Every now and then, our all-powerful government makes some loud claim about the superb state of our country, or puts out some ad that trumpets that superb state. You know what I mean? Like, we have a Right to Information Act! Or, we have Freedom of Expression! Or, we have Religions Living in Harmony! Or we have the World's Largest Democracy! (Excuse me, I used the caps for the Right to Information Act and started to think I needed it for everything else).
Nothing wrong with making such claims. Really. But sometimes you put them to the test -- as they need to be, which is the only way we'll know what they mean -- and you say, hmm! What went down here while I was chilling?(Excuse me, I'm using the "with it" lingo of the young who, we are told, now determine the Direction of the Country).
So there's the mighty Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited -- or well, in these days of fierce telephone competition, they aren't quite so mighty, but anyway. Being a big Government agency known for poor service in the past, and now buffetted by competition, they feel compelled to tell us they care, oh how they care, about their customers. Thus the large recent ads in our papers, in which no less than the Minister of Telecommunications, Dayanidhi Maran, explains that MTNL wants to assure a proper response to its customers' problems.
So if you have any problems with your MTNL service, this is what you need to do:
1. Call 198 to complain.
2. If there's no response there, call 1509. This call, the ad tells us helpfully, is toll-free. Aren't you glad to know MTNL won't charge you to complain about their own mess-ups?
3. If 1509 gets you nothing, send email to the Public Grievance cell at the ministry of communications, address email@example.com
4. If that's futile, call this Delhi number: (011) 23356666. Or fax this Delhi number: (011) 23357777. It doesn't helpfully tell us, so I can only presume -- you will pay to reach these numbers. Aren't you glad to know that MTNL will charge you to complain about their own mess-ups?
I'm interested in these ads, because my most recent MTNL bills have inexplicable Rs 100 'reconnection charges.'
But before I get to the mechanism spelled out in the ads, the bills themselves offer some ways to get help with your problems. Surely that will work, I think.
The bill says, if you have bill-related inquiries, call your nearest MTNL Quick Customer Service Centre, QCSS. It's 'Quick' and it has a snappy acronym, but its number, 26410111, is steadily busy for days. When it finally rings and is actually answered, someone Quickly tells me I should call 26428800. (Must be that Quick Customer Service). That number is steadily busy. Also on the bill is another toll-free number, 1500, for inquiries. I try that. Four days in a row before I give up, I get only a recorded message that this service is 'temporarily' out of service. (Not so Quick Customer Service, evidently).
Now, I decide to follow the ad. 198 is fine, I get a Interactive Voice Response System (IVRS) (I'm learning to love these Four Letter Acronyms, or FLAs). I register a complaint. Days later, nobody has got in touch to find out what my problem is and how it can be solved. So I fire up Mr Maran's second step, and dial 1509. Miraculously, someone answers and Quickly tells me to call the QCSC (must be that Quick Customer Service again). I explain that that route has led to a dead end. The Quick person says there's nothing more that 1509 can do for me and Quickly hangs up.
Still following the ad, I sit down at my PC to write email to the firstname.lastname@example.org address. Two days without a response, so I write again. Two weeks now, and there has been no response.
No, I have not exercised Step 4 in Dayanidhi Maran's ad, the call or fax to Delhi. For one thing, I object to paying for clearing up what I believe is MTNL's mistake. For another, my experience so far tells me I will get no response anyway.
Meanwhile, the due date on the bill comes up, so I have to pay. Which, I suspect, was the purpose of this whole elaborate charade anyway. Stonewall until we get the money from the fellow. What's he going to do?
But don't we know, the government can tell everyone via their ads, MTNL is responsive to its customers! Look at all these methods we have to deal with their complaints!
Who cares if none of the methods actually work? They're there and can be crowed about.
Think this is just a one-off? Well, yo dudes (still using that lingo), would you take a look at a recent attempt to exercise the Right to Information Act here in Maharashtra? In the words of the person who did it:
Some two years ago Navleen Kumar, a social activist engaged in protecting and restoring tribal lands in Vasai taluka of Thane was murdered on the terrace of her flat in Nala Sopara. Tribal lands in that area have been systematically grabbed by local gangsters despite the legal ban on such transfers. Navleen Kumar's efforts had thwarted some of these expropriations.
The police have been tardy in investigating the murder. They are said to have arrested some of the actual killers, but were not able to get to the person(s) who directed the killers to kill. One of these is suspected to be Manik Patil, who is also said to be a henchman of a widely feared local gangster, Bhai Thakur.
Patil is a murder convict in jail on a life sentence. To question him in police custody the police need to transfer him from the jail, for which they apparently need government sanction. They applied to the home department, but had to wait six months.
Two days before the (Maharashtra) Minister of State for Home Kripa Shankar Singh eventually brought himself to approve the transfer to police custody, Patil got himself admitted to a private nursing home in Pune. And the government sanction letter was given a validity period of just 15 days. So when it expired, Patil was still in the nursing home.
To find out why it took Kripa Shankar and his home department so long to approve a simple request, I asked the home department's Principal Information Officer on July 1, 2004 for copies of the department's papers relating to the delay (under the Maharashtra Right to Information Act). That request has been turned down on the plea that it was made for personal information and that the information would impede the police investigation. The home department reply came on the August 16th, well after the 15-day period the Act allows for this response. It also does not indicate to whom one can appeal.
So: Patil chills in a 'private nursing home,' pretending to be in jail. To question this suspect who is already serving a 'life sentence' on another charge, the police actually claims to need 'government sanction,' which is granted to them only after six months. You think this is bizarre, so you ask -- as an ordinary citizen exercising your Right to Information -- for the papers concerned. You get a reply a month-and-a-half later, three times the time the Act itself specifies for such a reply.
And that reply tells you that you are asking for this for your personal use. That if it was supplied to you, it would impede a police investigation which isn't going anywhere anyway.
Max cool, man! Way to go and all that. (Yet more of that lingo). Refuse the fellow this information about an egregious travesty of justice, and on egregious grounds too. What's he going to do?
But don't we know, the government can tell everyone, we are a Great Democracy! We have a Right to Information Act!
No matter that on the evidence in at least this case, this Act has a very simple goal: protect the criminals. Well, at least we have the Right to That Particular Information. Chill, babe, and do it Quick.
You can send me your comments at email@example.com