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It’s time to take a call on this nuisance

The flood of messages has increased so much that I am forced to keep my phone on silent because otherwise, it beeps constantly as one rubbish message after another keeps arriving. My inbox is constantly clogged, and the number of messages actually seems to be multiplying, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jul 11, 2010 08:58 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

It started out innocuously enough. One day my phone beeped and the screen told me I had a new message. I clicked to see what it was. Could it be work-related? Was a friend trying to get in touch?

In fact it was neither. It was a message from somebody I had never heard of, offering to sell me a ‘sauna-slim belt’, which would make me lose weight within days with a minimum of effort.

I was a little annoyed by this intrusion into my private space — and a mobile phone is about as personal and private as it gets — but looked in the mirror, took in the bulges and decided that perhaps God was trying to tell me something.

Within days I had cause to wonder about His motives. If God did want me to lose weight, then he also wanted me to buy homes in Gurgaon, invest in the stock market, get my car washed, see movies at Abhishek Cineplex, take out life insurance, exchange my old Acqua-guard, get ‘home tuition for all subjects’, get my kidney profile and iron profile blood tests organised, and go to parties sponsored by Bacardi.

Clearly, the Almighty had better things to worry about (though admittedly, the SMS about blood tests did give me pause) so I abandoned my Divine Intervention theory. What I was dealing with here was plain and simple Commercial Intrusion.

Over the last few months, the intrusions have multiplied. I get an average of 15 to 20 junk SMSes a day — at least as many as my normal SMSes and, on some days, even more. When I am abroad, these SMSes are thoughtfully forwarded by Airtel to every corner of the globe.

So I have sat by the harbour at Portofino and heard my phone beep. “Stock market me daily 1 intraday jackpot call and guarntd (sic) 3000 profit...” it said. I was not sure what annoyed me more — the intrusion or the mangled syntax and strange spelling.

Then, I examined my phone bills closely and I stopped being philosophical about the junk SMSes. It turned out that I was paying for each text I received while I was abroad. Depending on the roaming charges levied by international operators, I was paying up to Rs 30 a message for the dubious pleasure of learning about property in Gurgaon, Manesar and Noida that nobody seemed willing to buy.

Given that I seem to get around 15 junk texts a day, I was paying up to Rs 450 a day just so that these tele-marketers could try and flog me their dodgy wares.

Now, the flood of messages has increased so much that I am forced to keep my phone on silent because otherwise, it beeps constantly as one rubbish message after another keeps arriving. My inbox is constantly clogged, and the number of messages actually seems to be multiplying.

A recent message gave me more cause for concern. It read “Send bulk SMS anywhere in India at 4 paisa/SMS with company name to promote your brand. All kinds of data available. Call 9891343339…”

So, that’s all it takes. If somebody wants to invade my privacy and make my phone beep with his nasty commercial message, it only costs him four paisa! Never mind that I might be paying up to Rs 30 for the message to be forwarded to me when I am abroad. If it only costs four paisa to intrude into my life, why shouldn’t unscrupulous marketers make my phone beep again and again?

I phoned my former colleague Siddharth Zarabi, who was HT’s telecom correspondent before going off to become a Big Wheel at CNBC. If I had signed up for the do-not-call register introduced by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), I said, did this also offer protection from junk SMSes?

Yes, said Siddharth, it should. But the truth was that the register had failed. People still violated our privacy and there was nothing anyone could do because Trai, the telecom regulator, had no teeth and the phone companies made money out of the junk SMSes so they had no interest in stamping out the practice either.

My call to Siddharth led to a conversation with J.S. Sarma, the Chairman of Trai. To my surprise, he had no hesitation in conceding that the do-not-call register had flopped. He agreed also with Siddharth that Trai lacked the teeth to take any action against telemarketers and that the telecom companies were opposing changes that would make life easier for consumers and protect our privacy.

What Dr Sarma has in mind is eminently sensible. He wants a “Do Call” register not a do-not-call one. If you want to be told of new homes in Gurgaon or be invited to parties at Lap (I have just got a junk SMS inviting me — isn’t this supposed to be an exclusive place?) then you can sign up for this privilege. If not, then the telemarketers can leave us in peace.

Fair enough? I would have thought so. But Dr Sarma says that the phone companies are opposing it. (Their revenues swell each time your privacy is invaded.)

Dr Sarma also says that Trai does not really have the power to act against telemarketers. All it can do is to ask the phone companies to fine the telemarketers (isn’t it great how the telecom moguls make money every way?), which is (and this is my parallel — not Trai’s) like asking a fence to fine a burglar.

Trai has a consultation paper out. It wants to get opinion from stake-holders (in this case, every person who owns a mobile phone) before it changes the rules. You should write in with your own views (, but here is my suggestion.

Trai should not only ask the telecom companies to block every phone from which a nuisance call is made, or a junk text goes out, but it should also impose fines. Naturally, we should not be made to pay the roaming fees for each text that is forwarded, but we should also be entitled to a penal credit for every junk SMS we receive. If we can demonstrate that we have received such an SMS, then the phone company should credit us Rs 10 per text. They need not hand us the money, this can take the form of a credit on our phone bills. So, if you get, say, 450 junk texts a month (I get more), then Vodafone, Airtel, Idea or whoever, should credit you with Rs 4,500 on your bill.

Once the telecom companies start losing revenue, they will suddenly discover a new-found concern for our privacy. It is the only language they understand.

Until that happens, you might want to phone the numbers given on the junk SMSes and tell them what you think of them. I would never dream of suggesting that you discuss the legitimacy of their births or the mating habits of their parents. (That would be a Very Bad Thing to do.)

But hey, I can’t stop you, can I?

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jul 10, 2010 23:42 IST