Every year when the time for the presentation of the national budget nears, the finance minister in his pre-budget consultations--as has been the practice for some years-- can be expected to meet with representatives of different interest groups to get their views and recommendations for possible consideration while making the budget. The business community is seen specially active in these meetings and many of their suggestions can be expected to be favourably taken into consideration while preparing the budget document. Thus, the producers and sellers get the opportunity to be heard by the government on the eve of the declaration of the national budget which is very important for all kinds of production and selling activities involving the producers, the financiers, the distributors and others in the entire business chain.
But the consumers or the preponderant number of people in the country who are to consume the products and services of businesses are not seen similarly consulted. This, on the one hand, reflects the weaknesses of whatever consumer organisations there are in the country and, on the other, government's callous attitude towards consumers' interests.
But proper economic management essentially calls for giving a boost to not only right type of production activities but equally, the consumption activities. The productive efficiency or allocative efficiency of resources in an economy is determined not only by how goods or services are produced but whether these can effectively satisfy the maximum demand of consumers at prices they can afford as well as meeting consumers' expectation in respect of quality or safety of the products and services.
If consumers are persuaded by lack of regulation and information or misinformation to consume more demerit goods that provide no social benefits or negligible such benefits but create high costs to society from their consumption, then hardly the goals of positive consumption are attained. Consumption ought to be more and more in areas that generate much greater social benefits than costs so that the economy can grow in the right direction or the right type of economic growth can be sustained. For example, attractive media advertisements can allure the customers into buying many unnecessary or even harmful goods and services. The real promotion of consumers' interest involve discouraging the consumption of such goods and services. But these truly enlightened interests of the consumers can be advanced only in a situation where enabling legislation in extensive forms exists to discourage production and consumption of demerit goods and services.
Powerful consumers' groups in many countries act as a go between the producers and the government and contribute to government's policy formulation so that consumers' interests as well as the best interests of the national economy are promoted. The absence of such groups in Bangladesh or their presence in rather feeble form has meant inadequate representation of consumers' interest . But that does not absolve the government of its responsibility to act on its own and doing its best to safeguard the interests of consumers because this is not only desirable from the perspective of consumers but also very necessary for the economy's efficient functioning to ensure best utilisation of resources or maximising their value.
People in all walks of life have been very shocked by the recent findings of the roving mobile courts. People could learn that practically unedible foodstuffs in terms of quality and safety were being marketed with the least care by their producers. In other cases, foods were being catered to customers in unhygienic conditions. Both are very serious offences and since the taking of the initiative by the mobile courts against adulterated food and unhygienic catering of food, the demand for toughening the laws against such offences arose. The relevant laws have been toughened as a response. But for the comprehensive protection of the consumers, extensive laws are needed. For example, it is not enough to only find stale food and fine their producers or caterers. The laws should have longer arms and provide penalties for not meeting the desired quality specifications of foods in respect of colouring, additives, refrigeration, bottling, etc. Similar 'elaborate' laws should be there to deal with producers of all kinds of goods apart from food items and also services providers.
The detailed laws should aim to ensure safe production and consumption of all types of goods and services from end to end. And such detailed laws to include every sphere of consumers' interests are only possible through a comprehensive consumer protection act. Such an act was contemplated twelve years ago and a draft form of this act was prepared by the law ministry for submission in parliament. But long twelve years have gone by ; the draft law was not even introduced in parliament. Probably vested interest groups are active to withhold the passing of this law which they fear would create compulsions on them to take much greater care as regards the quality, price and safety of their products.
The Consumer Association of Bangladesh (CAB) is the only organization of any significance devoted to upholding and promoting consumers' interests. It organized a discussion meeting at the Jatiya Press Club last week where the speakers drew attention to the obstructionism in passing this vital legislation. They pointed out that India, Nepal and other countries have implemented elaborate legislation in the interest of buyers and ensured consumers' protection. But Bangladesh has done nothing of substance to this end. CAB's urging of the government to introduce the consumer protection act in parliament-immediately-- has been overdue. But it needs to sensitise and mobilize the consumers in large number in support of its advocacy to be able to pile enough pressure on the government.
The Bangladesh Standard and Testing Organisation (BSTI) is the main official body that deals presently with consumer protection. But this organisation performs in a lackluster way for many reasons. One such very important reason is its lack of empowerment. It can detect violation of standard in the production and distribution processes and warn and admonish the violators. But it is not empowered to order the withdrawal of defective goods or to prohibit their production. Thus, the BSTI is like a tiger without its tooth and claws. Clearly, the BSTI will have to be empowered with introduction of new laws or amendments of existing ones to work efficiently towards consumer protection. This has become an imperative. BSTI may be adequately empowered also if and when the proposed comprehensive consumer protection act comes into force. Furthermore, this vital organisation will have to be made resourceful with recruitment of expert people for testing and acquiring of adequate testing equipment and other facilities for the purpose.