By D.C. Pathak
In a liberal democracy the State favours the idea of both public and private sectors running their businesses in a healthy competition for the good of the people. Growth requires investments from private players in areas like infrastructure, health, power, communications and banking and it is the duty of the government to provide the right ‘external environ’ – that would include a set of parameters ranging from political stability to a satisfactory law and order situation – to attract such players.
In recent years principles of corporate governance have been evolved and implemented to safeguard the interests of all stakeholders in a private enterprise – this incidentally was the outcome of reforms compelled by many high profile cases of financial fraud and corporate malpractice witnessed in India and abroad. It goes to the credit of the Modi government that India has registered a notable advance in an important area conducive to growth and investment – the ‘ease of doing business’ paradigm. It has also taken steps to closely monitor if big business was operating here within the legal and ethical parameters prescribed by the State.
While the big ticket projects handled by private businesses are more in direct sight of the government and its agencies, it is revealed by a few simple cases of treatment of customers that many big corporations in the business of offering public services are indulging in unethical practices while dealing with the common public – all for small profits. They were confident of getting away by using ‘small print’ phenomenon or by taking advantage of the limited capacity of a private customer to go through the hassle of a protest or complaint. One of the largest private sector banks in the country – currently in the news for some serious enquiries against its top leadership – seems to be running its customer services without providing for a responsible internal supervision. A senior citizen who is a retired top official of the government of India had a bad experience recently with this bank and this needs to be recounted as an illustration of the point being made here.
The retired person had a savings bank account of long standing at the bank and also a fully paid for credit card. Out of the blue he started getting charged for annual fees on another credit card which he did not possess and subsequently billed for late fees on annual charge on that card month after month. At the same time he received two debit cards one after the other without any request from him for such a card. The senior citizen – finding that the ‘customer care’ could not throw light on the origin of the second credit card – sent emails to Delhi-based senior executives of the Card Division of the bank pointing out that he had only one valid credit card that was enough for him and that the other dubious credit card billed on his name should be blocked forthwith pending internal examination. He also pointed out that there was no need for the Card Division to issue him two debit cards suo moto – this only caused an avoidable wasteful expenditure for the bank. There was no response from the bank on the oddity of what clearly looked like a case of fake billing. The ball remained in the bank’s court. The senior citizen felt mentally harassed and decided to wash his hands of that bank.
Strangely, the same bank running a high end insurance business showed callousness in handling healthcare insurance for common customers. In a specific case, a husband and wife – both working – had insurance cover for several years with the husband, apart from having his own policy, also becoming the proposer for his wife’s insurance. The wife’s policy clearly mentioned that after three years of insurance she would be entitled for coverage of expenses relating to hospitalisation for delivery. However, when the time for this event came – that was the first ever claim of any sort made on these policies – the company turned down the coverage on the ground that it was mentioned ‘in small print’ that the insurance had to be a ‘joint’ one. Clearly the agent who gave the insurance to the married couple did not tell them about this conditionality. The customers rightly felt cheated but could not do anything.
In another case, a leading hospital of a private chain overcharged a retired government official for a surgery in spite of his being a CGHS card holder. In this case, the monitoring cell of the department, when informed of the case, intervened to take corrective action and pulled up the hospital administration. All of this only shows that in India it is particularly important that the vigilance machinery of the ministries concerned of the Government of India charged with handling cases of potentially unethical business practices of private players in their respective areas of monitoring, intervenes effectively in cases pertaining to common citizens to deter these entities from indulging in any exploitative approach and send them the right message.
If a democratic state has to move towards ‘minimum government-maximum governance’ it is vital that private businesses in the segments of public services do not develop a perception that the government is only interested in their investments and that it is at best a distant observer so far as the vigil against any practices suggesting arbitrary handling of customers for profit making, is concerned. Every single case of disregard of the interest of common man by businesses, howsoever big, should be looked into and made an example of corrective action. Big cases of criminal default are, of course, to be pursued by investigating agencies but it is for the chief vigilance officers of the Government to look into ‘ordinary looking’ customer care violations as well. This is necessary for upholding the dignity of the common man and preserving the image of governance. The designation of the vigilance authority concerned with contact details should be displayed at all major branches of private banks, insurance companies and hospital chains.
(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)