The mobile operator collected excess charges from senior government officer Praveen Gedam, who at present is Municipal Commissioner at Nashik. Consumer Forum asked Airtel to pay Rs60,000 as compensation and refund Rs71,156 with interest to Dr Gedam
The majority of mobile subscribers would tell you how the service provider takes them for a ride every time, like vanishing balance in prepaid account or unnecessary or unsubscribed for value added services (VAS) being added into their cost. And these mobile operators do not even spare top ranking government officials. Unfortunately, for Bharti Airtel, the officer turned out to be a vigilant one, who fought against the wrong billing and received justice in the District Consumer Forum.
The case relates with Dr Praveen Gedam, who at present is doing fantastic work as Municipal Commissioner at Nashik for the Kumbh Mela. While serving as Chief Executive of Latur Zilla Parishad at Latur, Dr Gedam, procured a new number and SIM card from Airtel. As suggested by the Airtel representative, he subscribed for Rs199 per month plan that included a talk time of 200 minutes and 199 free SMSes. The free calling service was provided under the closed user group (CUG) scheme. Dr Gedam also took an additional package of Rs99 per month that gave him free 200 SMSes per day. After this limit, the company told him any additional SMSes would be charged at 30 paisa per message.
Dr Gedam continued this mobile connection even after his transfer as District Collector of Osmanabad and then as Director, GSDA, Pune (with additional charge of Deputy Director General, YASHADA, Pune). All these are posts kept him extremely busy in his official work having virtually no time for other things.
On 24 April 2014, to his utter shock, Dr Gedam received a bill of Rs5,980.96 from Airtel for his mobile number. When he checked previous bills, he found that the service provider has taken undue benefit and charged him much more than agreed upon. Several times, Dr Gedam spoke with the Customer Service Centre of Airtel. He also sent several emails to the company, but there was no satisfactory reply.
When he sent a legal notice, the company said there was nothing wrong in its billing. In fact, even after several attempts, Airtel failed to provide any satisfactory explanation to Dr Gedam and suddenly on 4 July 2014, disconnected his connection. Due to this he had to face several issues in his official duty, especially during the famous Pandharpur Yatra. Under protest, on 5 July 2014, Mr Gedam paid his bill and his connection was restored by Airtel.
The Airtel representative at its Customer Service Centre told Dr Gedam that due to some new guideline issued by TRAI, his package was limited to 100 free SMS per day, after which he was charged 50 paisa per SMS. The company, however, failed to share with him a copy of the guideline issued by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).
In his complaint before the District Consumer Forum, Solapur, Dr Gedam, said, "In any case, this change in plan or this guideline was never intimated/ communicated to complainant-consumer (Mr Gedam) by any means and/ or mode, nor did the complainant give his consent to change the mutually agreed upon plan in any way at any time. Indeed, the bills that are being sent to complainant till this date continues to mention 200 free SMS per day. In view of this, the reasoning given by the call centre for charging all SMS over 100th SMS on a given day is not acceptable and valid."
Later on 25 January 2012, TRAI revised its guidelines and increased the limit for sending number of SMS to 200 per day. "This also means, Airtel was legally bound not to allow delivery of 201st SMS from any mobile on a given day," Dr Gedam contended.
Further while checking previous bills, he found that since May 2012, Airtel unilaterally changed rate of SMS to Re1 (for local) and Rs1.50 for national SMS from 30 paisa for both types of messages, as agreed upon while procuring the connection.
Dr Gedam said, he received an email on 24 May 2012 from Airtel, but no change was mentioned in the email or in any SMS. "Airtel introduced this only in second page of itemised bill. "Usually no consumer goes into details of how many calls/ SMS he has sent during last month and knowing this very well, the change in rates were mentioned in the itemised billing file only, that too not on its first page but hidden somewhere else. There is another reason that this mischief by company did not come to the notice of the consumer at that time because the number of SMS over and above 200 per day were far and few and overall increase in the bills was not much for so many months after change of rates. Therefore, there was no reason to be alerted by any increase in the bills. Actually, for most of the months, even after changes in rates are done in this fashion, the bill has increased only marginally or not at all, thereby not making the consumer aware of any such unilateral and illegal increase in the rates by the company," Dr Gedam said in his complaint.
What was more shocking in this episode was, the company claimed (and billed) that on 17 April 2014, Dr Gedam sent as many as 1,451 SMSes taking his monthly messages to a whopping 9,360 SMSes in that billing month. Since, Dr Gedam was using an old Nokia handset; it was not possible for him to send multiple SMSes in single stroke. In addition, his 201st SMS should have been blocked by Airtel, as per the TRAI guidelines.
Dr Gedam said he was denied the facility of free 200 SMS per day and for days like the one mentioned above, he was charged Re1 or Rs1.50 per SMS.
During the hearing before the District Consumer Forum, Airtel contended that as per the Telecom Consumer and Redressal of Grievances Regulation, 2012 and Section 7-B of the Telegraph Act, 1885, the consumer should have approached the Tribunal instead of the Forum. However, this contention was rejected by the Forum.
After going through the documents, the Forum said from May 2012, Airtel changed the subscription plan of Dr Gedam, and failed to provide any supporting document to show that the consumer was intimated.
While holding Airtel responsible for making one-sided changes in subscription plan and disconnecting Dr Gedam's mobile connection without prior intimation at a time when he was serving as a responsible senior government official, the Consumer Forum asked the mobile company to pay Rs50,000 as compensation, refund Rs71,156 excess charges with 9% interest from 30 July 2014 and Rs10,000 as cost.