Dilli o Dilli, Or, The World of MTNL

24 July, 2012

I grew up in a pre-liberalization India where the public sector ruled. Things changed, of course, and the transformation of Chennai Telephones (?) to BSNL was unnoticed by me because I had left Chennai and India by then. My experience of BSNL during visits back home had generally been good (I remember that friendly and helpful Mrs Vaidehi, BSNL, Adyar with fondness) so when I returned to India and Delhi there seemed no reason to choose anything other than MTNL. Even despite pressure to the contrary from various directions. And so here I am, three years on, had it up to the neck with the MTNL experience? Ready to opt out …?

There are two elements to such experiences—the technology and the people. Some aspects of the technology have been great. Lose your phone, go to the local MTNL Sanchar Haat, get a duplicate SIM card with the same number and within minutes you are ready to go. And because I lose my phone fairly regularly, I know this. Or, when I moved and put in a request for my phone to be move, it was done immediately. Well, a little too immediately—I had not quite moved out of the previous flat—but in the larger scheme of things it was extraordinarily efficient and, therefore, admirable. Or is it just the technology? The people involved—the person at the desk in the Sanchar Haat office, the lineman—are key to such operations and I’ve found them to be helpful overall. Perhaps their helpfulness has been a function of the number of visits and hours spent at my ‘old’ Sanchar Haat, but in this case familiarily has not bred contempt—to the contrary. Strong case to keep MTNL? Perhaps—but maybe only if I spend similar hours becoming familiar with people in my ‘new’ Sanchar Haat.

But to come back to technology—over the past three years the MTNL cell phone network has gone from reasonably good to bad, except in the Delhi University area where it has gone from bad to worse. The signal fluctuates from reasonable to bad, reception is almost uniformly bad in my office and at home, so I have to take a walk if I need to have a telephone conversation (especially at work, where DU does not think it necessary to provide communication lines for its teachers—but that is a different tale). In short, I am frustrated much of that time and under increased pressure to switch providers. Strong case to drop MTNL, right? Perhaps–except that, when I travel to remote places (in Sikkim, for example), mine is the only phone that works and, of course, BSNL Chennai continues to be a delight (yes, I use that word advisedly in the context of the non-delights of MTNL).  Of course, I am in Delhi most of the year (hmm…maybe a reason to travel more).

Recently, enjoying a walk in the first monsoon shower this year, trying to keep my things from getting wet (especially my camera) somehow I manage to lose my cell phone. Again. Sigh. During an unpleasant weekend when I talk to the person that picked up the phone and finally am frustrated in my attempts to get it back, submit a FIR to the local police station (very helpful), I manage to contact 1503 (MTNL mein apka swagat hai: the only difference if you choose Hindi over English is the advert in Hindi that urges you to download the latest ‘romantic’ and ‘evergreen’ gaane; the people manning the lines are most comfortable and most understandable in Hindi), which tells me that their ‘systems are down’ but that they would register my request to disable the SIM card and that it would be done as soon as the systems were back up.

And now follows a frustrating surreal ~two week period

Monday, I go to my Sanchar Haat to get a duplicate SIM card, but am told that the number is under ‘temporary suspension’ meaning that it was not available to be assigned to a new SIM card.

Starting Monday and every day for the next week, I phone 1503 at least two times and visit the Sanchar Haat twice more. The story is the same—the number is temporarily suspended and not available to be re-assigned. Now I’m worried—can the guy who has my phone still use it ? Each time I phone 1503 I have to tell my story and get a range of responses, given pat or after some thought:

“The command has been sent and the number ‘do ghante mein bandh ho jayega’,” never mind that it’s been 2, 3, 4, etc days since that command was supposedly given

“Our system is down and when it comes back up all will be right”

?We have done everything we can/are supposed to—it is up to Sanchar Haat to deal with it now and there is no reason why they cannot give you a duplicate SIM”—this was the word I got from a supervisor, who told me that number has been closed since Monday and that it should be available immediately for re-assigning. [Please note that operative phrase is ‘should be’, ‘honi chahiye’; an expectation, a prediction, but not a reality].

Well, minutes after the supervisor tells me that I should be able to get a duplicate SIM card, I phone the Sanchar Haat and talk to my new pal, who tells me that this was not the case, that the number is still not available. See the pattern here? The man in the field (here, the one who gives out the SIM cards and assigns the number on a regular basis) knows that he is unable to do the normal routine thing, but his supervisors/’superiors’ continue to assert ‘what should be’ without thought to checking on ‘what is’. The argumentative Indian, starting from a set of assumptions and confining the discussion to that arena.

Monday comes by (it’s now been 10 days) and I ask my Sanchar Haat pal to give me contact information for his supervisor/superior/s. He gives me the number for his ‘incharge’ in a different location and an email address for a helpline. I phone the ‘incharge’ who is quite short and tells me that once the card is disabled I should simply collect a new SIM card from the Sanchar Haat and all should follow—he does not bother to look into the particular problem, but provides a general statement and solution and tries to make it my mistake (i.e, why did you not get the replacement SIM—that is the procedure—let alone the fact that the number I want is not available). The argumentative Indian. As for the email contact sancharhaathelpline@gmail.com—my message simply bounces back (‘email account does not exist’). And this is the email address that my pal at the local Sanchar Haat will contact. I also try another address from the MTNL website (feedback.delhi@bol.net.in). No luck.

On to Wednesday (had a few trivial things to do on Tuesday, like preparing for start of classes next week, discussion with students about their research, etc.)–my Sanchar Haat pal phones me (yes, we have exchanged telephone numbers by this point) and tells me to collect my SIM card. All excited, I go there—only to be told that that was all I am going to get, the replacement SIM card with no numbers attached. This is what his supervisor/superior/helpline told him (not surprisingly, no response from sancharhaathelpline@gmail.com). In other words, his part of the job is done—when my number becomes available he will reassign it to me. WHAT?!

So I call the ‘incharge’ while wtill at the Sanchar Haat office. He (the same one?) says something like you have waited for 10 days to collect your SIM card so another 5 days to get the connection is not unreasonable. Whoa. Then he talks to my pal at the desk and then tells me that I should take the card and that my number would be connected within 24 hours. I don’t believe him (how did it go from 5 days to 1?) but, as my pal says, at least this way I would not have to go to the Sanchar Haat office again, so I get the replacement SIM card.

Deciding that enough is enough, I get a bunch of contact addresses off the MTNL page—EDD, GMC, GMS, GMEMN, DGMITPP, DGMIT, DGMITAP—that I understand/guess are the executive director, general managers of the different regions (none for east?), deputy general managers of IT and copy them all to an email message that contains an account of the events so far. Many of them bounce (‘over quota’ or ‘rejected by user domain’ due to ‘unknown status’).

Late afternoon, I acquire a phone number (different MTNL website) for the GM (IT)’s office, they give me his cell phone number—irresponsibly, I think, shouldn’t they have tried to understand my problem?—well, whatever, I call him, he takes the call while at a meeting (!), promises to contact me in an hour, and sooner than that I get a call from someone in his office—finally, a friendly soul that tries to understand the situation, at least she unruffles my feathers and tells me that my phone number was linked to a SIM card—but not to the replacement I had got earlier that day! Curiouser and curiouser, but by now it is 4:30 pm and the local Sanchar Haat office is shut, so I must wait for the morrow.

Oh and before the working day ends I get a response to my email chain, this from the GMCCWS via the EDWS (don’t ask– neither was on my list) promising action. I guess at least one of my messages did get through; the system works in wondrous ways.

AND, then, Thursday—YES!! Called my Sanchar Haat pal—asked him about ‘my’ number being linked to a different SIM and, lo and behold, it was my old SIM! The number was out of action, but the number and old SIM were still linked and therefore not available to re-assign; magically, just as we were discussing this,  he said Oh it is free! and proceeded to link the number to my new SIM. That was at 10 am; I have no doubt that some human being did something first thing in the morning after coming to work, to release my poor number from its bondage to the now defunct SIM card. And by 12 pm I have my number back, it ‘works’ (it’s a different matter that the signal in my flat is bad…).

I shoot off appreciative messages to the various managers—I am convinced it was their action/s that did it. Apart from the very human 10-in-the-morning action, over the day I received calls on both my now re-available numbers (yes, yes, there were two) including one from the GM (IT)’s office and a couple of others. They must have done something!

The lesson? There are several, I think

  • Foremost, my thesis is upheld. We function because, among all the incompetents there is a small number of competents that knows what to do and when—and that is all that is required to keep the systems functioning at a reasonable level
  • The ones who told me that the ‘system was down’ were correct, there was a glitch, but I think they were wrong in expecting it to come back automatically; it needed a human being to set it right (of course these are my set of untested assumptions)
  • Maybe the person was correct who, at the local Sanchar Haat, told me that it was all because the contract with the previous system had run out and MTNL had given out a new contract to a different vendor and that the new system was no good, that the old, perfectly working sysem was not recontracted because – unhone kucch nahih diya hoga. Undone by corruption, was it?
  • Whatever the underlying reasons, if only we could get just a small fraction to care just enough to think just a bit, to look for evidence rather than operating on untested assumptions, then it would make HUGE difference.

It reminds me of the time a student to whom I’d lent a book told me he had returned it and that he was sure I had put it into a particular shelf – because that was from where I took it to give it to him in the first place, so I must have/should have put it back there. I think this syndrome is more widespread than one might imagine

And am I giving up on MTNL? I will have to keep it for my bank and other transactions where it is the number I have registered. I will take it with me when I travel. Maybe in my flat and in my office room, I will use AIRCEL. Two phones to carry. And take care of. And not lose.

This entry was posted in Red Tape aka Governance. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>