consumer out of the loop
Business Line, January 13, 2012
recent consumer grievance redressal regulation has operators
calling all the shots.
party A has a dispute with party B then common sense says that
only a neutral third party C will be able to settle the issue in a
fair manner. But what if party C is nominated by party B? Again,
common sense says that party C will rule in favour of B.
However, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) doesn't
seem to think so. Last week, TRAI announced an important
regulation called the Telecom Consumers Complaint Redressal
Regulations, 2012, aimed at improving the existing mechanism of
resolving consumer complaints against operators.
Under this new regulation, the telecom regulator has set up a
two-tier complaint redressal mechanism comprising the call centre
at the first level and an appellate authority at the next. TRAI
has also provided for a two-member advisory committee that will
vet all the complaints received by the appellate authority and
give its recommendations.
problem is that TRAI has allowed operators to set up the entire
system. So the call centre or complaint centre will be set up by
the operator, the appellate authority will be appointed by the
operator and the two members for the advisory committee will also
be chosen by the telecom company.
While the regulator has said that one of the members of the
advisory committee should be picked from the registered consumer
groups, the recommendations of this committee are not binding on
the appellate authority. By the way, the representative from the
consumer group on such committees will get paid Rs 2,000 for each
sitting by the operator. In addition to this, TRAI has allowed
Internet Service Providers with pan-India licence to set up an
appellate authority anywhere in the country while telecom
companies with unified access licences or mobile licence have to
set up an authority in each circle.
Thus, an operator such as Vodafone will have to set up 22
appellate authorities while someone such as Reliance Industries,
which has a licence to offer Internet services across the country,
can get away with just one authority for the entire country.
mechanism, therefore, is bound to fail just like its previous
version called the Telecom Consumers Protection and Redressal of
Grievances Regulations, 2007. Under this regulation too, TRAI had
left everything to the operator — from setting up the call centre
to appointing the nodal officer.
Not neutral or independent
Consumer forums on the Internet are full of stories of how
ineffective the nodal officer has been because he is simply a
representative of the operator. Though TRAI has done away with the
concept of the nodal officer in the new regulation, it has not
offered any credible alternative.
During the consultation process, many consumer groups had written
to TRAI that the appellate authority should be neutral and
independent. For instance, the Kerala-based Federations of
Consumer Organisations had written, “The appellate authority
prescribed should be appointed by TRAI directly. If the power to
appointment of the authority is given to the service providers,
there is every chance for bias.”
Another consumer group, Consumer Unity & Trust Society, had
stated, “The regulation should have effective safety-nets to
protect their independence, otherwise it will be like many other
so called ‘independent agencies' as the selection, remuneration is
in hands of appointing service provider.”
Interestingly, according to the draft regulations put out by TRAI
for comments in July, the appellate authority was supposed to be a
three-member body out of which one member was to be either a
retired District Judge or a retired officer of the Central
Government not below the rank of Joint Secretary or equivalent
officer of the State Government.
months thereafter, this part has been dropped at the behest of the
Time to revisit proposal
in the explanatory paragraphs to the new regulation, admits
dropping this clause because operators were not happy with it.
“During consultation process, while the consumer organisations had
supported the proposals, the service providers and industry
associations argued that the above proposals were not feasible.
Essentially, they did not want any outside agency in the decision
making apparatus,” TRAI says in the explanatory memorandum to the
question is, why are the operators scared of getting a neutral
agency involved in addressing consumer complaints and, more
importantly, why did TRAI submit to this view?
other major telecom markets there are independent agencies to deal
with telecom consumer complaints. For example, the telecom
ombudsman in the UK, known as the Otelo, has been operating since
January 2003. Otelo is independent of the communications industry
and the regulator. It is managed by a Council that comprises
people who, in most cases, are not from the communications
itself had suggested setting up such an agency way back in 2004
but this never got implemented because the Department of Telecom
thought it wasn't feasible. Perhaps, it is time now to revisit
that proposal because the telecom consumers in this country need a
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