What happened to Consumer protection laws?

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Emergency Regulations in most cases in the past have been issued in Sri Lanka under circumstances where the public security was threatened or in order to crack down industrial unrest such as strikes or during communal riots.

There are ordinary laws such as the Consumer Affairs Authority Act and Consumer Protection Act to serve the same purpose

A state of emergency is an anathema for many people in any country and a declaration of Emergency Regulations would make headlines and in most cases create a fuss among the people. Ironically, the Emergency Regulations issued by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on August 30 was big news only for the Tamil newspapers next day, while it was an ordinary story in the front page of Sinhala and English newspapers. 

Emergency Regulations in most cases in the past have been issued in Sri Lanka under circumstances where the public security was threatened or in order to crack down industrial unrest such as strikes or during communal riots. However, this time they were issued in a surprise move and at a time when prices of essential items are sky rocketing, preventing an immediate opposition by the Opposition groups, in a big way.

Even the Centre for Policy Alternative (CPA) which has always stood for democracy and good governance had expressed a toned- down opposition, stating that the Emergency Regulations should be in force only for a limited period. Yet, the General Secretary of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), Ranjith Maddumabandara had issued a statement decrying the President’s move claiming that the declaration of the State of Emergency has been made in bad faith and with the ulterior motive of wrongfully restricting fundamental rights of the people and moving further towards authoritarianism. 

He further stated that disruption of essential supplies and services, if any, has been caused by the inefficiency and mismanagement of the government. He alleged that the government has failed to declare a Health Emergency even 18 months after the World Health organization (WHO) declared COVID 19 as a pandemic. 

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesman and Parliamentarian M.A.Sumanthiran condemning the President’s move had told media that the President had acquired legislative powers through these regulations. At a time when there is no threat to the public security making regulations under the Public Security Ordinance cannot be accepted, he had stated.  He recalled the government failed to implement the Health Emergency Bill he presented in the Parliament as a private members Bill last year to meet the challenges that would pose by the current COVID 19 pandemic.

It was against the backdrop of the recent spiraling hike in prices of rice and sugar, the President had issued two gazette notifications under the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) and a proclamation under the Essential Public Services Act of 1979 on August 30, declaring emergency regulations to maintain orderly supply of essential services, specifically the food supply.

The first gazette under the PSO says its objective was “to prevent the activities such as hiding, interrupting the distribution, charging high prices for  food in bulk quantities including rice and sugar and causing market irregularities which cause inconvenience to the consumers and the welfare of the people.” It explains how the latest Emergency Regulations would work.

The President’s second gazette declares the appointment of Major General Senarath Piyasiri Niwunhella to be the Commissioner General of Essential Services “to execute and co-ordinate all activities relating to the Emergency Regulations” of the first gazette.  And his proclamation has outlined the essential services that are covered by the current Emergency Regulations. 

Sri Lanka Ports Authority, supply of fuels and gas, Customs, Railway Department, Sri Lanka Transport Board, District Secretariats, Divisional Secretariats, Grama Seva Officers, Samurdhi Development Officers, Agricultural Research Assistants, All state banking and insurance services including the Central Bank, Lanka Sathosa Ltd, Co-operative Wholesale Establishment, Food Commissioner Department, Department of Co-operative Development, Co-operative Societies & Paddy Marketing Board, Ceylon Sugar (Pvt.) Ltd, all government offices under the Provincial Councils, health services and the postal services have been thus declared as essential services.

In brief, the current State of Emergency encompasses almost the entire State machinery. It empowers the authorities to immediately terminate the service of an employee or treat him as vacated his post if he abstained from work due to a strike or any other organizational activity. It also empowers the State to confiscate the warehouses, through a legal process, if the owners or the operators of those sites violated these regulations by impeding the smooth supply and distribution of
essential items.  

Authorities also can “seize any essential food items including paddy, rice and any vehicle transporting such items for the purpose of providing essential supplies and services to the public, such competent authority may seize such food items” in case of a violation of the regulations. However the errant traders would not incur any loss, as the authorities can take such items into the custody of the State, “taking into account the state certified prices or custom specified prices” before providing them to the consumers for a fair price, according to the current Emergency Regulations.

Apparently in line with this provision, the officials said on Wednesday that the sugar seized during the recent raids in the unauthorized warehouses in Gampaha District would be purchased from the operators of those warehouses and distributed through Lanka Sathosa.  And it was reported that the sugar so seized had been purchased by the State at a price of Rs.115 a kilo, not at Rs. 85, the price that was stipulated by the government in November last year.

In spite of the President having proclaimed the Emergency Regulations in respect of essential services, there are ordinary laws such as the Consumer Affairs Authority Act and Consumer Protection Act to serve the same purpose. For instance, according to the Consumer Affairs Authority Act “any person sells or offers to sell any goods above the price marked on the goods in accordance with a direction issued under section 10 shall be guilty of an offence under this Act.” Also it has provisions to prevent traders from hoarding goods. The Consumer Affairs Authority in his website says it has laws to prevent selling goods above the fixed price and hording. 

Nevertheless, the traders who agreed to sell sugar at Rs. 85 a kilo later ignored the gazette that fixed that price in November under the very nose of the authorities and no action was taken. Instead, the gazette that fixed the price was withdrawn in April, removing the only tool that the authorities could use against the errant traders, and the price of a kilo that was fixed at Rs. 85 rose up to Rs. 220 last month. 

This was not a problem that cropped up due to lack of laws but due to inaction on the part of the relevant authorities. The appointment of a Commissioner General of Essential Services itself is an indictment against the officials who were responsible for maintaining of smooth supply of essential services and maintain of prices fixed by the government. Yet, we also have to wait to see how the latest Emergency Regulations and the new Commissioner General are going to act. 

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