total 650 district forums, 31 are non-functional. Of 27 district forums in Chattisgarh, nine were non-functional as of June this year. Five of 38 district forums were not functioning in Bihar, four of 30 in Tamil Nadu, four of 11 in Meghalaya, three of 11 in Nagaland, three of 16 in Arunachal Pradesh and two of 23 district forums in Assam are not functional.
Not only in district forums, inordinate delays in consumer forums at the national and state levels are also resulting in loss of faith of the common man in the process of consumer dispute resolution.
During the last three years, the National Commission could not dispose of all the cases filed. In 2012, 5,116 cases were filed and 4,452 cases were disposed of. In 2013, 7,223 cases were filed and 6,602 cases were dealt with. Till December 2014, 5,360 cases were filed and 4,768 cases were disposed of.
Compared to 2013, state commissions could not dispose of half of the cases till December 2014. While the state commissions disposed of 38,965 cases in 2013, they could settle only 12,662 cases till December 2014.
The situation is similar at the district forums as well. While the district forums disposed of 1,31,490 cases in 2013, they could dispose of only 5,74,109 cases till December 2014.
Though the Centre provides funds to the state governments for Computerization and Computer Networking of Consumer Fora in the Country (CONFONET), it is not operational in more than 100 district forums.
Despite sanction of financial assistance from the Centre, many states are yet to operationalise consumer helplines. Of the 32 sanctioned consumer helplines, only 21 are functional so far.
Responding to the concerns expressed over pending consumer cases, the government informed the Parliament that the pendency in consumer forums is due to various reasons such as increased number of cases caused by growing consumer awareness, lack of infrastructure and problem in execution of orders of the district forum.
The government also conceded before the department relating Parliamentary Standing Committee that neither the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution at national level nor state governments at the state level have any administrative control over disposal of cases. It pointed out that to address some structural difficulties in the legislative framework, it has already introduced the Consumer Protection Bill, 2015, in the Monsoon Session.