India’s telecom regulator TRAI is looking to set up an independent complaint/grievance resolution body or an ‘ombudsman’ for the telecom industry, in order to “address consumer complaints more efficiently”. The regulator has issued recommendations (pdf) to renovate the existing grievance redressal mechanism into a three-tier approach:

i) Telecom operators will address consumer complaints and provide the first resolution.
ii) If the consumer isn’t satisfied, then he/she can approach the Consumer Grievance Redressal Forum (CRGF) set up across each service area or state levels. The CRFG will look into the complaint using “technical expertise…and carry out technical analysis” for settling disputes and complaints. Consumers can file complaints with the CRGF using web-portal, email or other online means.
iii) If the consumer still hasn’t received a suitable resolution, he/she can approach the telecom ombudsman office who will examine the complaint and the telecom operator’s resolution provided. A final order/settlement/compensation will be provided after this and the order shall be considered final and binding on both telcos and consumers.

Jurisdiction powers of the telecom ombudsman

The independent ombudsman will have powers only to handle complaints regarding delivery of telecom services and “matters like administrative issues, matters of telecom policy, setting of tariff etc” will be outside the jurisdiction of the ombudsman, TRAI said in its recommendation. TRAI also examined the need to provide a legal framework for the ombudsman office by either amending an existing law (in telecom) or through amending license conditions in licenses provided to telecom companies and ISPs.

Apart from this, TRAI has also laid down certain key functions and that the redressed body can perform:
(a) the system (of redresaal) should not be burdened by too many formalities – it should provide simple and quick
(b) should be easily approachable with ombudsman offices in every state/ circle
(c) maximum time period should be set for the body to resolve complaints and any delay due to lack of participation by a party should be addressed by passing an ex-parte order.
(d) complaints should be categorised on the basis of their complexity in order to expedite the process.
(e) no fee/minimum fee should be levied on the consumers for filing the complaints
(f) the ombudsman system should be supported by an office with appropriate material and human resources
(g) the authority should have the power to award compensation and pass penal orders and its decisions must be binding on service providers.

Why TRAI is looking to set up an independent telecom ombudsman

Currently, telecom companies are subjected to a two-tier complaint redressal system wherein the consumer first approach the telco with a complaint. In case he/she is not satisfied, they can escalate the complaint to the Appellate Authority, which is set up the telecom company, with the representation of a consumer group. However, TRAI finds this inadequate.“Complaints are often closed by the service provider to satisfy the regulatory requirements, without addressing the underlying problem. Consumer groups have also pointed to a lack of clarity in the appeals process. Complaints forwarded to the appellate authority are often not registered or responded to,” TRAI added.

Apart from this, the regulator mentioned that there is a lack of transparency and accountability in the existing redressal mechanism. It added that almost all TSPs submitted that there is no need for an independent system since “they differentiate themselves from the banking or electricity sectors, which provide for an ombudsman, on the ground that they deal with financial transactions of very small values…They argue that a majority of complaints handled by them relate to technical issues with no monetary sums involved.”

However, TRAI opposed this view and said that in order to “assure credibility of the (redressal) system” it is important that the basic principles of natural justice are followed:

“If the channels for grievance redressal are effectively ending with the systems dominated by the TSPs (telcos), as perceived in this case, it would violate one of the basic legal principles -“Nemojudex in causa sua” that literally means, “no person can judge a case in which they have an interest “or “no-one should be a judge in his own cause,” TRAI said in its recommendation.