The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Tucked around a tree-lined avenue on the Delhi University campus is the modest office of the National Consumer Helpline (NCH). But unknown to many, this is the only helpline in the country which would come to your rescue in case of consumer complaints. Whether it’s a defunct mobile handset or an inflated credit bill or a rejected insurance claim, the helpline, which began in 2005, is there to guide and advise you. But now, the helpline comes loaded with another feature. Initiative Convergence, as it is known, acts as an interface between the complainant and the company, saving the consumer the hassle of running around.

The process is quite simple and it works, more often than not. All complaints to the toll-free number, 1800-11-4000, are heard and converted into data, which is then compiled into an electronic report and sent directly to the company concerned. “These reports are sent to the companies, sometimes weekly or monthly. A lot of bad blood is sorted out this way and reasonably more quickly,” says Sri Ram Khanna, principal investigator, NCH.

Numerous companies have already registered with the NCH which works in collaboration with the Union ministry of consumer affairs. The highest percentage of complaints is directed towards the telecom, appliances and banking sectors. Among those who have volunteered to be included in the scheme are banks such as HDFC, ICICI, HSBC, Citibank, ABN Amro, product companies such as LG and Samsung and telecom companies such as MTNL and Idea Cellular Ltd. Apart from these, insurance companies have also signed up to address complaints directly. The New Delhi Banking Ombudsman is also a part of it.

This initiative was launched to ease the tremendous pressure consumer courts are facing all over the country. Till now, about 28,34,916 complaints have been filed under the Consumer Protection Law. “The consumer courts are choked with cases. On an average, it takes four to five years to decide a case,” says S.K. Virmani, officiating manager, NCH. The helpline helps in resolving many of the cases without the consumer having to resort to the last option of litigation.

Amit Sahni will vouch for it. He was at the end of his tether because his seven-month-old Hyundai Accent wouldn’t stop giving him trouble. “I tried everything — calling the company, e-mailing them — but they wouldn’t help me out,” rues Sahni. As a sceptical last ditch effort, Sahni decided to give the consumer helpline a ring. “Well, the problem did get solved through the helpline but it took time,” adds Sahni.

The problems handled by the helpline are as diverse as they come. Some call to complain about a faulty mobile handset, some about a university degree that they didn’t receive. Some problems get solved and some don’t, but Virmani insists that each complaint is looked over and supervised by an expert in the area.

Among the sectors, telecom accounts for 20 per cent of the complaints, closely followed by defective appliances and banking issues. However, even though telecom issues make up the bulk, many service providers are reluctant to sign up with the helpline. One problem is, of course, that the registration is voluntary and in case a company does not want to sign up, there is nothing that NCH can do to get it to address complaints. Big telecom providers such as Hutch, Airtel and BSNL have not joined yet.

“MTNL, on the other hand, is not only on board but they also send regular feedback on the received complaints,” Virmani says. He adds that though a proposal for registering the telecom ombudsman with the helpline has been sent twice, there hasn’t been any action on that front.

While the helpline is definitely a relief for aggrieved consumers, it is still to catch on in areas outside the metros. The helpline receives about 4,000 complaints a month, mostly from within Delhi. Between March 2006 and February 2007, 39 per cent of the complaints were from Delhi, followed by Maharashtra, with about 11 per cent. Not a single complaint was received in the year from Meghalaya, Manipur or Nagaland. Virmani agrees that spreading awareness about the service in remote areas is a big task and they need all the help they can get. “Being a social initiative we do not have a lot of money to spare and spreading awareness in remote areas is expensive,” rues Virmani. The NCH is trying to inform people by putting up signs on public conveyances.

Another issue that has cropped up with the helpline is that calls to the toll-free number can be made only from MTNL or BSNL phonelines. The helpline can’t be accessed if the call is made from any other phone. Though there is another number (011-27662955 to 59), which can be accessed from non-MTNL/BSNL phones, it is not toll free.

But while the helpline, as of now, seems urban-centric, efforts to expand are on. And those who can easily access the NCH with a complaint will surely be heard.

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