The government of India, through Ministry of Consumer Affairs, has written to all consumer disputes redressal bodies asking them not to reject consumer complaints against telecom operators as many of them have been doing for years.
Consumer forums, including state-level bodies, have regularly dismissed complaints against companies like Bharti Airtel, Vodafone, Idea, Reliance Communications and others by directing complainants to initiate costly arbitration proceedings against the companies.
The forums used to depend on a judgment by the Supreme Court of India in which it had asked a complainant to set up an arbitration panel in a case against the Department of Telecom/BSNL.
The Consumer Affairs ministry, in its letter to consumer fora across India, said telecom companies do not enjoy immunity from consumer courts as the Department of Telecom used to, and no such immunity should be given to them.
“The implication of the (Supreme Court) judgment has been examined threadbare in the Department of Telecommunication and it has been decided that now a days the existing telecom service providers- BSNL, Reliance etc. are the licensee and not vested with any authority,” the ministry’s letter said.
“Therefore, the implications of the Supreme Court judgment in the aforementioned case does not extend to the disputes between telecom service providers and consumers. Therefore, it is within the competence of the consumer Fora to entertain the cases of disputes.”
The move is likely to come as a major relief to telecom consumers in India who have not been able to use legal remedies available to other consumers due to the ruling.
The original judgment by a Supreme Court bench comprising Justice Markandey Katju and Justice AK Ganguly had said:
“In our opinion when there is a special remedy provided in Section 7-B of the Indian Telegraph Act regarding disputes in respect of telephone bills, then the remedy under the Consumer Protection Act is by implication barred…
Rule 413 of the Telegraph Rules provides that all services relating to telephone are subject to Telegraph Rules. A telephone connection can be disconnected by the Telegraph Authority for default of payment under Rule 443 of the Rules.
It is well settled that the special law overrides the general law. Hence, in our opinion the High Court was not correct in its approach.”
The telecom ministry subsequently came out with clarifications that this was applicable only when telecom services were provided by the Department of Telecom directly, and is no longer valid as these are provided by private companies.