For years, my parents had a MTNL phone. Why? Well, that's hardly necessary to explain. For decades, MTNL, or an earlier avatar, was the only game in town. If you wanted a phone, you had to approach MTNL. Often, it must have seemed like propitiating the gods.
Except that even the gods probably responded faster.
I mean that only half-jokingly. Remember the "OYT" -- Own Your Telephone -- scheme? You signed up and if you were lucky, some single-digit number of years later you got a phone.
So anyway, my parents got this phone connection in the mid-80s, when phones were starting to be more easily available than before. (Maybe they only waited months, I don't know). Their number lengthened at the company's whim, changed once because they switched to a digital line, but the phone remained in place all these years.
Sure, there were problems. The line would die in the monsoons. They would get sudden huge bills because some unscrupulous lineman was allowing some unscrupulous customers to make long-distance calls and charging them to my parents' line. Etc. Nothing out of the ordinary, for long-time MTNL customers.
But still, the problems were a steady drain on my parents' patience and tolerance. One day a couple of years, they had finally had enough. Competition was finally here, they saw, and for the first time, they could deal with this Government once-monopoly in the best possible way. They could walk. And they did. They went to one of the players in the competition.
In getting their new phone line, they faced a few niggling problems -- the man in charge of installing did not return calls, turned up a couple of hours late once, that sort of thing. Perhaps these should have been warnings. But it didn't really register because the new phone line was set up fairly quickly anyway, and things seemed super-efficient after that. Bills were easy to comprehend, there was a helpline in place, repairmen turned up in good time, that sort of thing. Everything pointed to a hassle-free future, phone-wise.
Only, "everything" was largely on paper.
One day, my parents got a call from a customer service person, who told them they had not paid their last bill. They had, and had proof. But no, this person insisted they had not paid, and phoned repeatedly to demand payment. It took calls nearly all the way up the company hierarchy to put an end to this. Another time the phone went dead and technicians took days to turn up. They fixed it, but it broke down again just days later. Then another person called to insist they had not paid their next bill.
This series of problems became, and remains, the norm. Much like with MTNL earlier, it is taking a steady toll on their patience and tolerance.
So why do I tell this mundane story that, with variations, is likely the experience of many others?
Well, the last time two technicians visited to address some complaint with the phone, they referred to the constant problems and said: "You've got to understand that we've only been in this business five years. MTNL has had over 50 years of experience. They know how to operate a phone service. We're learning."
I realize that what two repairmen say can hardly be taken as a company's philosophy. Even so, with this explanation, what are we left to think? After all, this is the competition. People have come here from MTNL precisely because of its erratic service. Now the competition's own staff excuse their own erratic service by saying MTNL is their model!
And this reminds me of my repeated problems with my (private) broadband service provider. Calls to the helpline get stuck at call-centre employees who will only promise to "escalate" my problem and "fix it in 24 hours", neither of which has any effect. At least thrice, I've heard that a technician has reported to the company that he has visited my home and fixed my problem, when nothing of the sort has happened. This lie infuriates me, but there it is.
There are plenty more examples.
What's my point?
We hear so much about how private enterprise, and privatisation in general, is the answer to the problems caused by India's "socialist" past. That this medicine will rid us of the miasma of mediocrity and indifference we've suffered for so long. Yet my feeling, some 15 years into this process, is that the prescription isn't quite so easy. Case in point: my parent's phone.
And there's irony here. MTNL itself has changed, and for the better. I have just switched to their broadband service, which any number of friends nearly rave about. Their customer service center in my suburb -- where I visited to sign up for broadband, expecting the usual runaround -- is an astonishing model of polite efficiency. In minutes, I had both paid my bill and signed up.
And yes, my parents are seriously considering going back to MTNL.
So here's the final irony: what privatisation has done is drive some customers back to the arms of the public-sector once-monopoly.
Now I don't know if I should report that the man who installed my MTNL broadband service called one morning to say he was coming in an hour or two. He turned up only four days later. When I called to ask, the customer service person explained that their installations had been "outsourced."
Postscript: Should have put this up earlier, but R has a interesting followup to this here.