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Out with those pesky calls!

It’s been more than five years since Harsh Pathak filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court asking for a ban on unsolicited phone calls and SMSes from telemarketers, and almost two years since he registered his number with the national do-not-call (NDNC) registry. Yet he continues to be disturbed by pesky telemarketers even today.

“The main contention of my PIL was that my right to privacy was being violated. Unfortunately, it continues to be violated to this day even with a system in place that was supposed to stop this,” says Pathak, a Delhi-based Supreme Court advocate.

The NDNC registry became operational in October, 2007, and around 66 million subscribers have registered so far, which is only about 10.6 per cent of all telephone subscribers in the country.

However, despite being on the NDNC list, many consumers continue to be disturbed by telemarketers offering a variety of products from new mobile connections to personal loans.

According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), a total of 3,40,231 complaints against unsolicited commercial communications (UCC) were received from telecom subscribers till March, 2010, and most of these complaints were from people who were part of the NDNC registry.

Even Trai admits that the NDNC has failed to yield results. “The figures indicate that the present UCC framework has not been successful and the issue needs in-depth examination and re-consideration,” says a consultation paper issued by Trai recently.

Trai is now proposing a “do-call” registry in place of the NDNC registry. In August 2008, a Supreme Court bench suggested a “do-call” registry in place of the NDNC that was already considered a failure. Justice A.K. Mathur, one of the two judges on the bench admitted that he had been a “victim” of unsolicited calls.

Trai hopes that consumers will benefit if the “do-call” registry is put in place. “If the ‘do-call’ registry comes into being, almost every consumer’s number will be on the do-not-call list by default. And only those who wish to be on the ‘do-call’ list will be accessed by the telemarketers,” says a Trai official in Delhi.

While most consumers are in favour of the new system, telecom operators, telemarketers and mobile advertisers are opposing the move. “I believe that a do-call registry is the way forward. But it will depend on how well this new system is implemented,” says Pathak.

Telemarketers feel that this is likely to negatively impact the industry. “It was largely the inertia of the consumers that was responsible for such a low registration on the NDNC list, and if a do-call registry comes into force, I don’t see many people subscribing to calls and messages by telemarketers,” says Rajiv Hiranandani, co-chairman, Mobile Marketing Association (MMA), a global body that represents telecom and other organisations.

According to Hiranandani, mobile-marketing largely involving push SMSes, constitutes a Rs 200-crore industry and it is likely to be affected very adversely by this move. “I am only talking about the SMSes, now think of thousands of telemarketing organisations that employ lakhs of people,” says Hiranandani. He also says that consumers will also miss out on many useful SMS alerts if a do-call list is implemented. “People will lose out on important weather, police, flight and many other alerts just because they are not on the do-call list,” he says.

According to Trai, telemarketing is a Rs 11,000-crore industry employing lakhs of people in India. Trai states that 27292 telemarketers are registered (till March 2010) with the NDNC. That means these people are authorised to call all those who are not on the NDNC registry. But there are thousands of unregistered telemarketers who freely call-up any one they want to.

Consumer organisations blame Trai, the ministry of telecommunications and the telecom companies for the mess. “Telecom companies are supposed to fine telemarketers who make unsolicited calls to those on the NDNC registry, and a few have been fined too. But this is too lucrative a business for telemarketers. They don’t mind paying a few thousand rupees and carry on with their activities,” says M.S. Kamath, general secretary, Consumer Guidance Society of India, Mumbai.

Kamath doesn’t blame consumers for not being on the NDNC registry in large numbers. “Our consumers can be quite persistent, but when they feel that the system is a failure, they simply give up. That’s what happened with the NDNC registry,” he says.

But Trai insists that it has done its bit. It claims that 14,735 lines of registered telemarketers and 37,348 lines of unregistered telemarketers were disconnected by the telecom service providers besides imposing fines for making unsolicited calls.

“We cannot control every Tom, Dick and Harry who makes calls using our networks. There are so many direct sales agents who get numbers from various sources and call directly. We cannot be blamed for the mess,” says a spokesperson of a leading telecom service provider.

AAccording to some, every telemarketer should be compelled to share the source from where he got the telephone numbers. “These people have only one source and that should be the national registry. At present they can obtain numbers from anywhere. These multiple windows should be closed,” says Pathak.

Several countries like Germany, Australia and the US have an “opt-in” system in place, similar to a “do-call” registry that TRAI is proposing. But industry watchers want a careful study before implementing the opt-in system in India. “We shouldn’t underestimate the negative fallout of this. For instance, in some countries of South America, telemarketing companies’ revenues went down by as much as 95 per cent after the do-call registry was put in place, We don’t want that to happen here,” says Hiranandani.

Kamath feels that Trai needs to be given more powers to root out the problem. “Most western countries have strong regulatory systems and there is scope for success. But unless the telecom ministry provides more teeth to Trai and asks it to impose hefty fines and haul up erring telecom companies and telemarketers, I don’t see customers benefiting from a do-call registry,” he says.

Meanwhile, TRAI has requested all stakeholders, including the consumers, to send their written comments on the need for a “do-call” registry on or before June 10, 2010, to advqos@trai.gov.in.

So if you feel strongly about not being disturbed by relentless telemarketers, write in and make yourself heard.

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