Consumer body PIL seeks to plug cable TV rate hike before July 2003

MUMBAI: Consumers are playing safe considering the uncertain circumstances related to the implementation of conditional access system - CAS - in the country. Consumer Action Network, a consumer activist organisation comprising of lawyers, has filed a writ petition by way of Public Interest Litigation in the Bombay High Court today.


CAN is a society registered under the Society Registration Act, 1860 and has its offices in Mumbais Fort area.

The PIL submitted to chief justice CL Thakkar and Dr Dhananjay Chandrachud seeks action from the government - state and Central - forbidding cable trade to increase subscription rates till July 14 July 2003 and also setting up of a regulatory authority empowered to look into the problems of the consumers. The next hearing is slated for Friday 28 February.

CAN has used the constitution of India and the Cable television Networks Regulation amendment bill provisions to strengthen its arguments. The petition also highlights the fact that the inaction on the part of the government has resulted in loss of revenues through tax collections. It has also led to cartelisation of the broadcasters and MSOs.

Meanwhile, CAN officials have decided to start a nationwide agitation and consumer awareness campaign. The following are their demands: freedom of choice for the subscribers; no payments for those channels which consumers dont want to watch; no arbitrary rate hikes till CAS implementation; and a proper regulatory authority with representatives in different parts of the country.

While speaking to, CAN president Ahmad M Abdi states: "Unscrupulous cable operators misguide the ignorant consumers. We have had cases wherein cable operators have threatened to initiate police action against errant consumers. However, the law states that the dispute will be of a commercial nature and police action can take place only if there is violence or some other offence."

CAN representatives contend that cable operators should maintain status quo till the introduction of CAS and adequate guidelines given by the information and broadcasting ministry. They also feel that the cable trade will use this intermediate period to strengthen their bargaining capacity on the eve of introduction of CAS. They also add that they cannot allow the government to sit back and let the cable trade blackmail 200 million TV viewers in the country. They say that there are hints that the monthly cable charges will increase to Rs 350 and Rs 400, up nearly 500 per cent in the last four years.

In the writ petition, CAN mentions that the cable operators are proposing to increase the already high charges by a staggering per cent in the next six months. Even, if the rates were increased by Rs 5, it would cast a burden of Rs 30 billion per annum to the already beleaguered consumers.

"The issue of improper declarations and increase in charges of pay channels by the broadcasters is a dispute between the broadcasters and the cable trade. The poor consumer is suffering in the bargain. We have received numerous complaints related to harassment and arbitrary disconnection. These acts of cable operators are not just unethical and improper but also illegal. Such unconstitutional acts violate the fundamental rights of the consumer as recognised by the Supreme Court in various pronouncements from time to time being part of the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 1a of the constitution of India," CAN claims.

While CAN officials are demanding a cap on rate hikes, they support CAS saying that it would bring in a lot of clarity. "The consumer must get complete freedom of choice; otherwise the entire purpose of law and technology will be defeated. We have received feedback expressing doubts whether cable trade will provide free-to-air channels to those who are interested in subscribing to the pay channels," adds co-petitioner Kedar Goyal.

This shows that there is a need for a regulatory authority to consider complaints and take timely actions. "Bodies such as Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and Insurance Regulatory Development Authority of India have kept appropriate checks on the new sectors such as telecom and insurance. There are merely six million mobile users in the country as compared to the 200 million cable TV viewers," says Abdi.

Earlier, CAN had initiated action against the telecom authorities demanding number portability. Currently, the cellular subscriber has to surrender his number if he discontinues the services of one particular operator. CAN officials claim that the developed countries have rules which allow a subscriber to continue using the same number despite changing the service operator. CAN officials also state that they will eventually file regarding the adoption of STBs at a later stage because they haven't included the same in this petition.

For the cable trade, it looks as if PILs are simply pouring from all quarters.

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