Cinemas, theatre and other places of public entertainment generally overcharge customers. This is rampant, but rarely does a consumer take action. Here is a case where a consumer took on the mighty Reliance Media Works, and succeeded in asserting consumer rights.
Case Study: Manoj Kumar went for a movie at Big Cinemas, Jaipur, run by Mumbai-based Reliance Media Works. He bought a bottle of Aquafina water. The printed price showed an MRP of Rs 16, but Manoj was charged Rs 30. The bill gave a break up of Rs 26 09 for the water and Rs 391 as taxes.Manoj was upset at being overcharged, and asked for the complaint book, but it was not provided.
Manoj filed a complaint before the district forum. Reliance contested the complaint, contending that the bottles were purchased from Varun Beverages, with a printed MRP of Rs 30, approved by Aquafina Pepsico company .These bottles had a higher MRP as they were meant for sale in cinema halls, while regular ones for “ordinary people“ sold in “ordinary shops“ had an MRP of Rs 16. However, no proof was furnished in support of this .
The forum upheld Manoj’s complaint and directed the cinema hall to refund the excess amount of Rs 14. In addition, Rs 5,000 was awarded as compensation for mental agony and Rs 1,500 towards litigation costs. Reliance challenged this order before the Rajasthan State Commission, but the appeal was dismissed. Reliance then filed a revision petition, claiming that there was adequate provisions for free drinking water and nobody was forced to purchase bottled water. It reiterated its stand about the special MRP for sale of water bottles in cinema halls, and alleged that the bottle with the MRP of Rs 16 had not been sold by the cinema, but had been purchased by Manoj from a local shop, and was being used to file a false and frivolous complaint. The commission observed that the main questions were whether a service provider could charge more than the MRP , and whether cinema halls can have a special MRP different from the ordinary MRP . Expressing these to be serious issues, the commission summoned the Director of Weights & Measures, and also Pepsico India Holdings for an explanation.
The commission noted that no evidence had been produced by Reliance to show that it had sold a bottle of water bearing a special MRP . It observed that Manoj appeared to be a vigilant consumer and a whistleblower who would not allow cinema halls to repeatedly commit illegalities, and wanted to bring such malpractices to an end. It rejected Reliance’s argument that Manoj was not a consumer and that it was permissible to charges more than the MRP in view of a Delhi high court judgment in Delhi Gymkhana Club vs Union of India.
The commission observed that Pepsico was making contrary submission by stating that its Aquafina bottles were priced at Rs 16, but it was permissible to have two different MRPs. It said this “flip flop stand“ had created a doubt whether the company was working in cahoots with Reliance and other cinema halls. It then warned Pepsico to have only one MRP , and stated that it would not allow such a practice to overcharge people.
Accordingly , by its judgement of February 1, delivered by Justice J M Malik for the bench along with Dr S M Kantikar, the commission upheld the decision of holding Reliance liable. In addition, the commission saddled Reliance with further deterrent costs of Rs 5 lakh for illegal enrichment by charging and extorting money from their customers. This amount would have to be deposited in the commission’s Legal Aid Account within 90 days, or with 9% interest if delayed.
Impact: Overcharging consumers is not permissible. Earlier, in another case, the Maharashtra State Commission had ruled dual pricing would constitute an unfair trade practice.
(The author is a consumer activist and has won the Govt. of India’s National Youth Award for Consumer Protection. His e mail is jehang firstname.lastname@example.org)