Showing posts with label BSNL. Show all posts
Showing posts with label BSNL. Show all posts

Thursday, 5 November 2015

BSNL Customer Care – More Scare Than Care

                “Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard.”
 —Guy Kawasaki

When the feature of Subscriber Trunk Dialling (STD) was introduced in India some four decades ago, the customers had to make numerous attempts to get through one call. Often the experience was testing and tiring. In view of this, some smart aleck gave a witty expansion to the abbreviation STD as Subscribers Trying and Dying.  As technologies kept advancing, the situation improved much and this humorous expansion of STD was forgotten.  Or so I thought. But I realized that BSNL customers would still ‘try and die’ – not dialling STD calls but trying to register a complaint online through its Customer Care portal. And this is the story of my first and last encounter with BSNL customer care portal.


It all started with the falling speed of my BSNL broadband connection. The service plan to which I subscribe should give me a speed @2 Mbps for the first 8 GB of data transactions in a month and @512 Kbps beyond it.  My broadband use is limited to accessing my email accounts and managing my blog, Google and Facebook accounts. By no chance could I run up a volume of 8 GB data a month. Thus, I have been enjoying a speed of 2 Mbps all through the month. But lately I found my connection agonizingly slow. And before making a formal complaint, I decided to confirm my feeling of low speed through a broadband speed test.   



I did a Google search and discovered the link provided by BSNL to test broadband speed online at the ‘BSNL Broadband Speed Tester Portal’ (http://speedtester.bsnl.co.in/). The page that opened had a link ‘Click To Start Speed Test’. That was easy, I thought. No questions… No hassles... I clicked the link. Another page with a message appeared on the screen. It read, ‘Conducting bandwidth tests. It may take a few seconds to exchange payload’. (Payload?  The operation sounded more like the launching of a guided missile, rocket or torpedo!)

In a moment’s time, the test result appeared on the page. It said. ‘Your current bandwidth reading (in Mega bits per second) is: 0.00 kbps. The tool obviously was defective. My connection was slow, but certainly not as slow as 0.00 kbps. I did another Google search. This time I found another speed tester provided again by BSNL at http://218.248.245.5/initialmeter_slow.php I clicked the link.  The look, feel and messages that appeared on this portal were exactly similar to the previous one. The system did the ‘payload’ exchanges. I waited expectantly. Lo and behold! The test result came in through a message that said, ‘Your current bandwidth reading (in Mega bits per second) is: 90.30 kbps’.    

I should say something about the speed tester portal before turning to my attempts at resolving the speed issue of my connection. I am afraid that the developers had paid little attention to the script displaying the result of the speed test. The static part of the message reads as follows: ‘Your current bandwidth reading (in Mega bits per second) is:' A broadband connection does not necessary have bandwidth in Megabits per second. In fact, the initial definition of a broadband was a connection with a minimum data speed of 256 kbps. This was subsequently revised to 512 kbps. Bulk of the BSNL broadband connections operate with plans offering a speed of 512 kbps to 2 Mbps.

The output message would become confusing when the speed tested is below one Mbps. For instance, assume that the speed as measured by the system is 550.35 Kbps. This would generate the message, ‘your current bandwidth reading (in Mbps) is 550.35 kbps. (Incidentally, Megabit is a single word and not two separate words as appearing at the portal).

Turning to the test result of my broadband speed. At 90.30 Kbps, the speed was roughly one-twentieth of the speed to which I was entitled as per my service plan. I decided to lodge a complaint. Since I mostly worked online, it was easier for me to register an online complaint rather than suffering the agonies of traversing IVRS maze. (Besides. I avoid phone conversations since it often ends up in bitter quarrels). I was already a registered user at the BSNL portal (http://portal.bsnl.in). So, lodging a complaint online should be cakewalk, I thought.    

When I tried to connect to http://portal.bsnl.in, I was automatically redirected to another address (http://portal2.bsnl.in/myportal/).  I glanced through the page and realized that it had undergone some major changes since my last visit. Overall, the page appeared more appealing than the previous one.  

I signed into the portal using my username and password previously registered with it.  Once inside, the system sought extra details to facilitate the migration of my account from the old system to the newly mint system. The first field I had to enter was my Customer id. I did not know it. In any case, it was too lengthy a number for most people to carry in their heads. Thankfully, the portal informed me that I could obtain it from my phone bill.  

I did not have a phone bill close at hand. I knew that the portal itself must have been holding some of my recent bills. I looked for a way to get it. I clicked the menu item ‘Land Line’ followed by its sub-item ‘Postpaid Accounts’ and its sub item ‘Individual/FTTH Bills’. The portal was displaying the numbers of both my landline connections.  I clicked on the phone number over which the broadband was riding.

A summary information on the last bill appeared on the right half of the screen. Account number and bill number were there. But there was no Customer id/Unique Id. A message at the bottom in extremely small print said, ‘For detailed billing information, please use ‘View Bills’ option’. Somehow, I had missed it in my hurry. I just could not understand why Customer Id was not part of the bill information displayed.

But I had no time to waste on higher thoughts. I had to get some previous bill. Then I remembered that I was receiving my phone bills by email. I opened a new tab, logged into my email account and located the last bill. I noted down the Customer Id and hurried back to the BSNL portal.  But it had already timed out.

I logged into the portal once again and entered the Customer Id and other information that the portal sought. It said that the username of the new system would be my mobile number, email id or the username of the previous system (How does it help having no fixed username Sir?). I decided to retain my old username and password.  But the system would not accept the old password since it did not fit the password specifications of the new system. I modified the password and my account was eventually migrated successfully to the new system.  I thought I was finally ready to register my service complaint. But I was downright wrong.

I scanned the menu, located the item ‘Book Complaints’ and clicked it. Another drop-down menu appeared asking me whether the complaint was with regard to Landline/FTTH, GSM, WiMax, CDMA or Pre-paid Mobile. Again, the portal just did not have the intelligence to understand that I had only my Landlines registered with it.

Since I had no choice ‘but to do and die’, I clicked the ‘Landline/FTTH’ option.  Another selection ‘Before Payment/ After Payment’ was presented. At this point it struck me that ‘Book Complaints’ item actually meant ‘Book Billing Complaints’. I had no billing complaints. But just out of curiosity, I clicked the option ‘After Payment’.  

A list with Radio Buttons appeared. The first item read, ‘Previous Paid Amount is included in the Current bill’.  I selected this and got the following message on the screen. “If the present outstanding bill is including with the past bill, please contact your accounts officer for rectification. However, if you wish to pay the bill, the excess amount paid will be adjusted in the next bill automatically …blah…blah”. 

Now, I do not understand what is meant by “If the present outstanding bill is including with the past bill”. Perhaps, what was intended was something like this. ‘If the amount payable on the current bill includes dues related to bills already paid, please contact the Accounts Officer concerned’. So much for the attempts of BSNL in ensuring user-friendly language.

Another problem with the advice was that the Accounts Officer often sits some fifty or even hundred kilometers away at the SSA headquarters.  Why should BSNL advise a customer to waste his day to go and meet the Accounts Officer?  Is it rocket science to capture the specific details of payments already made and pass it on to the Accounts Officer?  Why should not the system allow the customer to click a button to send an appropriate message to the Accounts Officer enabling the AO’s office to call back the customer to obtain further details, if any it needed? Or at least, why is the customer directed to the AO and not to the nearest Customer Service Center?

I cannot help observing that people in BSNL are still living in the 20th century. They should know that after the rolling out of the CDR based OSS/BSS (Operation Support System/Business Support System) the Technical and Finance functions related to services no more remain separated in to two watertight compartments. There is considerable overlapping and flexibility. I do not know whether the portal is directly integrated with the CDR system. If it were, the portal activities would have been directly notified to both Engineering and Accounts personnel.

Incidentally, standalone systems employing outdated technologies have been the bane of BSNL. It was hoped that the CDR system and an ERP system integrated to it would be the only two Management Support systems operating in BSNL. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the reality on the ground.  For instance, take the case of ‘Leased Lines’ which is high income and ARPU business segment for BSNL. God alone knows how many different systems were created and how much money was spent in the past by BSNL to deal with the management and billing of this service. It was hoped that CDR system would be the final solution for all services. However, I understand that ‘leased lines’ service is not dealt with through the CDR system but through some other crude system independent of the CDR system.

I hope that someone would seriously look into the CDR implementation agreements to assess the extent to which the requirements as per agreements have been fulfilled in actual execution. And just wait and see how fast the CDR based system would be besieged by primitive non-standard systems since people have vested interests in keeping things in an utter mess. Also, it would be revealing to conduct an inquiry into the amount of money spent on IT system development and implementation in BSNL. Systems were procured and either not used or where discarded in a matter of months. I believe that IT system costs are one huge expense item that has been bleeding BSNL white.

The curse of BSNL has been an over-abundance of technology experts. I hope that BSNL would disband all its in-house software development groups (if they still exist) where talent badly needed on its core functions are simply wasted or are self-groomed for seeking greener pastures outside. (This is more or less the case with its plethora of training centres). For instance, does the BSNL management really know how many ‘Inventory Management’ systems have been developed internally and also bought from local vendors and how much money went down the drain on it? It would not be an exaggeration to say that BSNL could have purchased a dozen Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems with the money it invested on the silly solutions it developed in-house or bought from outside.  In-house solution development endeavours and local non-standard systems were relevant 15-20 years ago. A modern organization simply cannot afford the luxuries of such experimentation. It needs systems of international standards.

Returning to the story of my adventures on the booking of broadband complaint, I left the ‘Book Complaint’ page. It was clear that the portal offered no facility to ‘book’ billing complaints. At best, it was a poor attempt at FAQ. Even at that level, it was not an easy one to traverse.  

I returned to the main menu and looked for an item on booking a service complaint. And there it was – ‘Customer Care’. Interestingly, it was the last item on the menu. (Speaks volumes about how serious is Customer Care for BSNL). I clicked it. I was taken to another website (http://www.bsnl.in/customer-care.html). I found a rectangle with the label ‘Complaint Booking’ in big fonts on it. Underneath it was the names of the services viz.
LANDLINE/BROADBAND/GSM/CDMA. I clicked LANDLINE. I selected my State and was asked to login.

As a registered user at the BSNL portal, I entered my username and password.  The system threw an error message saying that password was wrong. I knew that the password was right and tried again receiving the same error message. Then truth dawned on me that the problem may be that the customer care portal might not recognize the payment portal registration. I needed another registration for the customer care portal.

I clicked ‘User Registration’.  The registration form popped up. I entered the details starting with Customer Id/Unique Id once again. I tried to use the same username of the (payment) portal. It would not accept it. The rejection had nothing to do with the username already existing in the system. The rejection was because the customer care portal has system prescribed specifications for username (like there must be at least one alphabet and one numeral etc…). To make a long story short, after considerable struggle, I was successfully registered with the customer care portal.   Hallelujah!

Now, I could not find a link to register service complaints on the home page of this portal (http://selfcare.sdc.bsnl.co.in). I tried clicking the menu item ‘Service’. A page opened and to my immense thrill, the first item on this page was ‘Submit a Complaint’. The message underneath the link said, “Are you unable to make calls or hear clearly…for solutions to all your service problems, just submit a complaint”. Look at BSNL’s idea of a telephone complaint. I wonder why BSNL did not limit the description to just the second part…

I clicked the ‘Submit a Complaint’ link. A page carrying the heading, ‘My Service Complaints’ popped up. Great! The first item to enter was ‘Service Id’. I was stuck once again. I had no idea what ‘Service Id’ was. On the registration page, I was asked to provide Customer Id/ Unique Id. On this page, I have to provide Service Id. I once again glanced through the bill available online. I could not find any item matching the description ‘Service Id’. In fact, the bill had only Customer Id and not even Unique Id.  

Since I knew only Customer Id, I entered it. The moment I left the field, the screen refreshed and the entry vanished. After several attempts, I left the Service Id item blank and moved to the next item ‘Complaint Type’. I had to choose one of the two options displayed. One was ‘Technical’ and the other ‘Billing’. I chose Technical and the screen suddenly banked out. A message appeared which said: 

‘The page at selfcare.sdc.bsnl.co.in says: Your session timed out because you were idle for too long. Please login again to continue’.

That was reasonable. But there was second part to the message that read:
‘If you had Seibel attachment open, your changes may have been lost. Please save the file locally save it and reattach it to the appropriate record’.
What on earth did that mean? No idea… No idea… No idea…

I once again logged in to enter the portal. This time I went straight to the second item ‘Complaint Type’ and selected the sub-option ‘Technical’. The next item on the page was ‘Complaint Sub Type’. I clicked the arrow underneath the item. A little field in blue appeared. It was a dummy. There were also other items on the page like Service Type, First Name, Last Name etc. that neither sought nor displayed corresponding values.

There were two blank text entry spaces to record the complaint. The first part was ‘Summary’ and the other ‘Description’.  In the Summary rectangle, I typed in ‘Low broadband speed’ and in the ‘Description’ space a couple of lines explaining my broadband speed problem.  I did not supply the ‘Service Id’ for fear of the page going blank.  If the value was in error it should have said so at the first instance and helped the user get the right value. I decided to test my luck with the Service Id column blank.  

I looked for the ‘Submit’ button. I expected it to appear somewhere at the end of the page. It was not there. I eventually located it squeezed underneath the page heading. I do not know how many page designers would put the ‘Submit/Cancel’ option almost as part of the page heading. I clicked the submit button. For once, I was happy receiving the following message, “OM00116: Service Id is a required field. Please enter the value”. And for once, the page was not blanked out.  

I entered the Customer Id in the Service Id column. With my heart racing and hand trembling, I moved the cursor to the submit button and clicked.  The page shuddered for a moment and refreshed wiping out everything I had entered. I found the following message on the top of the screen. Wrong field values or value types detected in field Service Id <font color=red><b>*</b></font>. Please re-enter your field values. If you need additional assistance, please refer to the documentation (SBL-UIF-00299)”.  

My foot! That was unmitigated insanity...   

At this stage, I decided to seek some ‘additional assistance’ from the system. I pressed the help button. A page opened. At the very bottom of the list of help items, I found the link, ‘Contacting Us’. I clicked it. I had two options. One was ‘Finding Contact Information’. The other was ‘Submitting Feedback’. I clicked the former and another page appeared. It carried the same two links ‘Finding Contact Information’/ ‘Submitting Feedback’. I clicked the first link. Nothing happened. I clicked the second link. Again, nothing happened. I glanced down the page and found some text under the above headings.

There were no Phone/Fax numbers or email ids under the heading ‘Finding Contact Information’. There was no mention of ‘BSNL’ anywhere on the page. It was clear case of copy/paste…

The following items were listed under the heading ‘To find contact information’:

1.   Navigate to the Contact Us page.
2.   Click the hyperlink for the communication channel that you want to use.
3.   Follow the on-screen instruction.

I navigated to the ‘Contact Us’ page.  The page had two items. The first one was ‘Selfcare Portal Help’. I clicked it. Nothing happened.  The second item read, ‘Dataone Broadband’. I clicked this too with the same result. I wondered when the page was last updated. For instance, ‘Dataone’ is no more the brand id of BSNL Broadband service. Similarly, its Mobile Phone service is, perhaps, not ‘Cellone’ any more.  

I looked at the Copyright information. It said the solution is copyrighted to Oracle Corporation. Holy Cow! Sorry, ‘Cow’ could be a dangerous term to use in these times in my country. Holy Christ! Could Oracle Corporation produce garbage like this? I am sure that BSNL must have paid through its nose for this sickening solution.

I was too exhausted to go any further with my experiments with BSNL portal. I was more or less convinced that BSNL created its customer care portal simply because it was fashionable to do so.  Customer tries it. Finds it does not work. He tries again. Some go mad trying. Some die trying. Some others like me quit at the nick of time and save themselves from serious harms…

---------------

Tail Piece

This morning, I measured the speed of my broadband connection. The reading showed 3.6 Mbps! Really! But, my connection was supposed to have a maximum speed of just 2 Mbps. Well…That is BSNL. Truly, “BSNL Best Hai Mere Liye”.  

PS
I have since been told by a friend that Service Id is actually the phone number! When would BSNL start speaking plain English?

Read more articles by the author here

Monday, 12 October 2015

Happy Retired Life Is a Huge Lie

“Retirement is a stage where an employer discards an employee that he cannot exploit further.”

― Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Introduction

We often believe that superannuation would finally set us free forever from the wearisome encumbrances of a career life.  So, when I walked out of my office for the last time on 31.12.2012 after spending nearly forty long years on work, I too thought I was stepping into a life of rest, peace and happiness. But I was unsure I was happy. As Charles Lamb, writes in his essay ‘The Superannuated Man’, “For the first day or two, I felt stunned, overwhelmed… I wandered about, thinking I was happy, and knowing that I was not…”   

After three years in retirement, I realize that the life of a pensioner is not a paradise, as many people often assume. His life is beset with a plethora of troubles. The two major troubles that the Pensioner faces are Money Troubles and Health Troubles


Money Troubles of the pensioner mostly arise out of:   

  1. Inflation Rates
  2. Interest Rates
  3. Taxation Rates
His Health Troubles fall under two categories:  

  1. Psychological Health
  2. Physical Health
This post seeks to briefly discuss these troubles. 

1. Money Troubles of the Pensioner    

The pensioner receives a substantial amount as lump sum payment on retirement by way of Retirement Gratuity, Commutation of Pension and Encashment of Leave. It is assumed that he has also a good sum saved in instruments like the Provident Fund. He invests the lump sum receipts to earn interest to supplement his monthly pension.  People apparently expect this pensioner to simply sit back, relax and enjoy the rest of his life free of all money as well as work related worries. But the real life in retirement is an altogether different kettle of fish. It is often more worrisome than working life.  


The primary worry of the pensioner is related to money. In the best case, his basic pension is half his last basic pay. He is ineligible for any allowances other than Dearness Allowance (DA) aimed at neutralizing the changes in the cost of living. DA is computed based on basic pension. Thus, DA too is halved. While people in service receives annual increments and periodical promotions which regularly raises their basic pays, the pension once determined, remain unchanged until the implementation of the report of the Pay Commission coming once in a decade or more.  Also commutation of pension by which the pensioner surrenders part of his monthly pension for its value in lump sum, substantially reduces the monthly pension. The point is that the income of the pensioner suddenly drops to roughly one third of what he earned while on the job. And the difference keeps increasing. 

Besides the fact of static pension and denial of all allowances other than DA, Inflation Rates, Interest Rates and Income Tax Rates contribute to the progressive reduction of the real value of the income of the pensioner.  Let us see how this happens.

a.   Inflation Rates

Inflation is the result of too much money chasing too few goods resulting in general price rises.  As prices increase, the pensioner needs more money even to retain the existing level of consumption. In theory, the DA based on the official rates of inflation should fully take care of price changes. But in actual practice, this does not happen because of the mismatch between market realities and the official statistics. For instance, the Crude prices have fallen from $150 a barrel to less than $50 a barrel. But for the consumer, the petrol and diesel prices have not fallen correspondingly and the transport fares remain at the levels when crude oil was selling at $150 a barrel. The truth of this situation may not fully reflect in the statistics.

According to official statistics, inflation based on Wholesale Price Index (WPI) stood at (minus) 4.95 per cent, as in the month of Aug 2015. In the same month, inflation based on Consumer Price Index (CPI) was at (plus) 3.66 per cent. In other words, wholesale prices have crashed while consumer prices rose at moderate rates. Then there is another price related statistic called Food Inflation, which has an altogether different dynamics. Most of us do not have the expertise to understand the implications of these complex statistics. But one thing we all know is that prices have always kept moving in the upward direction.   

Because of the mismatch between official statistics and market realities, every installment of DA released leaves a gap between the real price changes and the actual set off provided through DA. Consequently, as time passes, the gap widens and the pensioner is driven more and more into poverty. 

b.   Interest Rates

The pensioner is expected to find his livelihood out of the regular monthly pension and the interest earnings from the lump sum receipts he invests in long-term instruments. Again, the Price Indices based inflation rates hurt the pensioner.

Since inflation rates keep coming down, there is an eternal clamour for interest rate cuts for stimulating economic growth. These rates are controlled by the Reserve Bank of India. The theory is that cheaper loans increase consumer spending and corporate investments. Powerful lobbies like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) are behind such demands.  The Governments tacitly and at times openly support it. But every one conveniently overlooks the reality that state-run banks are groaning under the huge burden of ever increasing Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) or bad debts arising out unrecovered loans.  
  
Until the other day, the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India was being portrayed as the enemy of India’s economic progress for his refusal to oblige the rate cut lobby.  In an article published in the Hindu on 18.09.2015, Dr Subramanian Swamy, Professor of economics and former Union Cabinet Minister, wrote, “Incidentally, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor, Raghuram Rajan, has single-handedly brought a huge slowdown to the Indian manufacturing sector and exports. As a doctor, he believes that best way to bring down the temperature of a patient (i.e. inflation) is to kill him (investment starvation)”.  

On 29 Sep 2015, Dr Raghuram Rajan surprised even the rate cut lobbyists by slashing the policy rates by a whopping 50 basis points. None anticipated a cut exceeding 25 basis points. And it was the fourth rate cut this year. It is strange that the good doctor, who was counselling the nation just ten days earlier to resist the tendency to go for quick fixes citing the example of the economic turmoil in Brazil, suddenly discovered that the economic situation in India is ripe for such a hefty rate cut.  Well…he reportedly said during the press conference, “Everybody and his cousin have a theory on how to run the economy…My name is Raghuram Rajan, I do what I do…” 

The lobbyists are thrilled and Dr Raghuram Rajan apparently gets to keep his job for the time being. After the RBI rate cut, the Union Finance Minister said that the government is planning to reduce the interest rates on Post Office Small Saving Schemes.

When RBI cuts its policy rates, interest rates on deposits too fall. The pity is that none bothers about the hardships of the pensioners/senior citizens whose economic survival is dependent on the interest earnings from the retirement corpuses or household savings they deposit into the banks and Post Offices. As someone recently wrote, “the key question is, why when everyone roots for a rate cut to facilitate easier lending rates, there is not even a whimper of support for those who want at least status quo in deposit rates?”

c.    Income Tax Rates


When it comes to personal taxation, the pensioner is more or less treated on par with the salaried employee. The only concession he enjoys is limited to the extra fifty thousand rupees allowed as non-taxable income in tax computation. Incidentally, pensioners below the age of sixty (like state government pensioners superannuating at the age of 55/56) do not receive even this benefit. And the policy makers expect the pensioner to save Rs.150,000 a year (Rs. 12,500 a month) to obtain the full tax relief available on savings (U/s 80C). The insensitivity of the policy makers do not end with these…

As already discussed, the interest rates have been on a downward slide resulting in the steady fall in the interest income for the pensioner. When the RBI Governor was asked about the adverse impact of frequent rate cuts on the returns on the investments of the pensioners and domestic small savers, he replied saying that with inflation at 6 or 5.5 per cent, if the fixed deposits earn 8% interest, the investor gets a real return of 2 to 2.5 per cent. What he and other votaries of rate cuts do not mention is that when tax on the interest income is considered, the return often falls below the erosion in the value of money because of inflation.

For example, consider an interest rate of 8 per cent p.a. on a 10-year fixed deposit of Rs. 5 lakh. The interest earnings in this case would be as follows:

Tax Slab
 (%)
FD
 Amount (INR)
Interest
Income (INR)
Tax on
Interest (INR)
Net Income (INR)
Post-Tax Earning (%)
10
500000
40000
4120
35880
7.18
20
500000
40000
8240
31760
6.35
30
500000
40000
12360
27640
5.53

Hardly anyone ever speaks about post-tax interest income. Incidentally, Dr. Subramanian Swamy asks the rhetorical question. “Why have household savings, which were the bulk of national domestic savings, dropped from a high of 34% of GDP in 2005 to 28% GDP in 2015?”  

Perhaps, the answer is obvious.  Because of the low post tax earnings from simple and safe saving instruments, people are forced to gamble with their hard earned money by entrusting it with fraudulent firms offering sky-high returns or investing it in speculative instruments like company stocks hoping to become billionaires overnight. Incidentally, on Monday, August 24, 2015, the BSE Sensex fell by 1,624.51 points and NSE Nifty index lost 490.95 points. The investors lost nearly seven lakh crore rupees in the crashes. And we do not know how much is being swindled by fly-by-night financial firms.  

If you are a pensioner enjoying post-retirement healthcare provided by your former employer, then you would be surprised how your tax liability increases while nothing is added to your real income. Whatever actual medical reimbursement you receive (beyond Rs.15,000 a year) is treated as taxable income.  The problem here is that when you add up incomes from your monthly pension, interest earnings, medical reimbursements etc., the rate at which you would pay income tax might climb to the 20 or even 30 per cent levels. 

It is difficult to understand or appreciate the logic behind the manner in which pensioners are being taxed. Any sensitive government that has concern for the increasingly distressing situation of the senior citizens/pensioners would be more realistic and sympathetic about taxing them. The irony is that the government that ignores the pitiable circumstances of the pensioner has no compunctions about proposing the reduction in corporate tax from 30% to 25% under the pretext of incentivising economic growth.  We may shout from rooftops that we are the fastest growing economy in the world.  But the sad reality always remained that while the rich become richer, the poor become poorer.  

2. Health Troubles of the Pensioner  

There is joke about a young college girl introducing her grandfather to her friends. “He is in his nineties“, she said. The old man reacted with a seductive grin on his wizened face, “Only in my early nineties”. The moral is that it is killing for people to accept the reality of ageing. 


Old age is often portrayed as a time of rest and reflection. It is also considered an opportunity to do things that were put off while raising families and pursuing careers. Sadly, the process of ageing is not always idyllic as often imagined. There is real pain and anguish in the process of moving from a healthy and active person to a sick and sodden one.

Ageing related health troubles of the pensioner have at least two dimensions –psychological and physical.  

a.   Psychological Health


Retirement can be emotionally devastating. It is often a shattering experience for many and more so for people retiring from senior positions. Until yesterday, they were symbols of power, charisma and prestige.  They sat behind massive desks in their swanky offices. They were surrounded by an army of people and all the paraphernalia of authority. Their signatures decided the fate of people and projects. Their orders saved or snuffed out lives, released or blocked billions on war or on peace, ruined or protected lives and livelihoods of many.  They basked in the glory of public and media attention. The sudden and eternal loss of all these through retirement could badly break them mentally. Many people become melancholic after retirement and might even go through a period of grieving over their lost forever losses.

Although most employees look forward to retirement, the sudden changes arising out of the exit from a career life can be unexpectedly traumatic. As someone rightly said, “work is not simply about trading labour for dollars”. Work is the means by which individuals discover their own individual identity and fulfillment. It is also a means by which others identify us. The sudden loss of identity and esteem is often emotionally devastating. 

As the pensioner ages, he would also sense a loss of control over his life due to physical changes and financial and other pressures.  Prolonged sufferings arising out of serious and chronic illnesses, kids leaving home, painful losses of loved ones and friends, and the awareness of the close proximity of death, often lead to negative emotions like sadness, anxiety and overwhelming sense loneliness and of being forsaken by all. These are all what psychologists often term as ‘life-change’ issues. Life-change issues often take a heavy toll on the ageing individual’s emotional well being

b.   Physical Health  


Comparing himself to a car, an old man joked, “Almost every time I sneeze, cough or sputter: either my radiator leaks or my exhaust backfires”. For most people, physical changes related to ageing are very embarrassing and hard to accept. Few have the capability and inclination to age gracefully. Most try to camouflage the external signs of ageing like greying hair, wrinkling skin, sagging bosoms and bulging waistlines through costly restorative procedures. But none would succeed in hiding for long, the signs of the steady and unstoppable decline of their bodies as they age. The creaky joints, the shivering limbs, the flaking skin, the failing faculties, the unceasing pains are all changes that none can wish away or conceal for long. As time passes, we realize that everything hurts, and what does not hurt; does not work.

I often think that every component in the human body has an expiry date stamped on it. Each component starts faltering as it approaches its expiry date. Modern medical science could carry out some recalibrations, repairs and even replacements if one has the capacity to bankroll the huge costs involved. But all restorations would only be temporary since the originals are always the best.  In due course, these components would start breaking down…  

Eventually matters worsen. The pensioner starts spending more time in hospitals than outside it. He struggles to find the resources to support such frequent and long duration hospitalizations. In a world of mammoth ambitions and merciless competitions, the pensioner would be foolish to bank on his children or others to support him physically or financially at this stage.  If he is a central government pensioner receiving a pathetic sum of Rs.500/- a month as medical allowance, he is doomed for sure. However, if he has a post-retirement health care facility provided by either his ex-employer or a health insurance company, there is some hope and comfort. 

Finally, the health situation of patient takes a turn for the worst. The hospital knows that the man simply cannot be saved.  Yet, it would keep him in the sterile environment of its Critical Care Unit attached to a maze of tubes inserted into every imaginable spot in his body.  The hospital would continue drawing samples of all kinds of body fluids for costly lab tests. Everyone concerned knows that once the tubes and wires are pulled out, the person would be a corpse. But the commercial interests of the hospitals keep him alive just for the records.  The hospital bills keep mounting. The family starts selling everything saleable to fund the treatment.  Then it borrows and might later beg or even steal…

At last, the hospital realizes the dangers of artfully postponing the death of the patient. It decides to disconnect the masks and machineries to release the pensioner to death. The sad part of all these is that many would make the final exit Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”, leaving their families bankrupt.

Conclusion

The pensioner has economic issues. He survives on a fraction what he was earning while on his job. The real worth of this income keeps falling because of inflation not neutralized through DA.  Added to these is the progressive decrease in his income from his investments because of interest rate cuts under the pretext of falling inflation. Amid all these adversities, his expenses keep mounting because of his deteriorating health and the increasing dependence on others for tasks he once carried out on his own... 

So, if you are still an employee, my advice is to be careful with your money and always keep a part of your salary aside as long term savings. Else, you would live in regret after retirement and die in penury.  If you are a pensioner, well… your fate is already sealed... 

Retirement and ageing are life-changing experiences. Such changes are inevitable.  It is easy to be drowned in the thoughts of the miseries of it. But it is necessary to be realistic about it. One has to anticipate and prepare for the inescapable changes that lie beyond retirement. Getting depressed or anxious could only add to the sufferings.  

“The only way to avoid being miserable [in retirement] is not to have enough leisure to wonder whether you are happy or not”, said George Bernard Shaw.  I agree. The average person has roughly 15-20 years to live after retirement. This must be time enough to write a masterpiece, run a marathon, or mentor a contingent of youngsters.  So keep yourself busy. Remain productive even when you are out of your formal career.

Remember that not everything is negative about old age and retirement. There is at least one positive aspect to ageing. The aged have Wisdom. They have seen more of life and its trials and tribulations, dealt with more people and learned to see through them quickly, encountered diverse problems and discovered the means of tackling them, made mistakes and learnt lessons from it… They possess that extra insight missing in younger people. It is precious. The family can benefit from it. The society can benefit from it. So go ahead and devise strategies to use your experience to benefit others…  

And finally, let us all remind ourselves that today might be our last day on this earth. And today might be our final window to stamp our footprints on the sands of time. Tomorrow might be too late. For tomorrow, we might be ashes flying in the air or floating on the waters, or corpses lying eternally buried in a graveyard…  
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P.S.   Click Here for more articles by the author.


1.The pensioner I have in mind is an incorruptible and thrifty one belonging to the government/public sector. Also my pensioner is a honest Income Tax payer.

2. Male pronouns (he/his etc.) used for the convenience of narration are meant to cover both genders.  

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

What is Killing BSNL? - An Inquiry

“If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.”
-Thomas Jefferson
Introduction

My mobile phone rings. I am inside the house. I grab the phone and run out. It is the only way I can hope to connect with the caller. Outside I press the ’Answer’ button and shout ‘hello’. I hear nothing from the other end. I look at the phone screen. It shows ‘connected’. I disconnect and return the call. A recorded message tells me that the mobile number does not exist. I make another attempt. This time the message on my screen says, 'Radio Path Unavailable'. I do not go back into the house but wait for the caller to make another attempt. He does. The phone rings. This time we are fortunate. We speak for a few seconds. Suddenly, the line goes quiet. The call drops. It is an important call. I continue my wait outside. After two or three more call drops and muttered curses, we finish the call. Night or day, rain or shine, every time my mobile rings, this happens. I am a BSNL mobile customer…

Some time back, I read in the Hindu daily a news item on call drops and network problems faced by BSNL mobile customers in Kerala. It quoted a senior executive of BSNL saying that the Circle was taking steps to mitigate the problems by upgrading systems and installing more towers.  However, the same report carried the response of another BSNL executive saying that there was nothing wrong with the network and everything was hunky dory. I wonder why this guy is so utterly oblivious of the can of worms on which he sits.

“Why can’t they eat cake?” asked Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France, when the starving millions of France cried for bread. The aftermath was the French Revolution (1787-1799) and the brutal killing of the queen. In January this year, BSNL lost a whopping 12.37 lakh mobile phone customers. In March 2015, the surrender figure was 3.7 lakh.  This was against nearly one crore mobile phones added to the system that month by other service providers. Does the company really have grasp of the ground realities?

This post seeks to take a brief review of the reasons and realities of the present sorry state of affairs in BSNL.




The Amazing Story of Indian Telecom

The Telephone came into existence on March 10, 1876, thanks to five years of painstaking research by its inventor Alexander Graham Bell. In India, the first manual telephone exchange came up in Kolkata in 1882. Nothing spectacular happened for the next one hundred odd years. In 1994, India had just eighty lakh telephone connections with twenty-five lakh people in the waiting list. The tele-density (number of telephones per population of 100) stood at 0.80% against the global average of 10%. 



The Department of Telecommunication was the nation's sole telecom service provider. Fixed line was the technology available.  Then National Telecom Policy of 1994 changed he scene. Government monopoly over telecom ended with the entry of private players. The New Telecom Policy of 1999 triggered a dream run for the Indian Telecom. Indian Telecom grew surpassing the most ambitious forecasts. As at the close of March 2015, the number of telephone connections in India stood at 99.65 Crore (Wireless: 96.99; Wire line: 2.66).  India’s overall tele-density reached 79.38 (Wireless: 77.26; Wire line: 2.12). The country has achieved a one hundred-fold increase in its tele-density in just fifteen years.  This became possible thanks mainly to the entry of mobile technology.

With several big private players in the market, competition in the telecom sector soon turned aggressive. The Department of Telecom became just one of the operators competing for market share. With the proclaimed objective of making the Department of Telecom more autonomous and efficient to meet the challenges from the private operators, the government converted the Telecom Services arm of the Department into a Company. Thus, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) took birth on October 1, 2000. The expectations were huge. The fanfare was rousing. Unfortunately, fifteen years later the glamour has disappeared and the applauses have died down.  Today, BSNL is not even a major player in the Indian Telecom arena…

The Dismal Story of BSNL

Six months after its creation, BSNL had a market share of 77.73%. This meant that nearly 78 out of 100 telephone connections in the country were with BSNL as on 31.03.2001.  All the private players together then shared the remaining 22 connections out of a 100.  Things looked quite promising for the state-run company.

However, by 30.09.2012, the overall market share of BSNL had tanked to just 12.90%. By this time the private telecom service providers increased their market share from 22/100 connections as on 31.03.2001 to a whopping 87/100.  Mobile (Wireless) technology had more or less driven out fixed line connections from the scene. However, in the wireless segment, BSNL had a market share of just around 11%. The company was way behind its competition. 

BSNL management did nothing effective to arrest the downslide. By 31.03.2015, the overall market share of BSNL shrunk to 9.39%. Its share in the wireless segment was a mere 7.96%. In other words, BSNL mobile system connected only a measly eight out of a hundred mobile phones in the country. It has been great fall for the company.

Its steady fall in market share is reflected in BSNL’s financial performance data. The company is sinking more and more into the red. A cursory review of the historical profit and loss data of the company indicates the serious financial troubles into which it is steading slipping.

Financial Year
 Profit/Loss    (Rs. Crore)
2005-2006
8940
2006-2007
7806
2007-2008
3009
2008-2009
575
2009-2010
(-) 1823
2010-2011
(-) 6384
2011-2012
(-) 8851
2012-2013
(-) 7884
2013-2014
(-) 7085


The sad reality is that while India has been celebrating its huge telecom success, the state-run company steadily went downhill… 

What is killing BSNL?

It is not easy to answer the question. Its failure is the consequence of the interplay of many complex issues. I have neither enough information nor the requisite expertise to deal with those issues. In any case, it is beyond the scope of a blog post. Nevertheless, I seek to discuss briefly three major factors, which, I believe, have substantially contributed to the present ills of this public sector monolith.  

1.      Political Interference

The avowed purpose of converting a wing of a government department to a government company was to grant the organization more autonomy. The government told that corporatization would equip the outfit with the professionalism needed to meet competitions in the market place. However, such pious declarations changed nothing on the ground.

Telecom was turning into a critical infrastructure and a driver of development. Amazing technologies and solutions leveraging on telecom were emerging. The market and the monies involved were mindboggling. Telecom was a treasure trove. No politicians would resist the lure of a share in this mouth-watering pie. So BSNL never had the freedom to operate as a business enterprise. It mostly danced to the tune of its political masters. More often than not when the politicians asked them to sit, the officials simply crawled.
Irrespective what they put out for public consumption, the loyalties of the politicians have seldom been with the state-run company.  Many a time they took decisions that seriously damaged the interests of this public enterprise. Often extraneous considerations drove decisions. For instance, mobile technology was the harbinger of telecom revolution. BSNL was ready to launch mobile service for the first time in the country. As the pioneer and a government company, it deserved the chance to do so.  However, the Minister would not give the green signal. The launch remained on hold.  While BSNL waited, a private telecom operator rolled out the service and captured the market. It took something like a year for the Minister to give the go ahead. The public response was huge. In many locations, the authorities had to call police to control the mammoth crowds that gathered to get a BSNL mobile connection. Sadly, that public enthusiasm would soon turn into public resentment.  

The political leadership blocked tenders, stalled equipment procurements and often, imposed unviable technologies and out-dated equipment on the organization. Politicians often had their private interests. While BSNL waited for the nod of the politicians, its competitors worked with frenzy to capture the market. We had a Minister who allegedly had whole telephone exchange installed in his business premises for its exclusive use. Another acted as if the whole telecom ministry was his personal property to be shared at his whim and fancy with his chums. The heart of the politician was seldom in the right place. If BSNL now finds itself in the doldrums, the responsibility should substantially rest with the political leadership, irrespective of their rhetoric and the colour of their party-flags.

2.      Management Incompetency

Charles Darwin wrote, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”. Just as the ecology in which an organism lives undergoes constant changes, the environment in which an organization operates too experiences incessant changes. Survival depends on the speed and efficiency with which the organization anticipates and responds to such changes. Those failing would simply perish - be it an organism or an organization.

Corporatization led to no positive changes within the organization. The company continued to operate in its old bureaucratic ways.  The management had no skills or experience in running a commercial outfit in an environment of intense competition. Many were not adequately qualified to deal with the new challenges. They were experts in running a government department through its archaic processes and procedures. The people were hardened in their outlooks and attitudes after being long in their cozy and opulent ‘Public Servant’ cocoons to attempt to break out and face the discomfiting world of business and its staggering challenges.

In addition to the problem of lethargy and the lack of business acumen, BSNL had to keep almost its entire higher management personnel on some kind of ‘neither here nor there’ basis. The Indian Telecom Service (ITS) officers declined to get absorbed as company employees. The government retained them in BSNL on deemed deputation. The then Telecom Minister had told the media that the ITS officers had five years to make a final decision on whether to get absorbed or get out. Now after fifteen years, those still in service continue to be ‘neither here nor there’. The ham-handed manner in which the authorities dealt with the Human Resource issues left so much of bad blood and confusion within the organization that it has long ceased to exist as a cohesive unit driven by a common purpose. Ownership and accountability became the casualties. The so-called external consultants roped in at enormous costs to suggest ways and means of improving matters, impressed all with their bewildering jargon and crispy business suits.  They pocketed their hefty fees and went away, leaving BSNL in more disarray. 

While BSNL wasted its attention and energies on superfluous issues, it ignored the reality of the environment around it changing. Government policies were changing, regulatory mechanisms were changing, competitions were changing, technologies were changing, the economic outlooks and structures were changing, customer needs and aspirations were changing… Those changes did not wait for BSNL to learn the ropes or settle its internal squabbles. The ground was fast slipping from underneath its feet while the management remained blissfully ignorant or unconcerned. 

3.      Knee-Jerk Decisions

Data is critical and precious for any organization. It is more so for business. Every business worth its salt relies on data to reach decisions. One wonders whether BSNL uses data analysis as a tool to support decisions. Individual notions and fancies seem to drive critical decisions in BSNL. Someone somewhere suddenly gets a brain wave and lo and behold, a decision is born.

Also, BSNL does not seem to realize that the price tag does not necessarily determine customer loyalty. Products from Apple Computers often have the highest price tag. Yet it enjoys the highest demand and customer trust. BSNL should wake up to the reality that serious telecom service users do not seek cheaper service. For such users, network availability and service quality are more critical. They would pay higher prices for better service and customer care.  Only such customers bring in the moolah. Marginal users would put up with bad service for its lower costs. They hardly make any positive difference to the bottom line.
  
BSNL provides the cheapest service. Yet its customers are not inclined to stick with it. As the company keeps losing customers, it goes on reducing tariff or granting discounts and freebies. Its revenues further dip leaving little to be invested in ensuring quality of service. As quality declines, more high-end customers leave. The whole process turns into a vicious circle. Being cheaper often ends up hurting the long-term prospects of the business. However, for reasons best known to it, BSNL continues with its destructive ways.

The latest in this series of concessions offered by the company for its landline customers is, ‘unlimited free calls to any network and anywhere in the country’.  From May 1, 2015, this facility became available from nine in the night to seven in the morning.  Let us remember that the company has been in the red for the last six years in a row. In the landline segment, the company had recorded a loss of Rs.14,979 crore in 2013-2014. (The overall loss of Rs. 7085 crore for that year is the net after setting off the profit from mobile and other services). The story was no different during the previous years.  The losses were Rs. 13,445 crore in 2012-2013 and Rs. 12,669 crore in 2011-2012.
 
The offer of free calls may look irrational for many. However, the company considers it a big success. The head of a telecom district recently said that his unit received requests for 3000 new landlines. It has already provided 500 new connections. And he pats himself in the back for it! Would someone disclose the amount spent by BSNL  just for setting up those connections? What would be the net earnings from those connections?  Had anyone done a Cost-Benefit analysis or an appraisal of the Return on Investment? What is the basis on which BSNL concludes that it is a financially prudent decision?  BSNL should perhaps look back and see what it achieved by such concessions and freebies in the past.  Had lower tariff and freebies brought bonanzas for BSNL, it would not have found itself in such dire straits today.

Let us look at some relevant data on the landline business of BSNL. The number of landline connections BSNL had as on 31.03.2015 was just 1.66 crore. In the year 2013-2014, the average number of fixed phones were around two crore. The company had lost nearly Rs.15,000 Crore for servicing those landlines. A simple calculation shows that BSNL lost roughly Rs.7500/- per every landline connection in 2013-2014. The landline service is bleeding the company white. Any other service provider would have tried to cut down costs, increase tariff or shutdown the segment. Euripides   had rightly said, "Those whom God wishes to destroy, he first deprives of their senses."

While I hate to burden the reader with more statistics, it is necessary that we look at one more piece of data. The statistics for March 2015 released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) shows that with a market share of 19.03%, BSNL ranks at No.3 in the Broadband segment. The operators higher in rank are Bharati (22.19%) and Vodafone (19.53%). Interestingly, BSNL has almost one crore (99.6 lakh) broadband connection over its 1.66 crore landlines. (Assuming wired broadband connections are riding on land phone connections). However, it has only 89.20 lakh broadband connections over its 7.72 crore mobile connection. In other words, 60% of BSNL landlines have broadband over it while only less than 12% of its mobile customers have broadband. It looks that there is substantial demand for broadband over fixed line. This being the reality, the company should be  increasing the tariff for ‘voice alone’ landlines rather than offering discounts. Let 'voice alone' customers either surrender their connections or opt for broadband over it. For the future, BSNL should adopt a policy that it would give landline connections along with broadband only. Would BSNL dare it? Would the political leadership permit it? Your guess is as good as mine.

Conclusion

Recently I encountered a problem with some transactions related to my account with the State Bank of India. I went to their website looking for their complaint redressal mechanism and found a simple document. I wrote a complaint and sent it to an email id found in the document. To my disbelief, I received an interim reply within hours. My complaint was resolved to my total satisfaction within 24 hours. And a senior officer wrote to me regretting the inconvenience caused to me. I never received such prompt responses even from the so-called new generation private banks. No wonder State Bank of India remains one of the most trusted Indian brands.

Now, here is an instance of my experience with BSNL. Sometime back, a friend told me that his landline was dead. He had complained. When nothing happened, he went and met the local Sub Divisional Engineer. Then he wrote to the Divisional Engineer, General Manager and the Chief General Manager. Weeks and months passed. Nothing happened. He asked me whether I would help.  I drafted a complaint and asked my friend to send it by email to the ids I found at the BSNL website. We waited for weeks. Nothing happened. None bothered to respond. Months went by. Phone bills continued to arrive. In spite of the dead phone, he paid them all. Eventually, it so happened that there was a marriage of a girl in the neighbourhood. The bridegroom was a BSNL employee. The couple came to my friend’s home to seek his blessings. He then told the ‘just married’ BSNL boy about the problem with his phone. He went outside and opened the internal cable termination point. He found the wire broken. He reconnected the wire and the phone came alive. (I hope the situation has since improved after the commencement of complaint booking through the IVR system).

I have mentioned my contrasting experiences just to emphasis the criticality of customer care. BSNL still suffers from its ‘Sarkari’ hangover to realize that it is running a business and it cannot hope to survive without ensuring prompt and effective customer care. The Telecom Minister recently said that BSNL would become profitable by the year 2018. I hope this would happen. I hope the Minister already has the blueprint for turning the company around. I also hope that the Minister is aware of the plethora of reports given by celebrated committees constituted in the past to recommend ways of improving the performance of the company, long gathering dust in his ministry.

Irrespective of what the Minister would do, or the committees had recommended, matters simply would not improve in BSNL without drastic internal changes. The attitude of people has to change. The organizational culture has to change. Ownership and accountability must become imperative. There must be a recalibration of priorities. The company should make customer its focal point. It should wind up unviable operations and projects. The organization as whole must become leaner and meaner.  Also, there must be budgetary support for activities undertaken and concessions offered on the behest of political leadership. (An SMS I received some time back says that there would be no charges for incoming calls while roaming thanks to the dynamic leadership of the present Prime Minister. Would the government compensate the consequent revenue loss suffered by BSNL?)

Let me now close. Louis Gerstner Jr. is a globally renowned CEO who had saved the computer giant IBM from the verge of collapse. In his international best seller, ‘Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance’, he recounts his struggles to turn around the company. He believed that IBM needed a new outlook and  organizational culture. He lists eight principles, which he tried to enforce as the underpinnings of IBM’s new culture.

I list those principles below since I believe that more than anything else, what BSNL needs today is a change in its organizational culture.

1.     The market place is the driving force behind everything we do.
2.     At our core, we are a technology company with an overriding commitment
        to quality.
3.     Our primary measures of success are customer satisfaction and
        shareholder value.
4.     We operate as an entrepreneurial organization with a minimum of
        bureaucracy and a never ending focus on productivity.
5.     We never loose sight of our strategic vision.
6.     We think and act with a sense of urgency.
7.     Outstanding, dedicated people make it all happen, particularly when they
        work together as a team.
8.     We are sensitive to the needs of the employees and to the communities
        in which we operate.
To read more articles by the author, visit his blog at www.wisdomspot.org
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