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Stalled legislation

The delay in passing crucial bills only strengthen the hands of criminals who have little respect for the society and consumers

Stalled legislation

Parliament might have had its best monsoon session in the last 18 years going by the hours of operations of both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha and the number of bills passed, yet nothing could explain why it failed to move and pass the critical anti-trafficking and consumer protection bills. The Executive should probably explain why it did not show enough interest to see the two socially extremely important bills through to become law after the mandatory President's consent. This is especially surprising in view of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's strong reference particularly to the consumer protection bill earlier in Lok Sabha and series of news reports of human trafficking and sexual abuse — and, even murder — of female children and orphans especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the last two months. The Anti-trafficking Bill, pending before Rajya Sabha, ties together the approaches of prevention, rescue and rehabilitation to create a robust policy framework against trafficking. It places at its core the rights and welfare of victims of human trafficking. In reality, trafficking and exploitation of women and children have become common and is increasing. Therefore, the reason for the government going slow on passing the bill remains somewhat a mystery.

Incidentally, the morning news report on August 10, the last day of the monsoon session, had shaken even the Supreme Court which expressed serious concern over recent cases of rape and sexual abuse of women at shelter homes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and asked when these horrific incidents would stop. The apex court's observation came while hearing a matter relating to sexual abuse of children at orphanages. "Tell us what is this happening?," a bench of justices Madan B Lokur, S Abdul Nazeer, and Deepak Gupta said while referring to the recent incident at Pratapgarh in Uttar Pradesh where 26 women have been reported to be missing from shelter homes. Besides Pratapgarh, incidents of rape and sexual abuse of women and girls at shelter homes run by NGOs have also surfaced recently in Muzaffarpur in Bihar and Deoria in Uttar Pradesh. According to the Global Slavery Index, India has more than seven million victims of modern slavery, including those involved in sexual exploitation. The number of victims is increasing each year, while the conviction rate of perpetrators continues to be abysmally low.

It may be worth mentioning that the anti-trafficking bill seeks to introduce, for the first time, a rehabilitation fund to be used for the physical, psychological and social well-being of victims. The bill wants to provide capital, infrastructure, education and skill development to empower the victims to access justice and to prevent further trafficking. And, also for the first time, a national anti-trafficking bureau will coordinate with authorities in foreign countries and international organisations, and facilitate inter-state and trans-border transfer of evidence and materials. It will bolster the intelligence apparatus to improve the collection, collation and dissemination of operational intelligence. Trafficking is an organised crime. To break such a well-organised nexus, at the national and international levels, the bill proposes attachment and forfeiture of property and to remit the proceeds of crime to the rehabilitation fund. It provides the power to freeze bank accounts of those whose funds have been utilised to facilitate trafficking. Unfortunately, Parliament could not find enough time to pass 'The Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018' which was already cleared by Lok Sabha on July 26.

Interestingly, Lok Sabha's revised list of business on August 10 placed the Consumer Protection Bill, 2018, under the item No. 27 at the fag end of its legislative business. It said: "Shri Ram Vilas Paswan to move that the Bill provide for protection of the interest of consumers and for the said purpose, to establish authorities for timely and effective administration and settlement of consumer disputes and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto, be taken into consideration. Also, to move that the Bill be passed." However, the bill was not finally moved and passed for unknown reasons. Ironically, on the same day, morning newspapers reported a massive raid in Rajasthan of substandard drugs of several varieties. The printed drug packs carried the names of some of the country's top pharmaceutical manufacturers. The drug firms mentioned in the media were quick to report by claiming that the raided medicines were 'fake' and they had nothing to do with those drugs. Maybe, appropriate legal instruments for protection of consumers in such cases could wait for some more time. After all, the existing Consumer Protection Act is 32 years' old. The consumer market today is much more complex than what it was in 1986. Today, the growing trade through e-commerce and digital transactions have raised an invisible wall between buyers and sellers or retailers, opening new opportunities for fraudsters in the absence of a strict consumer protection law.

The new consumer protection bill, which is to replace the existing act of 1986, is designed to enforce consumer rights and provide a mechanism for redressal of complaints regarding defect in goods and deficiency in services. The bill proposes the setting up of Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions at the district, state and national levels for adjudicating consumer complaints. The bill sets up a Central Consumer protection Authority "to promote, protect and enforce consumer rights as a class." It can issue safety notices for goods and services, order refunds, recall goods and "rule against misleading advertisements." The bill defines contracts as 'unfair' if they significantly affect the rights of consumers. It also defines unfair and restrictive trade practices and prescribes penalties for offenders. Few will disagree that both the bills need to be passed without wasting any more time as their delay or absence is only strengthening the hands of criminals who have little respect for the society and consumers.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

Nantoo Banerjee

Nantoo Banerjee

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