The conference was jointly chaired and addressed by Sobia Kamal, Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Kashmir Affairs & Gilgit Baltistan, Kanwal Shauzab, Member National Assembly and Parliamentary Secretary for Ministry of Planning Development & Reform, Shandana Gulzar Khan Parliamentary Secretary at Ministry of Commerce.  The conference was attended by government officials, Information Commissioner, Islamabad, Judges of Consumer Courts, representatives of Electricity Distribution Companies, Wafaqi Mohtasib,  Embassy of Azerbaijan, Romania, Finland, Denmark, Consumer groups, academia, volunteers from Quaid-e-Azam university, manufactures of bottled water, NEPRA, PTA, PMDC, Islamabad Bar Council, local and International NGOs, Civil Society Organizations and a wide cross-section of consumers.

In the 21st century, role of the state and the market is interwoven. Both of them play a crucial role in terms of providing goods and services to the general public. The state relies on the market to generate tax revenues and, at the same time, the state is also responsible to regulate the market to better serve the citizens and protect them from any exploitation. In this equation of state and market, the concerns of consumers are often unheard and are ultimately missed out from the decision-making process.  Pakistan presents a challenging case for consumer rights in several aspects. From the water we drink to the electricity we consume, the rights of consumers are often exploited at various levels. Moreover, the lack of information and education on part of consumers about their basic rights and the forums available for redressal of their grievances adds to the severity of the problem. For example, consumers are not aware of the types of taxes imposed in electricity bills and quality of drinking water provided to them through bottled water, municipal and government water supply schemes, etc. The information about charges, price, weight, and quality of products is either not revealed to the consumers or it is expressed in a way, which makes it incomprehensible or difficult to understand.

Sobia Kamal, Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Kashmir Affairs & Gilgit Baltistan, while speaking on the occasion stated that she fully supports that Right to Information laws should be implemented in GB and AJK.  She stated that the best model for the consumers was “Riasat-e- Madina” based on the principles of justice and fair play. She promised that her government will take the consumer concerns very seriously and strive to address those concerns, whether it is service delivery by state institutions or getting quality products from the market.  

Kanwal Shauzab, Member National Assembly and Parliamentary Secretary for Ministry of Planning Development & Reform expressed her concern that Consumers are being exploited by the market forces and she will strive hard to make necessary changes in laws. She said CRCP’s role cannot be ignored as they are working for the cause of consumers for a long time. She was saddened and shocked by the recent reports of deaths due to bad quality of food served in restaurants. She raised another issue that why the same bottle of Mineral water is sold at exorbitant prices in five star hotels and restaurants, while the same bottle of water is available in the market at one fourth the price.  She also mentioned about the tanker mafias who are charging 4500 per tankers. However she promised to raise the consumer issues at the appropriate forums for making necessary changes in policies and procedures. She also emphasized on the need for a consumer court in Islamabad, which was a demand by CRCP to give relief to the consumers of Islamabad.

Shandana Gulzar Khan Parliamentary Secretary at Ministry of Commerce, highlighted the need for coordination among the entities working for consumer rights, such as Competition Commission of Pakistan (CCP) and Consumer Councils.  She also mentioned that the government is fully cognizant of the challenges faced by the consumers and informed that the Law Ministry is working to improve the procedures which can support and improve the implementation of the laws.  Serving the consumers is a pre-requisite for a vibrant market economy, and one of the main objectives of her ministry.

The conference was also addressed by senior experts, including Dr. Aziz ur Rehman, Amanullah Mangrio, Mette Hartmeyer, and Hamid Masood. They discussed the issues and challenges pertaining to the state of consumer rights in drinking water and Electricity sector and effective utilization of RTI Laws in the country. This would require action on the part of citizens as well. Another serious issue highlighted during the conference was the impact of Circular Debt on the consumers. The severity of the problem calls for urgent action by all stakeholders, since the circular debt has reached to almost Rs. 1.4 trillion.

While welcoming the participants, Mr. Abrar Hafeez, Secretary General, CRCP spoke about the importance of consumer protection, effective implementation of RTI laws, and the urgency for RTI legislation especially in GB and AJK. He also demanded that the Consumer Courts should be established in Islamabad.  In Pakistan, despite enactment of RTI laws at Federal and provincial levels, common citizens are unaware of the utility of these laws. During 20 years’ experience of soliciting information under FOI/RTI laws, Consumer Rights Commission of Pakistan (CRCP) observed that lack of awareness about the existence of RTI laws, capacity deficit in public departments to fully understand and implement RTI laws, and lack of demand from Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) for practice and implementation of RTI laws are the major issues hindering the proper implementation of these laws in the country. Therefore, the conference highlighted the importance of RTI laws from a consumer’s perspective in Electricity and drinking water.

The main objective of the conference was to bring policymakers, industry experts, academia, and consumers on one platform to discuss and explore opportunities/strategies/roadmap for improving   the state of consumer rights in Pakistan.

The participants, guests and speakers agreed to work in their own capacity to make a difference by championing the cause of consumer rights in the larger public interest.