It is not for nothing that Indian courts are clogged and government is the biggest litigant. What is worse, the actions of government agencies in shirking responsibility for deficient service actually ends up harassing the people, tantamount to using public money with no accountability.
Whenever a complaint is filed against a government department, the standard ploy to evade accountability is to claim that the complainant is not a ‘consumer’ within the definition of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 (COPRA). If nothing else, it ensures a delay in legal proceedings while the court first decides this issue.
Until recently, every one of us had to engage with the post-office for multiple reasons. In the initial years after COPRA came into force, any complaint against the postal authorities used to be brushed aside on the claim that post-office was doing duty as a part of the government and no action can be taken against the government.
Over the years, it has been settled that when a government agency is not performing a sovereign duty, but providing services of commercial nature, it cannot hide behind the cloak of sovereignty and shirk its responsibility towards its consumers.
Let’s look at some examples of how government agencies harass consumers by dodging responsibility and delaying grievance resolution.
Late Rama Chandra Jain had purchased 692 Indira Vikas Patras (IVP) in the name of his sons, daughters, etc, from the head post-office at Bolangir (Odisha). He lost all the 692 IVPs and reported it to the local police station on 25 June 2001. This, in turn, was intimated to superintendent of post-office, Bolangir, requesting it to stay payment of the maturity value of the lost IVPs until the claim was properly verified.
The deceased Mr Jain had also purchased 88 IVPs in favour of his son, the complainant in this case. On maturity of these 88 IVPs, the complainant raised a demand of Rs8,80,000 towards maturity value. The claim was rejected by the post-office citing some rules.
A complaint was filed in the district forum which ruled in favour of the son, on the basis of a precedent in the case of Ram Nath Mathuria vs Union of India in RP No. 1725/2001 decided by the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) in March 2002.
In that case, it had been held that “in the absence of any other claim on the basis of the original IVPs, maturity value should be released in favour of the claimants after taking an indemnity bond to secure interest of the department.”
Accordingly, the district forum directed the post-office to release payment of the maturity value of 88 IVPs amounting to Rs880,000 to the complainant on his furnishing an indemnity bond within 35 days of the order. For any delay in payment, a penalty of Rs20 per day would be imposed until realisation.
The post-office filed an appeal before the state commission; this was dismissed on 30 December 2016 because representatives of the post-office failed to turn up for hearings before the commission. Shockingly, the post-office then filed a writ petition before the Odisha High Court in 2017 against the order of the state commission. As was to be expected, the Court dismissed the writ petition as withdrawn, since it was misconceived. That didn’t end the matter. The post-office again filed a miscellaneous case before the state commission which, too, was dismissed on 13 April 2018.
Once again, notwithstanding the pain inflicted on the complainant, the post-office had the temerity to file a revision petition in NCDRC against the state commission’s order.
The counsel for the post-office contended that complainant was not a consumer and, hence, no deficiency in service had been committed by the post-office. As such, the complaint was not maintainable.
But, remember, the district forum had already given a detailed order covering this issue and had even referred to an NCDRC order of 2002 on the subject.
NCDRC noted that there was no other claimant for the said amount; but the post-office could verify and take due precautions like indemnity bond, etc, for securing its interests and directed it to pay at least the maturity value to the complainant, after having failed in the several rounds of litigation.
In 2002, NCDRC had elaborately discussed a similar matter and directed the postal department to release the money, as sufficient time had elapsed since the date of maturity. Therefore, NCDRC concluded that it was clear that there was no error in the order passed by the district forum.
The sad part is that a hapless consumer, who was a customer of the post-office, was dragged through various rounds of litigation by an obdurate government agency for no fault of his (Superintendent of Post Office, Bolongir vs Jambu Kumar Jain, Rourkela—NCDRC order dated 11/09/2018).
Another case involves the regional provident fund commissioner’s office, Haryana (RPFC) and a provident fund (PF) subscriber. The subscriber filed a complaint against the RPFC on the ground that his pension had been wrongly fixed as Rs551 per month instead of Rs835 per month as per the Employees Pension Scheme, 1995. The complainant claimed that he was a member of Employees Provident Fund Scheme, 1995, for more than 35 years; therefore, he was entitled to the maximum benefit under the Scheme. After hearing both parties, the district forum, on 25 August 2003, observed that the minimum monthly pension will be Rs 335 plus Rs500 adding up to Rs835 and not Rs551.
The order also directed the RPFC to re-examine the complainant’s case on the basis of a notification by the labour ministry on 16 November 1995. The RPFC was ordered to comply with the consumer forum’s order within 30 days. When the RPFC failed to comply with the order, the district forum issued bailable warrants of Rs5,000 with one surety for the like amount on 1 May 2006. RPFC filed a revision petition before the state commission against both orders; but it was also dismissed.
RPFC then filed a revision petition before NCDRC which heard counsel for RPFC including a request to condone a 246-day delay in filing the petition. Although NCDRC condoned the delay through its order of December 2008, it imposed a cost of Rs10,000 on RPFC.
NCDRC noted that the primary issue involved was to re-fix the complainant’s pension as per directions of the district forum. However, it noted that application for condonation of delay made two things very clear. One, that the department had agreed to abide by the order of the state commission and fix the pension as per the order of the district forum. Secondly, that the revision petition was based on the notification dated 15.6.2007 which was perhaps not available before the district forum or the state commission. Since the notification was a new ground that had been taken up by RPFC in the revision petition, it could not be considered at that stage. Finding no merit in the revision petition, NCDRC dismissed it.
Once again, it is the hapless consumer who was made to run from one forum to another due to the dilatory tactics adopted by a government department with public money.
While we correctly raise a hue and cry for poor service rendered by private companies, the fact is that government departments, often, fail the consumer even more because of the ineptitude, lack of accountability and high-handedness of government babus.