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Home > Business > Columnists > Sucheta Dalal

There is more at stake than a mere face napkin

January 31, 2003

How do you react to this? A consumer has been awarded a compensation of Rs 500 for 'deficiency in service' by the Indian Railways and for causing him 'mental agony and harassment' by failing to provide a face napkin during his journey from Delhi to Ahmedabad.

I expect a variety of reactions. If you were familiar with the Indian Railways, you would dismiss the story as a joke or think that some crank was clogging up the consumer courts with frivolous complaints.

But if you were an alien and clueless about India's population density and per capita income, you would think we are such an efficient country that even the failure to provide a napkin becomes an actionable complaint that gets quick redressal.

Both reactions would be clearly wrong. First of all, this is a true story. The Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum recently asked the Railways to pay Rs 500 to J P Singh for failing to provide him with a napkin while travelling on Train 9106 in a Second AC coach on March 15, 2000.

The complainant is no crank. In fact, he is a mild-mannered professor at the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad and a consumer activist.

Also, Prof Singh did not rush off to the Consumer Disputes Forum because the Railways did not provide him with a napkin -- the service that day was deficient in almost all respects. As the consumer court observed, he had alleged 'various deficiencies in service and inadequate facilities' of which the face napkin was just one.

Forget the napkin, the Railways did not even bother to take breakfast orders from the passengers. Lunch was served in a slap-dash manner in loose packets, no water provided and although coffee was available, there was no tea. To make matters worse there was a rat running around in the compartment.

Was the lack of amenities mere sloppiness or is there a design in the negligence? Not providing passengers with bottled water and napkins that are issued to each compartment would add up to a tidy sum if it were to happen on several trains everyday.

Prof Singh decided to record his complaint as proof of deficient service. But when he asked for the suggestion book, it wasn't given to him. After persistent reminders, he was told that the book was only available with the guard.

Proving deficient service then became a difficult task. Prof Singh's fellow passengers had dispersed and weren't available to provide evidence and his letters to the chief area manager, Western Railway were ignored.

He then wrote to the Railways through the Consumer Education and Research Society, Ahmedabad, which also elicited evasive replies. Eventually, Singh and CERS filed a complaint with the Consumer Forum seeking a refund of his rail fare of Rs 1,242 with 18 per cent interest, Rs 2,500 as compensation for mental agony and Rs 1,000 as litigation costs to each of the two complainants.

Here is what happened.

The Railways only admitted their failure to provide face towels and the Consumer Forum awarded him a Rs 500 compensation and rejected all other claims, leaving the complainant wondering if he had won his case or was taught a lesson that he should not ever complain about deficient service.

Singh's experience demonstrates how the judiciary, instead of helping consumers, can end up encouraging companies to ignore them. Whether it is consumer grievances or investor complaints, the courts are extremely reluctant to hand out harsh damages that would force offending companies to introspect.

Instead, they hand out niggardly awards that end up as a deterrent to filing complaints. Look at Prof Singh's case, two years of persistent follow up gets him an unsatisfactory verdict and a pitiful compensation even when he has won.

Had the court handed out punitive damages, the Railways would have been forced to conduct an inquiry and at least censure the officials involved. This way, the Railways have won even when they have lost.

Sometimes these inadequate verdicts border on the macabre.

Here is another true story. In August 1994, D P Agarwal, his friend B M Bhatt, Bhatt's wife Manju, and their young son met with an accident on the Ahemadabad-Gandhinagar highway.

A truck coming from the opposite direction collided with their Maruti 800 killing Manju Bhatt, who was sitting right behind Agarwal who was driving the car. Agarwal himself was badly injured, while Bhatt and his son escaped unhurt, and, in fact, filed the police first information report.

When Agarwal recovered, he lodged an insurance claim with the New India Assurance Company and embarked on a five-year nightmare.

The company went to extraordinary lengths to avoid paying his claim of Rs 135,000. It allegedly had the truck driver file an affidavit claiming that it was not Agarwal, but the dead Manju Bhatt, who had been driving the car.

When it was pointed out that Mrs Bhatt did not even have a driving license, the company went: ĎA-ha, that is why there was an accident.' The insurance company's move even allowed the truck driver to get away with rash driving.

Agarwal fought doggedly for five years with the help of CERS and established his case with the help of the original FIR and the police panchanama, which had the driver's confession and a description of tyre marks made by the truck.

He won his case in 1999 and the consumer court described the insurance company's actions as 'arbitrary' and the evidence of the truck driver as a 'falsely' created afterthought to 'shirk liability.'

It noted that the insurer had 'miserably failed to produce' the driver as a witness or any evidence that it claimed to possess.

Agarwal's award: the Rs 135,000 claim with 18 per cent interest from the date of the accident, Rs 10,000 for mental agony, harassment and inconvenience and Rs 2,000 as costs.

Again, it is New India Assurance that got away lightly. The insurance and interest was Agarwal's rightful due, while the damages of Rs 10,000 are probably a tiny fraction of what New India Assurance spent on lawyers to fight the case.

The Rs 2,000 that was paid as costs does not even begin to cover Agarwal's expenses. Moreover, the court also rejected the cost claim of Rs 5,000 by the consumer organisation that helped Agarwal fight his case.

The ruling will not deter insurance companies from harassing consumers and, in fact, encourage people to pay grease money to have their claims settled rather than approach a consumer body.

It is doubtful whether Agarwal could have established his case without support from the consumer body, by rejecting its costs; the consumer court dealt a blow to the consumer movement too.

On paper, the Indian Consumer Protection Act, 1956 is among the best in the world, but judicial delays and insensitivity and the reluctance of courts to make companies pay for ill-treating consumers has killed the efficacy of the law.

That is why very few consumers even bother to seek redress. They become stoic about bad service, pay bribes for what is their rightful due and switch to alternatives when there are any.

Sucheta Dalal

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