Inefficiency, sloth and above all, utter contempt for consumer rights - that’s what one sees in the way the government has handled an issue affecting the rights of 900 million telecom consumers in the country.
Five years ago, when a Supreme Court verdict barred consumer courts from hearing telecom complaints, the government promised quick action to undo the damage and restore the rights of telecom consumers through a review petition to the Apex court and also an amendment to the archaic Indian Telegraph Act, 1885. In fact, it even proposed an ordinance route to achieve this in the quickest possible time.
Now, after five years of dillydallying, the government has declared, through an official communication dated February 4, 2014, that the Supreme Court verdict in General Manager, Telecom Vs M. Krishnan is ‘sui generis’ (meaning unique, constituting a class of its own) in its application and therefore consumer courts need not abide by it!
It has also proclaimed that it is therefore not necessary to amend the Telegraph Act. That’s not all. It also says that in view of this, the “recourse to Section 7B in case of disputes between consumers and private service providers and BSNL would not be available”.
In other words, consumers, who have been deprived in the last five years, of their right to sue telecom companies before the consumer courts, will now not have the option of arbitration, either, as per the official government communication. Fortunately for consumers, there seems to be a difference of opinion between the policy wing and public grievance wing of DOT and the PG wing has not withdrawn the arbitration facility for telecom consumers.
For the benefit of all those consumers who may not be aware of the origin of this telecom imbroglio, let me briefly explain. In 2001, the telephone connection of M. Krishnan was disconnected for the outstanding dues not on his telephone, but that of his landlord.
When the Kozhikode District Consumer Forum directed BSNL to restore the connection and pay compensation, BSNL filed a writ petition before the High Court of Kerala, challenging the jurisdiction of the consumer court itself, quoting Section 7 B of the Telegraph Act, which provides for arbitration of disputes between the telegraph authority and the consumer. When the single bench as well as the full bench of the high court dismissed it, BSNL filed an appeal by special leave before the Supreme Court.
The public sector telecom service provider’s action was most condemnable, because it was arguing on a false premise. Section 7 B provides for arbitration of disputes between the “telegraph authority” and the consumer. But BSNL is not a telegraph authority and therefore Section 7 B does not apply to BSNL at all (nor does it apply to private telecom operators).
Besides, the Consumer Protection Act clearly says that the law is in addition to and not in derogation of any other laws in existence. Yet, a bench of the Supreme Court, consisting Justice Markandey Katju and Justice Asok Kumar Ganguly, held that consumer courts had no jurisdiction to adjudicate over telecom complaints. And as a result, consumers have been forced to go for arbitration under Section 7 B, despite the fact that it is not applicable at all to consumer disputes with BSNL or for that matter, private telecom operators.
Since the Apex Court’s order was patently erroneous, a review petition, filed within 30 days as required, could have helped reverse the situation. But the government took two years to do so and it is yet to be admitted. The best option before the consumers now is to petition the Supreme Court to come to their rescue and restore the rights taken away by a judicial pronouncement in 2009.