Min Bahadur Gurung, owner of Bhat Bhateni Supermarket, says Nepali consumers are easy to please. "If an appliance breaks down two days after its purchase, most Nepalis just wouldn't bring it back to the store and demand a replacement. Instead, they would return to buy another appliance altogether."
And that pretty much sums up the easy-going and tolerant attitude of most Nepali consumers when faced with anything from faulty appliances to shoddy products to bad services. Indeed, if there was anything to wonder about on the World Consumer Rights Day that was celebrated last Monday, it was this: In a society where consumers appear to be reluctant to display a do-or-die urgency as to how they want market players and the state to provide them with effective and efficient services, is there any hope for a consumer rights movement? One is tempted to say no, for the time being anyway. If not, consider the delivery of these two services: water and electricity.
The theme of this year's World Consumer Rights Day was 'Consumer and Water'. Yet, as the mercury starts heading north, the Kathmandu Valley starts reeling under a severe shortage of drinking water. Unfortunately, this is not a new event. Last year was the same story, and the years before too, despite water users' dutifully paying monthly fees to the state-run Nepal Water Supply Corporation.
Surely, in other countries, angry consumers would have been up in arms by now, but not in Nepal. There is anger, yes, but its force is too dissipated to make any difference. The result is that government officials buy themselves time by assuring people once again that they are working on ways to provide water.
Likewise, the power sector too is wrapped up in its own inefficiencies. Ninety years after the first spark of electricity was generated in Pharping, only 20 percent of the national population has access to electricity. For the rest, it is unavailable and unaffordable.
Consumers and the card-carrying activists who are supposed to represent them rarely seem to push for wider and more reliable distribution by asking: How can the cost of production of electricity be lowered? And, using a bundle of schemes, how can power be distributed cheaply across Nepal? Meanwhile, quiescent consumers have quietly yielded to plan life around power cuts.
Similar stories could be told about other sectors such as telecom, fuel and education. In all these, consumers appear to be too meek to raise hell to demand better services and the activists are all too eager to hog media coverage by uttering nothing but platitudes, afraid to make enemies for causes that matter.
And so it goes, on and on. That is why, for various strands of consumer rights movements to really take shape, to have an effect and not be just another donor-funded jagire do-goodism in Nepal, a few good men and women have to be single-minded public champions of concerns that consumers hold dear but lack organised outlets to express. Otherwise, Nepali consumers will continue to celebrate occasions such as the World Water Day, but muddle along without demanding much from those who they pay to provide services.