The Consumer Protection Act of India (CoPRA) was passed in 1986. It is a benevolent social legislation meant to protect consumers from exploitation by traders, dealers and manufacturers. On 24 December, the act completed 25 years. To commemorate this milestone, over the past year several consumer organizations and academic institutions have been holding various conclaves, some in partnership with the department of consumer affairs, to reflect on how far this legislation has been effective. Since there is so much discussion happening in seminars about this important topic, I thought it is pertinent to get you as readers, and consumers, into the fold by making you aware of how CoPRA empowers you. CoPRA grants every consumer rights that include safety, information, choice, redress and consumer education.

The right to safety is the right to be protected against consumption of goods and services hazardous to health and life. There are many laws to secure our right to safety, which can be broadly classified as those that set standards for safety of goods and services and those that are meant to ensure our physical safety. Here are the key laws in each category:

Ensuring safety standards

Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

The other law in this sphere is the Bureau of Indian Standards 1986. It requires manufacturers, not just of food, to voluntarily declare to the bureau that their product or service is ready to be certified and earn an ISI (Indian Standards Institute) mark of quality. The voluntary nature of the law for a majority of goods leaves a lot of people out of the net and there have been reports of ISI-marked products being of poor quality or of standards slipping after receiving the certification.

The Drugs and Cosmetics Act 2008, in contrast, is poorly articulated in the area of cosmetics. It makes vague motherhood statements like “a cosmetic shall be deemed to be adulterated if it contains any harmful or toxic substance which may render it injurious to health." The list of toxic chemicals needs to be specified and updated. Tests done by watchdogs in the west show that chemicals previously widely accepted in cosmetics are now proven unsafe. The bare and ill informed wording of the cosmetics part of the act, doesn’t even differentiate between coloured and non-coloured cosmetics, a basic division in the industry. It makes one suspect no woman was on the law making panel, in which case it would be like a group of housewives making specifications for tractors.

Laws for physical safety

There are many laws in this category. The Lifts Acts specific to each state are formed to ensure safe elevator rides. Lifts need to be licensed, checked for maintenance periodically first by the owner, then by a lift inspector and the certificate of safety displayed inside the lift, among other requirements. A news report in May this year in the Times of India newspaper said 8% of Bangalore’s lifts were unlicensed. In July 2011, after a young man was crushed to his death in a lift of a residential society in Greater Noida, it was found Noida and Greater Noida, bordering the capital, were blissfully out of the ambit of any Lift Act.

There are regular reports of horrific accidents in amusement parks and water parks because they have no law requiring them to adhere to any safety standard. The BIS merely offers guidelines to ride manufacturers and amusement park owners. That’s a huge lapse in an area where lives can be lost, and often are.

The Indian Railways Act 1989, instructs commissioners to inspect new lines, stocks and stores and any aspect which can endanger the safety of passengers. A few weeks ago, this column focused on the alarming increase in railway accidents (All aboard the train to nowhere, go to which shows that the implementation of this act is strangely becoming more and more lax, while other laws are trying to get tighter.

There are other laws to ensure physical safety, too many to list here.

As you can see, there are enough laws formulated to protect our right to safety—some with teeth, some with wobbly teeth and others toothless. But their implementation is poor, leaving Indian consumers much more vulnerable than their counterparts in developed economies. We need two things to make it work better:

An independent safety commission like the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in the US committed to protecting American consumers from the risk of injury or death from thousands of products that are under its purview. No one is beyond its ken, so often the world’s leading brands are hauled up.

The BIS must abandon the voluntary approach, which is not helping anyone. Especially in categories where there can be a life threatening situation, like elevator cabins or amusement park rides, it is hard to see why the standards are voluntary and not mandatory.

Overall, in the right to safety, whether as consumers, or citizens, we are pretty short changed and generally live with a wide margin of risk, leaving much to chance and fate.

Vandana Vasudevan is a Delhi-based writer on urban consumer and civic experiences.

Also Read | Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier columns