Rights of consumers in Sri Lanka
The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Sri Lanka (FCCISL) organised and hosted the World Consumer Rights Day Forum 2013 on 15 March 2013 at the IPS auditorium, Colombo. The event was sponsored by the Socio-Economic Development for Conflict Affected Communities of North and East Sri Lanka, which is a project funded by the EU and implemented by Oxfam GB.
Unlike last year’s event, the World Consumer Day Forum did not have a specific theme this year. However, according to IPS Executive Director Saman Kelegama, the event was the only one organised in Sri Lanka to mark the rights of consumers. “Everyone talks about consumer rights but no one does anything to tackle this issue,” said FCCISL President Kumar Mallimaratchi.
Stating that the recent electricity price hikes would greatly impact middle income level earners, he shared that the hotel sector would also be affected if the number of tourists visiting Sri Lanka were to drop. Comparing the standards and quality of products that are available Singapore and the Middle East, Mallimaratchi opined that products of same models available in those countries are not the same as what are offered in Sri Lanka. He said it is disturbing to note that Sri Lanka is choosing to settle for products of lower quality. “It is time we start applying strict standards to our products as we are now a middle income country,” he said.
Challenges of consumers
Speaking on the challenges of consumer protection in Sri Lanka was former Chairman and Director General of the Securities and Exchange Commission Dr. Dayanath Jayasuriya. He said that the lack of knowledge on rights and duties, taking certain matters for granted, and lack of resources to pursue rights are just a few challenges faced by consumers. Consumer rights, which had been limited to rights to safety, information, choice and to be heard, have progressed to rights to satisfaction of basic needs, consumer education, redress, and rights to a healthier environment. Indentifying the missing links, he opined that a well-drafted law for consumer protection along with business ethics was needed to address issues in this regard.
Legislation for consumer protection
“Any trader who conducts himself in a misleading manner to a trader or a consumer is liable.” This statement, which is a part of the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) Act under Section 30, was read to the audience by PIM Senior Lecturer and former Secretary of the Ministry of Plan Implementation Dr. Wickrema Weerasooriya.
According to his experience, the stated act defining ‘traders’ as every entity that is engaged in a business activity, is used to “trash out” well-established companies for misconduct with consumers. “This consumer law is revolutionised by this section,” he said. However he expressed that the potential of this section is not fully understood in Sri Lanka and there was a dire need to raise awareness among lawyers in this regard. “I ask my fellow lawyers to get just one judgment passed under the Consumer Affairs Authority Act under Section 30.” He affirmed that by doing so, due recognition and reliability to the section would be established.
According to IPS Research Assistant Raveen Ekanayake, Sri Lanka has yet to prescribe to a national list of acceptable pesticides, drugs and associated Maximum Residue Limits (MRL). Stating that exporters are not provided with incentives to comply with higher standards, he said: “Substandard produce that consists of unsafe levels of pesticides, chemical residue, and banned substances are unknowingly consumed.” Highlighting that food safety risk management in Sri Lanka is conducted in a rather ad-hoc manner, he stressed that food safety is a crosscutting issue that should be addressed by bringing together collaborative efforts of agencies concerned. “Sri Lanka needs an independent institution to better identify, coordinate, and address perceived food safety risks,” Ekanayake said. Presenting a set of actions that could be followed to help improve food safety in Sri Lanka, recommendations made by Ekanayake included having to establish an acceptable pesticide drug list along with specified MRLs. Emphasising that “prudence” should be exercised when designing such guidelines, he stated that investments are needed to establish testing and certifying facilities which would help to ensure effective implementation of regulations.
Speaking of utility pricing and its impact on consumers, Public Utility Commission Director General Dhamitha Kumarasinghe said that stakeholders in this arena would be the Government, regulators, utility and consumers. While the company offering the utility wants maximum profits and consumers want the utilities for a minimum price, Kumarasinghe said the objective of both stakeholders were conflicting. “The Government’s role is to focus on economic development while ensuring that utilities are made affordable. On the other hand, regulators play the role of managing stakeholder interest,” he said. Stating that issues regarding utilities could be addressed if only consumers decide to participate in decision making processes, he stressed that consumers should voice their concerns especially on matters with this regard as utilities are products that cannot be easily substituted. Having consumers engaged in the consultation process of the electricity price hike scenario, Kumarasinghe said that many consumers kept stating that the price increase would be a burden on them but none had proposed ways of reducing the said burden.
Concerns of a farmer
“Just like everyone else, farmers also have the need for food, shelter and clothing. We hope those outside our community also understand this,” said Marriaillupai/Rambaikulam Agro Development Cooperative Society President Kanthaiya Mutukumar, conveying that facilities available to farmers are questionable.
He said that in order to get their produce to the market, farmers have to use chemicals preservatives on their harvests. “Vegetables containing agro-chemicals should not be consumed in the first 15 days. Ignoring our advice, wholesalers and retailers put the produce for sale as soon as it reaches their premises.”
He added while people get affected for unknowingly consuming these vegetables, farmers are the ones who are blamed. “Wholesalers do not buy produce that cannot be kept for long,” he said. He noted that to make ends meet, farmers are compelled to use such chemicals on their harvests. Calling on consumers to demand more organic produce, as it is a better choice, Mutukumar said that the old ways of harvesting, where no chemicals are added to produce, could be brought back if consumers decide to make a shift towards a healthier lifestyle.