The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), after considerable prodding by consumer groups and the judiciary, has taken a big step forward in curbing unsolicited telephone calls, an abuse by telemarketers. Under the Telecom Unsolicited Commercial Communications (UCC) Regulations 2007, a two-pronged approach is contemplated. All telecom service providers will have to maintain a list of the telephone numbers and other details of users who have expressly opted not to receive such communication. There will also be a registry that will have a consolidated and updated list at the all-India level. Simultaneously all telemarketers will have to register themselves with the DOT. There are penal provisions for not complying. All forms of communications in addition to voice calls — SMS, MMS, and so on — are covered. Already, the Reserve Bank of India has moved to curb this practice among telemarketers of credit cards. What is envisaged by TRAI is comprehensive, covering all types of UCC, with the additional merit of subjecting telemarketers to a licensing system. With 212 million subscribers across the country, the potential of telephone as a medium for reaching out to the targeted groups and hard-selling products and services is indeed huge. TRAI estimates the number of telemarketing calls to be about 10 billion a year. Along with some genuine communications there has been a phenomenal rise in unsolicited calls that are intrusive and might clog the network.

However, for all the recent improvements, a regulatory approach alone might not suffice. Telecom subscribers need to be educated on the new provisions so that those who do not want to be disturbed can take action to stop the calls. Registering telemarketers will not be an easy task. The business is highly fragmented, and regulating merely the bigger, better-organised ones that are usually adjuncts of big banks and companies will not do. The problem is one of keeping a tab on those telemarketers who are either too small or whose telemarketing messages straddle the fine line between solicited and unsolicited calls. For instance, an existing customer of a bank may not want to be aggressively wooed with the offer of a credit card. To the bank however, the telemarketer is merely cross-selling. Besides, there may be unsolicited calls appealing for charity or conveying public service messages. The expectation is that, in the process of conforming to the new regulation, telemarketing will become more responsible and stop being a nuisance to subscribers.