Tashi Dema 

The recent hike in chilli price raised many brows but it also exposed how Bhutanese have been buying imported goods without any consumer protection.

A Thimphu resident, Kuenga, said it is not fair to complain about agricultural products when urban residents buy goods imported from Bangkok and other countries at an exorbitant price.

A corporate employee, Karma, said people who are into the business of imported goods, be it edibles, cosmetics or others can profit by a huge margin, as there is no maximum retail price (MRP). “They set their own MRP and people buy without any complaints.”

While many people feel that the Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) is not doing enough to protect the consumers, OCP officials said there are no provisions to regulate the price of the goods vis a vis MRP in Bhutan, as MRPs are set by the manufacturers and not by regulatory authorities.

OCP’s chief programme officer, Jigme Dorji, said India requires manufacturers to recommend the MRP on products whereas other countries have different regulations and prices are displayed at the supermarkets for each product.

“In principle, we generally leave the price of goods to the market’s demand and supply, and would not be possible as well as not practical for us to assess every cost structure for every product to determine an MRP,” he said. “However, the OCP ensures that the consumers are not unreasonably charged by the business entities through price manipulation, hoarding, collusion.”

He explained that for essential goods imported from India, the MRP is enforced as the companies in India display the maximum retail prices. “Most of the third country goods are not essential for the vast majority of our people.”

Jigme Dorji said that this, however, does not mean that businesses should charge whatever they want but must be reasonable. “At the end, consumers must also decide with their wallets and if third-country goods are priced very high, they should refrain from buying to send the message to the retailers or distributors.”

He said OCP conducts numerous advocacy and awareness programmes. “With the Covid-19 situation, it has been observed that the prices of most essential goods have witnessed a slight surge owing to various market forces including an increase in demand, shortage of supply, panic buying, hoarding, pandemic factors and distortion of supply chains leaving consumers at the most vulnerable position.”

Jigme Dorji said to ensure fair trade practices, the OCP and market monitoring teams in 20 dzongkhags, 205 gewogs and thromdes carried out market surveillance and monitoring and statutorily mandated all business entities to display price list or affix price tag on all essential goods.

He also said that OCP publishes market price information (MPI) of 102 essential items collected from the major grocery shops in 20 dzongkhags on a monthly basis through various official platforms.

Officials claim that right from the beginning of the first lockdown, the office has been advising the business entities authorized for selling and distributing essential commodities to refrain from hiking and manipulating the price of the goods, to issue money receipt, refrain from selling expired products, use of correct weights, avoid denial of sales and services, refrain from deceptive practices like tampering of product labelling, misrepresentation, misleading advertisement, as it is the unprecedented challenging time where all of us need to support each other.

According to Jigme Dorji, OCP officials are monitoring the trade practices on a daily basis to ensure consumers are protected. “We are monitoring business entities frequently through the deployment of monitoring and inspection teams in 20 dzongkhags, 205 gewogs and thromdes.”

He said to address the consumer complaints received from 20 dzongkhags and provide quicker redress during the lockdown, all the OCP officials have been working virtually while a team of officials led by the director were at the frontline visiting shops in Thimphu to sensitise and monitor for compliance.

“Every complaint received is reviewed and investigated immediately to redress or compensate the aggrieved consumers adequately, and businesses found guilty are directed to immediately compensate and refund the additional amount charged,” he said.

He said that spot fines and penalties were also imposed. “The further courses of action against businesses who keep repeating the offences are  discussed online for appropriate administrative actions like cancellation of license, closure of shops during lockdown period are taken as per the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) 2012 and Consumer Protection Rules and Regulation (CPRR) 2015.”

Meanwhile, OCP penalised 71 business entities amounting to Nu 214,577 and facilitated the refund to the aggrieved consumers. Five shops were recommended for closure during lockdown and four vegetable vendors were recommended for cancellation of dealership license due to repeated violations and non-adherence to the directives of the government.