Consumer Protection is not a new phenomenon, it has been in existence since the Vedic period during 5000 BC-2005 BC. Throughout the ancient period, one comes across four broad types of relevant criminal offenses against consumers. These were :
1. Adulteration of foodstuff
2. Charging of excessive prices
3. Fabrication of weights and measures
4. Selling of forbidden articles
Statutory provisions and measures have been recommended by the leading texts of the time. Prominent of these were Manu Smriti (800 BC-600 BC), Kautaliya Arthashasta (400-300 BC), Yajnavalkya Smriti(300-100BC), Narada Smriti(100 AD-200 AD), Brihaspati Smriti(200-400 AD), Katyana Smriti(300 AD-600 AD).
Manu Smriti describes the political, social, and economic conditions of ancient society. Manu, the ancient lawgiver, also wrote about ethical trade practices. Manu Smriti and Yajnavalkya Smriti provided for the highest or pecuniary punishment to the one that sells unclean meat and deals with false gold. Kautaliya Arthashastra provides that if fat, medicine, perfume, salt were adulterated then the person liable would be given the pecuniary punishment of 12 Pannas. False weights and measures were very common during ancient times, Manu Smriti provided that the weights and measures should be duly marked by the King and should be reexamined after every 6 months. To tackle the same problem, Kautilya Arthasastra provided for the appointment of the ‘Superintendent of Weights and Measures’ with a view of minimizing the likelihood of fraud being committed and also at the end of every 4 months these weights, measures, and balances should be re-examined and re-stamped by the officers. Manu Smriti also mentioned about fixation of rate of purchase and sale of marketable goods, transport charges, the value of goods, incidental expenses, margin of profits once in 5 nights or fortnightly and publicly. Similarly, Yajnavalkya Smriti mentioned that because of the excessive price charging by the traders, sales and purchases should be according to the value fixed by the King.
Further during the Mughal Period (1296 AD-1316 AD), Sultan Ala-Ud-Din Khilji had introduced strict price control measures based on production costs. He controlled the hoarding of the grains by establishing distinct shopping centers for grain, cloth, sugar, dried fruits, herbs, oil, and butter in Delhi. Officers were employed to submit reports to the Sultan on these centers.
During the British Regime, the concern was more with the protection and promotion of British interests than advancing the welfare of the native population thus the government’s economic policies were made such. There were however some pieces of legislation that protected overall public interest though not primarily consumer interest such as IPC, Dangerous Drugs Act, Sales of Goods Act, Law of Torts, Indian Contract Act, etc.
It was realized that the shift from agriculture to industry was important to grow the economy. Struggle for a new society began which was basically the consumer society. In 1950, planned development through industrialization began and migration of rural population to urban areas increased when the product demand increased but supply was not enough. Adulteration and hoarding started and thus a firm law was required. Prevention of food adulteration was one of the earlier laws. In order to protect the interest of the consumers, the government of India appointed Hazari Committee, Dutt Committee, and Monopolies Enquiry Commission.
On the basis of their reports Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act, 1969 was passed. By this time few consumer groups emerged and the main objective was to protest against the rising prices. One of the earliest was the Consumer Guidance Society of India (CGSI) which was established after the MIC report by nine housewives in Bombay in 1996 to educate the consumers. Since Independence the major pieces of legislation that were enacted to protect the consumers were: The Essential Commodities Act, 1955; Specific Relief Act, 1963; Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act.
These Acts could not provide a better, speedy, and inexpensive remedy to the consumers. The Consumer Protection Act, 1986 based on the UN guidelines came as a major piece of legislation that aimed at protecting the consumers and applies to all goods and services except on those which are specifically exempted by the central government. Section 3 of the Act states that the provision of this Act is in addition to and not in derogation of the provisions of any other law for the time being in force.