As I write, Bharti Airtel has just paid Rs10,000 crore to the government as 'part payment' of dues as ordered by the Supreme Court. That money came partly from my pocket and that of over 264 million subscribers relying on Airtel’s ‘service’ in India. No joking.
I have a prepaid account, which had a balance of Rs291 (January end), enough to last me for several months since I hardly make any outgoing calls. And, yet, from 1st February onwards, Airtel has been bombarding me with messages threatening to bar call facilities unless I 'recharged' my account. The messages got progressively more and more threatening—“recharge or else Rs23 will be deducted from your balance, for 28 days” (which was fine with me) but, two days later, saying “recharge or Rs45 will be deducted.”
A day later, “since no recharge was done, call facilities will be barred.”
I am 80 years old, with multiple health problems (hearing loss, and vision loss) and walk with a stick. The mobile was gifted by my children so that they can check periodically that I am OK. They worry if calls go unanswered.
So I went to the Airtel office, spending on auto-rickshaw, climbed up painfully to their first floor office, and was told that I had to pay Rs49 for a recharge, although I had Rs281 balance in my prepaid account.
What is going on? Is it Rs23, or Rs45, or Rs49? Or is it that Airtel is trying to raise the thousands of crores of rupees it owes the government, through extortion from its subscribers? The 'new rule' (effective last week) is that the balance in prepaid accounts, I am told, “will be kept as a deposit for my lifetime”, and in addition, “customers will have to keep recharging every month.”
Under what rule? If a roadside vegetable vendor quoted one price, pocketed my money and then demands a higher amount, I have grounds for complaining about cheating and take action.
If a large telecom company does the same, after holding on to the prepaid amount I have already paid, and refuses to refund my money, and declares that charges have been hiked, without informing subscribers, forget about giving them options to withdraw?
I have a news report from Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) saying that service-providers cannot impose arbitrary charges. I used that report when I sued Airtel last time when I was harassed by repeated messages to recharge 'or else'. I won my case and was awarded compensation under the Consumer Protection Act. The magistrate, while passing judgement, even commented in court that “Airtel should be ashamed to harass an elderly citizen like this.”
So why is Airtel doing the same again? What is the meaning of 'prepaid balance' if I have to go on paying in more money every month?
Last year, in disgust, I even filled up a form for migrating to Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL), but promptly got an email from Airtel saying “please do not migrate, we will look into your grievance.”
So what is going on now?
I complained to Airtel and said I was obliged to sue once again, since I am being harassed (sometimes with two-three SMSs in a day, threatening to cut off outgoing and incoming facilities), and have got a standard, impersonal email reply saying “please call 121 regarding your complaint and give more details.”
All details have been given in the complaint that I sent. Why am I required to call them, as if they are doing me a favour? If I make a call, that means revenue for Airtel, right? And they need revenue badly…
Besides, adding insult to injury, my prepaid balance is now showing Rs281 instead of original Rs330.
It is illegal to impose arbitrary and unilateral rules, without subscribers being informed in advance. It is a punishable malpractice to quote one amount in their message and demand a higher amount at the time of payment.
And on whose authority or rules does Airtel decide that the balance in a subscriber’s account will be held as a 'lifetime' deposit? That too when TRAI has expressly announced that service-providers cannot impose arbitrary rules and change tariffs?
I have a thick file of email messages, sent to various 'customer service officials'; they all made polite noises, but without solving my problem or even giving satisfactory explanations.
A mobile is an essential requirement today—one cannot even book gas refills without mobile number, or even pay electricity bills.
Even if just 20% of subscribers have prepaid accounts, Airtel has already squeezed and collected the Rs10,000 crore it has had to pay as 'part payment'. So, are we all pitching in, to bail out this 'service provider'?
Ask for a refund of your balance and change to post-paid, advises one activist. But Airtel office says 'No refund'.
Under the rules of TRAI, individual complaints cannot be taken up. How many other subscribers face this same problem of extortion, and how many have bothered to protest (forget about suing)?
(Dr Sakuntala Narasimhan is a Bengaluru-based senior journalist, writer, musician and consumer activist. She is former national Vice President of the Consumer Guidance Society of India (CGSI), Mumbai. She is also a renowned senior vocalist in both traditions of Indian classical music - Hindustani and Carnatic, an A-graded artiste of All India Radio in both traditions. She is also a musicologist and author, and has written a book on the Rampur gharana.)