When it comes to telecommunication disputes, consumer fora must interpret the law in a consumer-friendly manner.

While purchasing a prepaid SIM card a few months ago, Prithvi submitted all the papers demanded by the dealer of a telecom service provider. However, after 25 days of using the phone, he found that he couldn't make a call.

When Prithvi contacted the customer care department, he was informed his mobile number had been deactivated for want of address proof. Meanwhile, he had recharged his mobile for Rs. 500 as well. Prithvi argued that he had submitted all the documents while buying the SIM card, and if the documents had not reached the service provider, it was an issue between them and the dealer, not him.

His efforts to reason out with the executives proved futile, and he escalated the matter to the nodal officer demanding immediate re-activation or a refund. His connection was deactivated.

An infuriated Prithvi decided to approach the Consumer Fora to seek damages. But, due to the crucial judgment of the Supreme Court in September 2009, where it was said that telecom disputes should be referred only to arbitration, almost all Consumer Courts refuse to accept telecom cases. Therefore, Prithvi could not file a complaint against the service provider.

However, if all Consumer Fora interpreted the law as the District Forum, Ferozpur, Punjab, and the Central Mumbai District Forum, did, telecom consumers can heave a sigh of relief.

In the first instance, when the primary issue of the jurisdiction of the Consumer Forum to hear telecom disputes based on the decision of the Apex Court was raised, the Forum discussed Section 7 B of the Indian Telegraph Act, which states that any dispute concerning any telegraph line, appliance or apparatus, arising between the telegraph authority and the consumer, shall be determined by arbitration and shall be referred to an arbitrator appointed by the Central Government.

The term ‘Telegraph Authority' was analysed, and the Forum was of the view that the current service providers were not telegraph authorities, but licensees; therefore, any dispute between a consumer and the licensee regarding the telephone services would be between them, and that the licenser, i.e., the Central Government or the Telegraph Authority, would not be in any manner liable for the same.

The Forum went on to observe that the Consumer Forum established under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 does not exercise jurisdiction upon all matters but only on disputes involving consumers. So, during a dispute where the rights of the consumers are to be adjudicated, only the consumer courts have the jurisdiction to do so.

Citing various decisions of the Supreme Court in relation to this, the Forum said the Consumer Protection Law is not a general law but a special one, enacted to protect consumers, and the remedy provided under it is an additional and special remedy.

The Forum was also of the view that even as per the provisions of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act, 1997, the provisions of the CP Act prevailed upon the other provisions relating to telecommunications, and held that the Forum had the jurisdiction to try and decide the matter.

In the second instance too, the Forum held that all service providers were merely licensees, and thus would not come under the definition of telegraph authority as defined under the Indian Telegraph Act.

If all Consumer Fora interpreted the law in a consumer-friendly manner, it will not only be beneficial to consumers, but also hold the service providers more accountable.

(The writer works with CAG, which offers free advice on consumer complaints to its members. For membership details/queries, contact 24914358/24460387 or helpdesk@cag.org.in)