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Cable trade says HC backs their stand on monthly subscriptions

MUMBAI: The legal authorities in Mumbai have their hands full with the various petitions and public interest litigations (PILs) which have been filed by politicians, cable trade and consumer activist groups. Politicians and consumers have moved court to restrain cable operators from arbitrary disconnections and for withholding revenues from government.

However, Mumbai's cable trade has obtained a recent ruling from the Mumbai High Court which counters consumer groups and politicians' threats. The ruling clarifies that the disputes can only be settled in consumer courts or in the form of a commercial dispute in a court. There is no question of any police intervention unless there is a breach of law, say the cable operators.

Two petitions, one from the Consumer Action Network and the other from the Mumbai Cable Operators Federation, came up for hearing before a division bench of the Mumbai High Court comprising chief justice CL Thakkar and Dr Dhananjay Chandrachud on Friday, 28 February.

Consumer Action Network (CAN), a city based consumer group filed a public interest petition in the Mumbai High Court. The PIL challenged the validity of the arbitrary hike in the subscription fees made by the cable operators and has asked for a freeze in the rates charged by them.

Speaking to indiantelevision.com, CAN president Ahmad M Abdi states: "On 28 February, the division bench of the Mumbai High Court merely reiterated the Supreme Court pronouncements from time to time guaranteeing citizens of the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 1a of the constitution of India. This right is meaningless if the cable operators switch off the connections arbitrarily and hold the city to ransom. Those who pay must get a right to watch and the government can decide what the rates should be!"

On the other hand, the Mumbai Cable Operators Federation (MCOF) filed a civil petition seeking a uniform law and detailed guidelines for all the constituents of the cable trade - broadcasters, MSOs (multi-system operators), cable operators and consumers.

MCOF advocate Ashok Saraogi says: "The petition questions the way in which broadcasters have increased their bouquet prices. It also questions how pay channels continue to obtain advertisements."

On 22 February 2003, the MCOF had obtained an order from Justice SS Parkar and VJ Tahilramani stating that consumers and politicians cannot initiate police action against cable operators for refusing to lower monthly cable rates.

MCOF lawyer Saraogi says: "The court observed that there is no instance of police taking action for disconnecting services due to non-payment of charges. We petitioned that the government should collect the taxes directly from the consumers or give some authoritative powers to the cable operators to empower them to collect entertainment taxes from the consumers."

"On 22 February 2003, the bench had also ruled that the operators were free to disconnect services when the consumers refused to pay the charges. It accepted that there are no clear-cut guidelines on the MRP (market retail price) for cable services. We can afford to show the free-to-air channels at Rs 150 per month," maintains MCOF president Nandan Basu.

MCOF committee member Shafiq Butt adds: "We took a copy of the 22 February 2003 ruling and presented it to Mumbai's police commissioner and other police stations in the areas where we operate."

The MCOF has also taken legal opinion on whether they could be liable for action under the various IPC sections as threatened by BJP member of parliament (MP) Kirit Somaiya who is gunning for the television trade. They have found out that the disputes between the cable trade and consumers can only be settled in consumer courts or as a commercial dispute in a court.

In February 2003, Somaiya had filed a criminal, cognizable, civil complaint against the various constituents of the cable business in Maharashtra - MSOs (multi system operators), independent cable operators and broadcasters.

"The complaints are slated to be filed under various acts including IPC under section 420 (cheating), 406, 441 and 447. The charges include threatening consumers; collecting taxes and not depositing the same with the concerned authorities. This constitutes cheating and exploitation of consumers under the MRTP," Somaiya had said as that point of time.

Somaiya can, however, initiate proceedings against the cable trade for not depositing the service taxes collected from the consumers in the government kitty. 

The MCOF lawyer Saraogi counters this by saying that the liability of paying the taxes rests with the citizens or TV viewers. "Show me one receipt which shows that cable operators have collected taxes from the consumers. Consumers refuse to pay these taxes and cable operators end up collecting their charges - that too with great difficulty," adds Saraogi.

Things will become clear two weeks from now when the government's advocate, including Maharashtra's advocate general Ghulam Vahanvati, responds to the various petitions.

Also read:

Cable ops restrained from enforcing more blackouts 

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

BJP MP Kirit Somaiya to file criminal case against TV trade...

Mumbai's small cable ops raise cudgels against MSOs, pay channels 

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