Various courts in India have time and again fined retailers after they charged customers for carry bags. However, the practice carries on unabated, and with impunity.
In the latest indictment of note, premium leather accessories firm Esbeda was fined ₹35,000 after one of its stores charged a customer ₹20 for a carry bag over and above the price paid by her for an item bought from the outlet.
The additional District Consumer Redressal Forum for Mumbai suburban district imposed the fine on Esbeda based on a complaint filed by Reema Chawla. The court asked the company to refund the ₹20 paid by the complainant in addition to paying her ₹3,000 for litigation expenses and ₹10,000 as compensation for the mental agony caused. The court also asked the brand to deposit ₹25,000 into the Consumer Welfare Fund of the consumer forum.
Chawla had purchased an Esbeda bag on 4 August 2019 worth ₹1,690 from the company’s Kurla store and was charged an additional ₹20 for the carry bag. She claimed that on pursuing the issue, her complaint went ignored by the store manager. Chawla argued that the company had indulged in unfair trade practices by charging customers for carrying bags that had its brand name.
The Esbeda store manager was served a notice but did not turn up for the hearing, following which the bench decided the matter ex parte. The bench comprising chairman RG Wankhade and member SV Kalaal said that charging extra for a carry bag and not giving it free of cost instead despite the bag displaying the branding of the company for publicity was an unfair trade practice.
The court was clear in its verdict.
All over India: Complaints and fines galore
The earliest big-time example of a fine came in April 2019 when a Chandigarh consumer forum imposed a penalty of ₹9,000 on footwear major Bata India Ltd for making a consumer pay ₹3 for a paper bag. The complainant was Dinesh Prasad Raturi, who had bought a pair of shoes from a Bata outlet in February that year. The store charged him ₹402, inclusive of the paper bag charges.
Raturi complained that by levying the paper bag charge, Bata was endorsing its brand on the bag—which was not justified. The forum did not entertain Bata's pleas that there had been no deficiency in service on its part and ordered the company to refund the cost of the bag (₹3) and also pay for the litigation charges of ₹1,000. Bata was also directed to pay a compensation of ₹3,000 to the customer for the mental agony caused by the deficiency in services and ordered it to pay an additional ₹5,000 in the legal aid account of the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission.
Bata India had contended that the customer was charged for the purpose of environmental safety. The court, however, had a different take altogether on the subject: “There is unfair trade practice on the part of Bata India in compelling the complainant to purchase the carry bag worth ₹3 and if Bata India is an environmental activist, it should have given the same to the complainant free of cost” and “it was for gain of the company.” The court concluded: “By employing [an] unfair trade practice, opposite party (Bata) is minting [a] lot of money from all customers.”
This incident was from 2019, but the real story had begun eight years ago when plastic carry bags slowly started disappearing from stores after the notification of the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011. All cases of carry bag fines can be traced to the 2011 Rules. even though those were specific to plastic carry bags, and not non-plastic carry bags.
The element that is germane to the subject at hand was Rule 10 on the 'Explicit pricing of carry bags' which stated: “No carry bags shall be made available free of cost by retailers to consumers. The concerned municipal authority may by notification determine the minimum price for carry bags depending upon their quality and size which covers their material and waste management costs in order to encourage their re-use so as to minimize plastic waste generation.”
But the 2011 Rules were explicitly about plastic material, and so #10 would have been about plastic carry bags alone and nothing else. Retailers, however, have always interpreted #10 to insist that no carry bag could be given away for free. Yet, #3(b) of the same 2011 Rules had already defined what a carry bag meant as categorically as possible: “’Carry bags’ mean bags made from any plastic material, used for the purpose of carrying or dispensing commodities but do not include bags that constitute or form an integral part of the packaging in which goods are sealed prior to use].”
What #10 meant was that if any retailer were to give out plastic bags, those were to be charged unlike earlier when a plastic carry bag unequivocally meant a free carry bag. The sentiment behind the 2011 Rules were to dissuade plastic bag usage across India. That was all.
All carry bags before 2011 were given to customers for free, but now retailers—especially chains and brands—now got a new heaven-sent marketing tool: give carry bags, but with a brand identity. Besides, there was money to be made. Only that you didn't have to pay for promotion or carry out a branding exercise: you could instead charge the customer and extract the branding for free.
It took a while for the practice to catch on. It took still more time for the backlash, though it has been tepid at best. Now it’s a free for all.