Have you ever been charged extra for ‘cooling,’ over and above the price listed on the product? It is a daily annoyance that thousands of Indians face every day, with shopkeepers apparently confident that they will not face any action for these patently illegal actions. Perhaps next time you can remind them of this case, when such casual overcharging got some serious repercussions.
On 20 August this year, the District Commissioner Disputes Redressal Forum directed Mumbai-based Shagun Veg Restaurant to pay a fine of Rs 2 lakh for charging a customer Rs 10 more than the Maximum Retail Price (MRP) for an ice-cream brick.
The Rs 2 lakh fine will go to the Consumer Welfare Fund.
The case was filed by Bhaskar Jadhav with the help of city-based activist Prakash Sheth in 2015 on grounds that it was illegal to charge Rs 10 under ‘cooling charges.’
While Bhaskar, who is currently posted as Assistant Police Inspector at Wadala police station, spent a minimal amount (Rs 100) during the proceedings, the consumer forum has ordered the restaurant in Mumbai Central to pay him Rs 10,000 as compensation for ‘mental torture.’
Apart from this compensation, the restaurant also has to refund the extra charge of Rs 10.
Recalling the incident that took place in 2014, Bhaskar tells The Better India:
“I was a regular customer of the restaurant and they would always charge extra but I ignored it for a while. One night I purchased an ice-cream brick for my daughter and they charged me Rs 175. While checking the expiry date I saw MRP was Rs 165. On asking they justified the billing cost by stating electricity bill. Appalled at that, I refused to pay and got in a heated argument with them. I wondered if they could fool a policeman, they must be doing it with so many of their innocent customers. I wanted to uphold the law and so I filed the case.”
Bhaskar’s case resonates with thousands of other such incidents where customers are overcharged under the pretext of ‘service charge’.
Under the Consumer Protection Act, 2019 (that recently replaced the Consumer Protection Act, 1986), consumers can file complaints with the Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions (CDRCs) if they are being charged more than the MRP.
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Filing a case in a consumer forum is nothing like the proceedings that take place in a regular court. It is inexpensive, quicker and simpler. One does not need a lawyer to fight the case and if the person does not have the bandwidth to fight, they can transfer the power of attorney to someone else.
Bhaskar did exactly that.
He gave the power to present the case to his long-time friend and activist, Prakash through an affidavit. Prakash has filed more than 30 such consumer-centric cases in the forum in the last forty-odd years. Promotion
Bhaskar saved the bill and ice-cream packet as evidence as the bill had GST number and signature of the restaurant. He also made an attested copy of the bill in case the ink from the original bill wears off.
Prakash filed the complaint on Bhaskar’s behalf and thus began the proceedings.
“In most cases, the Opposition Party (OP) or respondent engages an advocate to fight the case even though the intention of the consumer forum is to actually let people fight on their own. They also hired a lawyer. Usually, the forum leans toward the consumer who has filed the complaint so we were hopeful of taking down OP,” Prakash tells The Better India.
As mentioned earlier, the restaurant admitted that they charged extra and the reason was to preserve the ice cream.
Meanwhile, Prakash argued that service charge is applicable only when a customer sits in a restaurant, occupies the chair and enjoys the cooling ambience.
“When you order a bottle of mineral water and the waiter serves it in a glass, that is service that you are paying for. But Bhaskar purchased the packet Over the Counter (OTC) without utilising any services. The fact that he still had the ice cream packet proves that he ate it in his house. Under the Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules, 2011 no retailer or shopkeeper can charge more than MRP,” explains Prakash.
The forum ruled in Bhaskar’s favour and said that the restaurant is already compensated for its electricity as it purchases the ice cream from the supplier at Rs 150, which is less than the MRP.
Though the case lasted for five years, Bhaskar was asked to appear in the forum not more than four times.
“The atmosphere of the forum was very friendly and no big words were thrown in the room. All the proceedings were held in a simple manner. I urge every citizen to be responsible and fight for their rights so that such illegal practices are not repeated again. The forum has declared overcharging an ice cream as illegal so now anyone in future can refer to our case and fight for what is theirs without having to approach the consumer forum,” says Bhakar.
In the same vein, Prakash too dispels the ‘court-kacheri’ notion and points out the positive aspects of the new consumer act.
“Now the consumer can file the complaint in the forum that is close to their house in contrast to the earlier requirement of filing it in the city that OP resides. Unlike earlier, the forums will now entertain cases of overcharging from Rs 1 to one crore. It also has the power to imprison the person and auction their properties. Our country’s law is doing everything in its capacity to protect the consumers so that they can enjoy their rights properly. It is time for citizens to meet them halfway and be more alert in future.”