The telecom industry was the monopoly of the Government for many years. However, with privatisation, globalisation and technological advancement, there are many private players.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act was enacted in 1997 to regulate this sector and to protect the interests of consumers. The Regulatory Framework of TRAI provides for adjudication of complaints of individual consumers in the Consumer Fora, which has resolved numerous complaints.
However, the judgment of the Supreme Court on September 1, 2009 in the General Manager, Telecom Vs. M. Krishnan & Another puts an end to all this. Krishnan’s telephone line was disconnected because of non-payment of bills, and he approached a Consumer Forum in Kerala.
The Forum found the action of the department to be wrong, directed for restoration of connection and awarded a compensation of Rs. 5,000 with interest at 12 per cent to the telephone user. The department approached the Kerala High Court challenging the jurisdiction of the Consumer Forum in this complaint, where, the full bench upheld the award. The department appealed to the Supreme Court against this.
In its order, the Supreme Court declared that all services relating to telephone were governed by the Telegraph rules and Section 7B of the Telegraph Act, 1885 provided for arbitration, by a person chosen by the central government, for settling disputes, whose decision will be binding on both parties. Therefore, those who had complaints such as wrong billing must follow that direction.
Moreover, since the Telegraph Act is a special law, the Court said that it overrides any general law, including the Consumer Protection (CP) Act.
The consumer was not present to defend his case.
It is surprising that the Court did not stop to analyse the wide-ranging implications of the present order.
Though the Telegraph Act is a special law, the Consumer Protection (CP) Act is a social, beneficial and benevolent legislation enacted with the sole purpose of safeguarding the interests of consumers. It ensures inexpensive and expeditious redressal mechanisms.
Moreover, the interesting aspect of the CP Act is that it provides for additional remedy, and Section 3 of the Act envisages that the provisions of consumer law are in addition to and not in derogation of any other law.
In fact, there have been many instances in the past where the Supreme Court has given due regard to the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 and said that since the very purpose of the Act is to protect the interests of the consumers, its provisions are to be interpreted broadly, purposefully and positively.
For instance, in Fair Air Engineers Vs. N.K. Modi (1997), the Court laid emphasis on the additional remedy available under the CP Act and observed that the consumers should not be relegated to cumbersome arbitration proceedings. In State of Karnataka Vs. Vishwabharathi House Building Co-op Society and Others, the Supreme Court expressed the view that the CP Act was brought into force with the long-felt necessity of protecting the common man from powerful business houses.
In another case, Secretary, Thirumurugan Co-operative Agricultural Credit Society Vs. M. Lalitha & Ors., even where the Tamil Nadu Co-operative Law provides for arbitration in case of disputes, the Court upheld the consumer’s right to approach a Forum.
In a recent decision of the Punjab State Commission, an elderly gentleman was awarded a compensation of Rs.15,000. His usual bills were around Rs.160 a month but it went up to Rs. 20,000 for two months. Though he had complained, no action was taken; the line was disconnected for non-payment of bills. If he had referred it to arbitration instead of approaching the Fora, it might have taken an extended life time to get a verdict.
Another important aspect to be considered is that though the Telegraph Act is in force, it came into existence in 1885 when there would have been only a few hundred landline connections throughout the country and only one service provider. But, the scenario is changed now.
Therefore, it is crucial that the objective of the CP Act is fully realised and the provisions are harmoniously considered with other legislations so that consumers continue to benefit under the umbrella of the Consumer Protection Act.
(The writer works with CAG, which offers free advice on consumer complaints to its members. For membership details/queries contact 24914358/24460387 or firstname.lastname@example.org)