Home / Opinion / Online-views /  A tale of two consumer rights

I am in the sylvan campus of the National Law School, Bangalore where I am an invitee for a seminar on twenty-five years of the Consumer Protection Act. Here, I meet a bunch of young legal eagles in the fifth and final year of their study. As students of a course Consumer Law and Practice they present a most interesting paper, different from the scholarly work of the academics in the forum because it is completely experiential. A group of eight boys and girls used a set of popular cosmetics and found that every claim made in the advertisements for these products was untrue. They wrote to each of the manufacturers asking for explanations but did not get a halfway satisfactory response. They are now preparing to seek redressal in the district consumer forums. It brings us to the next two consumer rights after the right to safety and the right to information, in the series that began two weeks ago. These are:

(a) The right to be heard and to be assured that consumer’s interests will receive due consideration at appropriate forums.

(b) The right to seek redressal against unfair trade practices or unscrupulous exploitation of consumers.

The law students I met exercised both these rights as follows:

Vagish Kumar Singh used an entire tube of Garnier Powerlight, a men’s fairness moisturiser, endorsed by actor John Abraham, which claims to bestow lighter skin and contain “perlite", a substance that ensures oil and sweat free skin. Vagish found that he was not in the least bit fairer after an entire tube was consumed. He wrote to the consumer helpline of Garnier asking for documentary scientific proof that shows the cream has these properties. When he got no response from them, he has written to the department of consumer affairs seeking third-party verification of the product’s claims.

Namrata Ramachandran used Nivea’s Energy Fresh which claims to prevent sweat and body odour for 48 hours. She and her team of two other classmates Aditya and Sounak found that this was not true. They wrote to Nivea asking them to show test results to prove their claim. The company responded asking for redundant details like when and where the product was purchased. The team is waiting till this week after which they are filing a case in the consumer court. They were bolstered by several Internet reviews criticizing the product for over-promising as the deodorant needed reapplication in 6-8 hours. Namrata’s point is that if there are particular conditions under which the deodorant will work for two days then they must be mentioned. Otherwise it is implied that a user of this product while travelling in May in Mumbai’s local train, will still smell like fresh lilies.

Stocky and slightly chubby Shashank M. Patil tried VLCC’s Waist and Tummy trim gel whose claim is that fifteen years of research has shown that a person using this can lose upto 6 inches of waist fat within 3-6 weeks. Shashank’s tummy didn’t shrink an inch. Of course, there is a caveat on the cream that “conditions vary according to body type". A German classmate, Marco Weiss, sent a sample of the cream to a Swiss lab and the test results too showed that the ingredients did not have any properties that can lead to slimming. So the boys called up the toll free number to ask some questions but got no response. Then they wrote an email asking for the research report relating to the cream’s efficacy and also how body type plays a role. They got no response, so they have sent VLCC a notice demanding redressal of their grievances (compensation and removal of advertisement). If they still don’t hear from them, they are approaching the courts.

Raghav Srivastava tried Dove Damage Therapy Anti-dandruff shampoo. The ad claims that it contains zinc pyrithione (ZPTO) and a mystifying ingredient called “patented micro moisture serum". Together they are supposed to wage war on the flaky stuff. The team found that the ad is misleading as ZPTO is an antifungal agent that acts on Malassezia fungi which is only one of the causes of dandruff. Dandruff has half a dozen causative factors, so the shampoo will possibly work only if this fungi is the cause. But this is obviously not mentioned in the pack. Raghav and team sent an email to the customer care asking some tough questions and got nothing but an automated reply.

In each of the cases, the students, as consumers of the different products demanded that their grievance be heard and redressed satisfactorily, but their rights were not honoured. Only one team had better luck. Ritu Chandra and Johnathan, an exchange student from the National University of Singapore, tested the claims of fairness in four weeks promised by the Himalaya Fairness cream. They wrote on the website, phoned and emailed the company asking for proof of any study where this claim has been tested. They got a call from the head of the company’s legal department and a written response explaining the results of their study and asking for their product and purchase details. It doesn’t mean Himalaya Herbals claims are true. But the consumer’s right to be heard and redressed were upheld.

The point of citing these instances in this week’s column is not the misleading claims and exaggerated promises. That is a separate story for another time. The reason I am citing the experiences of the students of National Law School is to show that consumers routinely write to companies whose products they find unsatisfactory. Often, the complaints disappear into some galactic space and very rarely elicit a response. We need to remember that this is a violation of two rights that we have as consumers—the right to be heard and the right to redressal.

Vandana Vasudevan is a Delhi-based writer on urban consumer and civic experiences. Your comments are welcome at toughcustomer@livemint.com

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