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An end to mobile firms' arrogance

Rosy Kumar | April 10, 2004 14:17 IST

Every mobile phone subscriber has put his signature on an application form that has the magic words: "I have read and understood the terms and conditions printed overleaf and agree to be bound by the same."

On the back of the form there are numerous conditions printed in small font, which no one bothers to read. One such condition stipulates, more or less in the following words, that: "The company is entitled to change, vary, add, withdraw services and/or change, vary, add alter, delete, withdraw any/ all charges, discounts, surcharges, tariff, etc. at any time."

Since mobile services were introduced in India, terms and conditions have been frequently changed by operators, often to the subscribers' disadvantage. Several incentive schemes were announced in the early stages. Free talk time, free incoming calls and free caller line identification services were promised but later all these schemes were altered.

In Spice Telecom vs J S Chahal, the complainant J S Chahal applied for and got a mobile phone from Spice Telecom, Chandigarh. He became a subscriber on December 5, 1998. Chahal noticed that the company was not supplying to him the details of item-wise calls which others like DOT were sending with the bill. When he took up the matter with the company, Spice Telecom demanded Rs 50 as monthly fee for such a service.

The complainant filed a case before the district consumer disputes redressal forum where the company pleaded that the complainant's liability was contractual and the terms and conditions of the contract were binding on him. Disagreeing with the company's stand, the forum held that these terms and conditions were in very small print and they had not been read specifically to the customers.

An appeal was filed against the above order before the State Commission, Chandigarh, which reversed the order of the district forum.

It held that the customer had agreed to the terms and conditions printed in the application form and therefore the mobile company was within its rights to levy the charges for itemised billing.

A recent judgement by the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission seems to have finally resolved the issue. In BPL Mobile Cellular vs Asif Shaukat Qureshi, in July 2001 BPL introduced a plan called 'Plan 0601' by which it offered all incoming calls free of charge for the initial 12 billing cycles at a monthly rent of Rs 950.

Qureshi responded to this offer and signed a subscription form in November 2001. To Qureshi's surprise, he received a bill for the period December 2, 2001 to December 1, 2002 for an amount of Rs 1,568 towards charges for incoming calls. He took up the matter and it was revealed that BPL had changed the plan of "Free Incoming Plan" to "400 Incoming Minutes Plan."

Qureshi approached the District Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum, Nagpur, for a refund of the amount of money he had paid for incoming calls, along with compensation.

The district forum allowed the complaint and directed BPL Cellular to refund the amount of the bills which they had received from the complainant for the period of seven months from January to July 2002, and held them deficient in their services.

BPL filed an appeal before the Maharashtra State Commission, but this was dismissed. The company then filed a revision petition before the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission.

The apex commission categorically held that the complainant was entitled to avail of the promised free incoming calls for the total plan period and that the same could not be changed without his consent.

The commission further held that "in our view it is considered as deficiency in service on the part of BPL for altering plans without giving prior notice and option to subscribers, or letting them know what is being charged for the next coming months."

The National Commission's verdict, passed in November 2003, will help put an end to the arbitrariness of mobile service providers.

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