Agency says consumer right awareness has improved with more complaints
According to the Chief Program Officer (CPO) of the Office of Consumer Protection (OCP), there has been a significant increase in the number of complaints registered for inflating prices of products during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, he said that it is not a direct conclusion that unfair practices have risen only due to the pandemic. He said, “Unfair practices were always prevalent but since OCP was formed only in the year 2014, initially the consumers were not aware of their rights and even the business entities were not aware of our Act and Regulations.”
He added “Back then even the media did fewer coverages on market prices and other things related to consumer rights, but now that there has been coverage regarding such price fluctuations in the market, we are also sometimes made aware of things that our survey analysis could miss out on at times.”
Considering the current state of general awareness, the office has been getting a greater number of complaints from customers and the CPO feels that this is also an opportunity for the office to exercise their mandates.
He said that initially the Department had a shortage of resources for mass surveys and advocacy analysis but regardless the office conducted them.
He said, “We have finished the complete survey for Thimphu Dzongkhag and I think it is fair to say that everyone in the market is aware of OCP by now. We are now focusing on the markets in other Dzongkhags and Gewogs with the assistance of the Dzongkhag and Gewog administrations.”
As per OCP’s reports, as of September this year the office had to deal with 188 such cases apart from those who were written off with warning to rectify with their non-compliances.
He said that the Market Price Index (MPI) was collected pre-COVID-19 and after the lockdown there had been some changes in the prices due to genuine factors affecting cost.
However, he added that despite the consideration of extra expenses borne by the marketers like for loading charges, unloading charges and transportation, a lot of business entities were reported of charging extremely high prices in the name of the protocols and extra costs involved.
He said that recently the office had noticed the hike in prices of beer, which was quite considerable even after adding other costs.
He said, “I will not say that all the business entities are taking advantage in the name of COVID-19 protocols, but they are inflating the prices and as per our findings the increase in the prices is not from the rise in cost of production”.
He added, “The cost of beer have gone up by quite much from selling it at at almost Nu 900 before to as high as Nu 1,100 per case”.
He said that worse comes to worse, the price for a case of beer should not be more than Nu 700.
As per the CPO, the office has imposed a total amount in fines of Nu 1.026 mn.
Reportedly, the main challenges for OCP is the market dynamism as there are lots of invisible hands and factors that come into play in different situations.
He said, “It is a Laissez-faire market and we have to firmly establish based on our findings that whether the increase in prices are due to added cost factors from the sources or if they have actually taken advantage of the situation to exploit the customers during this time.”
He said that as a free market, prices are determined by the market force itself, but due to the current situation, the market is not responding.
“Unfair and unnecessary increase in prices just to extort the customers in the name of the situation will be taken heed for, for now we have to work on standardizing the prices fairly” he concluded.