To my night prayers for good health and peace, I am adding a new prayer, to “save us from our ‘service providers’.” Whether it is the municipal corporation, water supply, electricity undertaking or telecom services, most of the government service providers harass citizens with their inefficiency, unaccountability, and one-sided rules that protect them, not the users for whom they exist.
For donkey’s years, I have been paying my telephone bill at the post office (PO) across the road, because it is convenient. I have a post office savings account, and the bill amount gets deducted automatically and quickly.
This month, the PO refused to accept my payment, saying they are no longer authorised to do so. Checking with the supervisor brought the brusque reply that this change in rules is printed on the bill. I went home and checked the small print in the four-page bill document. It gives instructions for payment at post offices. So what is going on?
I sent a complaint to the general manager of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL), the telephone services provider. Two days later comes the reply by email, “You can pay through bank instruction.”
Ah yes, I know. I opted for electronic clearing services (ECS) payment some years ago, and had the horror of being billed Rs700 extra for a modem that I never ordered or received.
Getting the charges reverses involved running around from one exchange to another for seven months; that taught me a lesson, and I now prefer to receive a monthly bill, check it, and pay at the PO.
The GM’s response offers no clarification on whether post offices are now barred from accepting payment. This is like the infamous French queen who said, “Let them eat cake” when informed that the poor people had no bread to eat.
Instead of having my grievance addressed, why should I opt for ECS when I have had a bad experience with that option?
This same BSNL also sends out bills dated 6th of each month, but the bills reach the customer only by 22nd or 23rd, the last date for payment. No one asks why a local letter takes two weeks to be delivered.
So twice during this year, after waiting for the bill, I asked a friend to pay at the Bangalore One kiosk near her house, without a bill (I was undergoing hospital treatment, and could not go myself).
The bill also says, ‘Non-receipt of bill is no reason for non-payment”.
Many years ago, I had contested this clause and written in my consumer column about such ‘one-sided’ rules that government services impose. Why is it that the department observes no accountability, and puts the onus of regular payments on the user? Without a bill, my advance payments at Bangalore One kiosk had to be on a rough estimate, so I was paying more than the actual bill. Why? What kind of ‘service’ is this?
I had sued a private telecom service provider under the Consumer Protection Act and received compensation as well as strictures from the magistrate against the company, for harassing customers.
As a senior citizen undergoing treatment, even filing cases under the CPA becomes difficult. So what does one do? “Eat cake, if there is no bread?’ (The insolent queen was beheaded for this statement; our government staff, however, goes scot-free.)
The receipts for electricity and water bill payments are printed on thermal paper that fades and goes blank after some weeks. In case of problems, the ‘blank’ receipt is no use.
Service providers often claim “arrears” and slap penalties, so one has to preserve proof of payment, to protect oneself.
Given the slothful state of even our consumer courts, how many citizens can afford the time and expense of making trips to courts for months, even years, to claim a refund of a paltry amount?
We cannot do without ‘services’ like electricity and water, which are monopolies. In the process of paying this BSNL bill, I have had to tear up the PO account cheque and write another for the Bangalore One payment, when a charge is collected for the wasted leaf. What a shoddy state of affairs!
It is the same with most government ‘services’ – government clinics and hospitals are so woefully inefficient that even the poor prefer to go to private hospitals, even though they cannot afford it.
As for government schools, the less said the better; children enrolled in class nine cannot even subtract properly; they merely copy what the teacher writes on the blackboard, without understanding. And the ‘no detention’ policy ensures that they come to high school without even basic literacy. I have already written about the state of public sector banks, which now have non-performing assets (NPAs) running in to obscene figures. (Read: Banks, the (Dis) Service Providers
One aggrieved citizen, or even a handful, complaining about poor quality of services, gets us nowhere. We need massive mobilisation of users of telephones, water, electricity, banks and schools, to voice their concern, in large numbers, to get attention. Till that happens, all one can do is pray -- to ‘save us from dis-service providers’
P.S. As I write, I have an update from the GM saying that it is the “post office that is not accepting payment”, so BSNL is not at fault. So where does a citizen turn, tossed between government owned two ‘service providers’?
(Dr Sakuntala Narasimhan
is a Bengaluru-based senior journalist, writer, musician and consumer activist. She is a renowned senior vocalist in both traditions of Indian classical music - Hindustani and Carnatic, an A-graded artiste of All India Radio in both traditions. She is also a musicologist and author, and has written a book on the Rampur gharana.)