Airtel ‘Enforcing’ Recharges despite Sufficient Balance. Is this Goondagiri of Another Kind?
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.)
Comments
vaibhavdhoka
1 year ago
True since Airtel had to pay 10000 crores to government, company started putting ringtone to recharge eventhough you have long period for use in prepaid.Daily they send 8 to 10 messages as advertisement, which should be prohibited as the mobile is unnecessarily space is used and become slow.It is time company stops it's gimmick and harassment or many customers will port the number to other service provider.
ashuannu61
2 years ago
The TRAI has struck up on any disingenuous method of refusing to take up individual complaints by claiming that there's no provision in the TRAI Act. But a plain reading of Section 4.B(b)(ix) & it's Regulation proves that it has to give effect to all Service Obligations, the same section says as follows: "ix. ensure effective compliance of universal service obligations". I think service obligations include proper service to the customers/the end users also and not to or between some intermediaries alone, as the TRAI officials would like to interpret. Hope the civil society members act on this piece of information, interpret it proactively and make the TRAI a responsive body to the public and don't allow it to continue be a service provider to a handful of telecom service providers.
samyukta.babu
2 years ago
Telecom companies are incurring losses and they are now extorting money from gullible customers. My "data" doesn't work most of the time. There are frequent call drops. But TRAI seems to be least perturbed. Everyone doesn't have the time or wherewithal to approach consumer courts. I have been living with this now. Earlier I had a disastrous experience with Tata Docomo. There is no solution in sight.
avm007
2 years ago
yes Airtel should have debited Rs 49/- from the balance available ( there is nothing called free lunch) but Indian company are notorious for not honouring their promise/contract
kiranshah254
2 years ago
In switching from post paid to pre paid Airtel made me deposit Rs. 678 on some flimsy grounds which i could not evaluate then. Now the Co. saying they will refund but not done since last 3 months. The Co. does not allow me to buy pre paid plans from the refund due. Earlier the co. forfeited my Rs 100 balance in Airtel money on the pretext that the account is idle for long without any notice to me.
mAg
2 years ago
All telecom companies initiated validity recharges some time back. It has become mandatory to recharge with a minimum amount for minimum validity. Recharge for extra talk-time is different than the validity recharge. And this minimum validity recharge gets automatically deducted from the main balance, if not done manually. One also has the option to opt-out of this automatic deduction. But in that case, one has to manually recharge with the minimum validity option for restarting services.

Initially it was 23 and now it has been raised to 45 by Airtel. This policy is followed among all telecom companies. Gone are the days when you could recharge for 222 or 333 or 500 with full talk-time and unlimited validity. India used to have the lowest tariff all over the world and if it is deemed unsustainable, one has no other option but to accept the eventuality.

The threatening messages are to warn the customers that validity is about to expire. One can ignore those messages and wait for the telecom company to deduct the validity recharge from the main balance. I have been following it for the last few months with my Airtel number - with 1000 full talk-time recharge without validity and minimum validity being deducted automatically every month from the main balance of 1000. This ensures that I always have validity plus talk-time in case I need to call using that number (PS - I use the specified Airtel number only for banking / OTP purpose and not for talking / messaging)
dr.tiwari.dinesh.kumar
2 years ago
it takes a lot of money to maintain a phone "line" how can any mobile company give you free incoming line unless u pay some money regularly
B. V. KRISHNAN
Replied to dr.tiwari.dinesh.kumar comment 2 years ago
The issue is not getting free service. We are prepared to pay, but let them take the money from our available balance instead of insisting on re-charge using fresh funds.
deepak.narain
2 years ago
This is a very unfortunate situation. Airtel needs to do something about it.
mbpras
2 years ago
I am also one of the consumer being harassed by Airtel the same way. Time to take up with consumer court collectively
ramamanis
2 years ago
Ms Narasimhan has a genuine problem and Airtel has sucked the blood of many a "prepaid" customers by this method. I am also a prepaid customer of Airtel and have been
maintaining a prepaid connection with "unlimited validity" until Airtel brought in their
rule change and forced me to " recharge " with limited validity. THIS LEFT Rs 57/ IN THE
MAIN BALANCE OF MY A/C. AIRTEL REFUSES TO "ADJUST" THE AMOUNT IN THE
MAIN BALANCE WITH THE RECHARGE AND ALWAYS THREATEN THAT "Outgoing
calls will be blocked"..!!.. Their main office has issued me a "Credit Note" for the amount
lying in main account. But, I cannot have breakfast with the Credit Note..!!.. . Their office
refuses to adjust the amount lying in the main account and as suggested by Ms Narasimhan, " THEY MAY BE COLLECTING THESE AMOUNTS TO PAY OFF GOVT..!!..

B. V. KRISHNAN
Replied to ramamanis comment 2 years ago
Very well put. This is exactly the status of many customers of Airtel. This corporate goondaism needs to be addressed. Let this common platform provided by ML be the launchpad for further action. Can anyone suggest next step?
puranik.mukund
2 years ago
Today's scenario is that all the telecom companies are in loss except Jio. Companies like Airtel, Vodafone-Idea, MTNL, BSNL have lot of outstanding/losses. In people are left with nothing but only Jio for which everyone has his/her own experience and there is no guarantee when and how much tariff will be revised being a monopoly in present market.

From your case you hardly have any choice in present circumstances. I am using Vodafone and with current scenario of outstanding I wanted to know whether they will shut down the services suddenly just saying sorry to all customers later on. I asked in advance in light of switching my account to Jio (only surviving in present market with some life compared to other service providers) but I too received telephonic call as well as written reply that nothing is wrong with our services and it will be continued as it is and there is no need to be panic and shift to other service providers. I am still rethinking as Feb. 23 is a dead line.

Though TRAI does not accept individual complaint, but you can safely go to appropriate court ( Small cause / civil / chapter case) with your grievances. These are better options than consumer courts.

You may even contact first to following.
M/s. Bharti Airtel Limited All India Shri Ravi Gandhi Chief Regulatory Officer Plot No-16, Udyog Vihar, Phase-IV Gurgaon-122015 Haryana. Tel # 0124-4243106
0124-4248063 E-mail: [email protected]
The above details are on TRAI website under service provider's list. If this fails then you are free to approach appropriate court.
Newme
Replied to puranik.mukund comment 2 years ago
If Airtel is in loss how come Sunil Mittal is among the top ten richest Indian?
archana_rahatade
2 years ago
Even I have faced same problem with Airtel few months back. I was having balance but still had to recharge of minimum Rs.49 to avoid disconnection. ( if I don't recharge they stop incoming calls ) I complained on twitter and visited their office but in-vain, they said its policy. I am one of their unsatisfied customer.
123vdeo
2 years ago
I too have this experience. Since the last year Airtel has begun this practices. If I do recharge on the day SMS are sent but 2 or 3 days before due date, the next period of 28 days begin that day itself, thus 2 days in current period are gulped. Facility to check balance and validity dialing on *121*51# does not work. Same is case with broadband. Promised speed of 24mbps never achieved. Overall the telecom players are not fair with customers. May be it is result of market disruption by Jio. Incidentally Jio has also began increase price of their packs. Latest pack of 84 days 1.5GB/day hiked from ₹399 to ₹555! Funnily there is no place to complain about this. It is time that regulators like TRAI open consumer courts.
hmahesh45
2 years ago
I had a similar experience. But what to say AIRTEL behaves like a "T"elco gang gunda. And the graveness will grow as the Idea goes out of service. Thanks God atleast Jio is there. Even after having an Airtel Unlimited Plan Active it does not allow to call public utility numbers SBI, AXIS, ICICI Pru , Indigo etc. I took up the matter but Airtel says these are toll free but international numbers. LOOT Raj of 20005-2010 is going to come back for Airtel unless TRAI takes cognizance of. I strongly feel Govt must not allow Idea to die, may be they should allow merger of BSNL/MTNL with Idea-Voda. So that at least there remain fair competition.
hamungel
2 years ago
Sad state of affairs and TRAI will do nothing.
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