The 40-day telephone downtime

A few days ago there was a blog post by the WordPress team (see Downtime Summary) where they had updated the WordPress community about the website outage on Feb 19, 2010, highlighting the technical reasons why the website did not recover on it’s own (automatic failover recovery) and the remedy they planned to prevent this from happening again. Having worked in this field before, I personally felt that their team did a very professional job in handling the crisis and the fact that they admitted it upfront was all the more commendable.

They said that it was their worst downtime in four years – and how long was it? 110 minutes. Now that’s a narrow blip if you ask me. It means that during the last 4 years, the website was up 99.99% of the time. As one reader (Dave) commented, that is a better percentage than what Lysol disinfectant claims for killing germs!

Right, so lets climb down from cloud nine and back to reality here in Pune, India. I recently experienced a similar ‘downtime’ for our home landline telephone which is provided by the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), a Government of India undertaking. This downtime wasn’t in minutes. It wasn’t in hours. It was in days (more like months). It was – 40 days.

Anyone familiar with the workings of government agencies here in India would agree that such a long downtime isn’t unheard of. But what shocked me and my family was the response given by the authorities concerned. We filed a complaint with their automated complaint registration service the day after the phone went dead. Generally this is transferred down to the local linesman who checks the problem in about 2-3 days and reports the results back to the main center, after which a call is made to the complainant to confirm the proper operation of the telephone. Now, this 2-3 days time itself is quite large when you consider that nowadays the ‘telephone’ is an essential service. But sometimes you have to give them the benefit of the doubt because of the lack of manpower in the department and the relatively large number of outages they have to attend to every day. Plus, everyone in the family had their cellphones with them, so it wasn’t as if the sky was going to fall. We patiently waited for 15 days.

On the 16th day, my mother called up the telephone exchange to which our number is associated and asked what was causing the delay. They replied – “Yes, we know where the problem is. In fact, more than 20 telephones are down in your area (Kothrud) because of a fault in the underground cabling. But the problem is that since there is a lot of traffic on that street, we can’t start digging.”

I wonder if there had been an IED explosive (bomb) planted under the same street, would they have given the same response?

Another 15 days passed, and presumably the ‘traffic’ on the concerned street hadn’t halted or reduced for even a second. Again, I wonder why they don’t call Pune the ‘busiest city in the world’! Move over New York, move over Mumbai, here comes Pune!

A few more calls and visits to the telephone exchange met with the same lukewarm response. Eventually, yesterday (i.e. 39th day) my mother called the exchange again and demanded to speak with the supervising zonal officer. When the call was transferred to his office, a person there said – “Oh, what can we do. For the last 2 years, 200 people are working to fix a few hundred telephones on Paud Road (a nearby locality). Once they are done with that, they’ll attend to your complaint.”

Inference 1 – A few support engineers cannot fix a couple hundred telephone lines in over 2 years. So, are they really qualified to do the job or have the BSNL mandarins contracted local barbers to fix the faults?

Inference 2 – For a population of over 30 lakhs, there are only 200 support engineers in the ‘entire’ of Pune. Isn’t this a serious misallocation of personnel?

On being appalled after hearing this reply, my mother somehow obtained the personal cellphone number of the zonal officer and contacted him immediately. His reply was even more wonderful – “Ma’am, I didn’t know your telephone was out of order.” I wonder if he ‘knows’ that he works for the telephone department in the first place.

He went on to say – “Oh ma’am what can we do now? It’s already 6 O’Clock, people in the office must have already left for home a long time ago!” Oh well, then what was he doing there? Playing cards with the watchman?

As was bound to happen, my mother finally lost her cool and threatened to go public with this story and the replies that she was getting from the department. She said that she would call up the leading newspaper (she did in fact call a ‘Sakal‘ newspaper reporter) and also place a call with the local TV news channels. Without doubt, they would have pounced on this story like a Tiger who’s been kept hungry for a fortnight.

It was then that the cogs started to turn. The zonal officer pulled up the person who had given the ‘200 people – 2 years’ reply. We were ‘assured’ that our telephone line will be up and running in a day’s time. I wonder what suddenly happened to the ever-flowing street and also to the 200 men who’s hands were already tied!

What happened later, can happen only in India. Our phone was back online this morning. The ‘200 people – 2 years’ guy called up and told my mother that he had – “specially set up a special line from the exchange for our number”. When my mother replied that we weren’t the family of the President of the country and that if a fix is to be applied it should be applied to all the phone lines affected in our locality, he replied – “Ma’am, be contended that we have restored your line. Why are you worrying about others?”

Don’t you think that this person should be considered for the Bharat Ratna (India’s highest civilian award) next year? With the way the recent winners of Padma Shri (another Indian civilian award) have been selected, he stands a very good chance!

Bottom-line is that the answer to when the other phone lines in the vicinity will be fixed is still buried somewhere under the apathy prevalent in almost all Indian government undertakings. I don’t know why most Indians proud themselves on being a part of one of the world’s largest service-oriented industry, when half of them don’t even know what ‘uninterrupted service’ or ‘zero downtime’ means!

Since then, our home has been inundated by calls from almost every desk in the telephone exchange and the telephone department. We have answered over 12 confirmation calls today, right from the senior officers to the local linesmen.

At this rate I’m curious where the next call would come from. Alexander Graham Bell himself, perhaps!


18 thoughts on “The 40-day telephone downtime

  1. This is all true sir… and that is the reason why my father returned the phone back to office of BSNL. In fact those guys were so reluctant to accept their belongings too. FUNNY INDIA instead SHINING INDIA. (your one of the student form FC)

    • Yes.. we too were planning to do the same! I mean.. they are never going to change their attitude whatever happens. You said it right.. FUNNY INDIA!

  2. Well well.. This is how it happens with BSNL.
    You were pretty patient with them. We faced a worse exp, with LL and Broadband being down for 15 days. Inumerable phone calls (from BSNL Mobile – this is another way of earning money for them), trips to Zonal office resulted in silly answers from them and increase in frustration for me. Finally me and my husband wrote a letter, CCed to some big shots and went to the zonal officers cabin. We held a “Dharna” there and told them we wont go back until our work is done (My hubby even pretended to talkto a newspaper reporter on cell.. :D)
    and pooh.. work done. They had used our line connection to give life to some other dead line and killed out phone. Finally they found an empty slot to give both dead phones a new life line !!!
    Amazing ..ain’t it !

    • Well yes.. it seems that we were very patient.. you’ve had quite an experience with them! You said it correctly.. calls from the BSNL mobile is a sure money-earner for them. And it seems that the ‘calling-the-media’ trick really works for them! 🙂

      Must say though.. they did a good jugglery with your phones! The fun part is that they don’t feel bad about the negative word-of-mouth going around.. it’s like.. they are getting their monthly salaries.. rest be darned. This attitude feels so weird!

  3. I have similar experience with Tata Indicom broadband.
    Internet was down for 8 days!! everyday they told me that “we will solve this problem within 6 working hours!”. To my surprise after 8th day I asked them refund for the lost connectivity – the answer was “you need to log complaint in billing department, we are from technical department”.

    Another experience with the same company Tata Indicom Broadband, another time they were able to solve the problem in 69 hours. When I called their billing department for refund the answer was “Our policy says compensate if connection was down for 72 hours!”.

    Saddest thing is every weekend the server in my area used to have some problem and I had to suffer connection problem for consecutive 4-5 weeks. The engineer who used to come my home for repairs will tell me “Sir dont you understand the electricity problem!!” – as if it is my fault that I have logged complaint.

    Probably I have written here blogpost instead of comment, but one more remarkable thing. Once because of lightning my modem had some problem. Tata Indicom Broadband engineer came home and replaced modem. He asked me 100Rs for replacement and told me that he does not have receipt book right now he will give me receipt next day. He never appeared after that day!. When I called the company, answer was “Sir it is your fault, you should not have given him money!”

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences with the ‘Indian System’.. and no issues with the length of the comment.. in fact the stories are never-ending! 🙂 I guess this happens because there is absolutely no co-ordination / knowledge sharing between the different departments.. and as a result they make a complete mockery of their service and we are ones who have to suffer!

  4. Its really very frustrating….. It always happens where there is ‘Sarakari karbhar’….. 😦
    Chidchid hote sagala baghun….
    Ya table varun tya table var… yana bheta… tikade gelyavar te aamacha kam nahiye.. tumhi yana bheta… bla bla bla….
    Sagala thand panane chalu asata… shya!!! Kadhi sudharnar kay mahit… ?????

    • You nailed it Ketaki.. anything ‘sarkari’ is just plain boring and illogical.. there’s a word in the English language for that – ‘rigmarole’. I don’t think they feel anything wrong with it either.. I mean it’s not like they want to improve the service or anything.. they hardly care! It’s totally beyond them.

  5. Well said and written Nikhil…And yes, I completely agree to all the things that have been written on this page….”Sarkari Logon” ka experience baap re!!!….Every one in India must be having a story to share about this BSNL…aka Saarkari log…

    • Yes.. I think that you could fill an entire library with the stories of people who’ve been harassed by the government agencies and their apathetic attitude! 🙂

  6. Nikhil, I really enjoyed the funny responses from BSNL office. After reading all such BSNL experiences, I am urging to share one more story. We recently moved to new home which is just attached to Nagpur. It’s just geometrical boundary but we still feel living in Nagpur. Anyway, so there has to be an application for transferring our telephone and internet line. I think my father logged an application on 22th Jan (+/-1). When my father logged the application, they assured phone will be transferred in 3-4 days knowing what area we were transferring to. After a week my father visited Nagpur BSNL office, there was no one in the office during office hours. Staff might have gone for tea party together 😀 After searching whole BSNL office, my father found one officer, and his response was, wait.. “chaparasi” should come in sometime, he can guide you to whom to contact. 😀 wasn’t that funny! My father waited and returned to home wasting his time there. Then again on next week, my father visited BSNL office and a lady told that your application has been entered in computer so other department will process it soon. But when nothing happened after another week, my father called to BSNL office, and that lady said, you contact Bootibori department, you will get your work done there. My father asked her Bootibori’s phone no, she said we don’t have, you will have to go there. One BSNL office does not have other BSNL office nos.. what a lie! These are government employer who meant to be there for public help but they just give unnecessary headaches. My father visited Bootibori office, and office man asked my father to enquire in the same Nagpur BSNL office from where my father got Bootibori’s reference. My father told them, you people are just diverting me from here and there. They asked to enquire here and you are asking to enquire there. After few more days, when my father visited BSNL department and talked to the same lady and told her that she should call Bootibori office and order them that why my telephone line was not transferred yet, those people does not listen.. they should listen to you. And off course a lady was glad to call them and ask them in bossy tone. You know, government employees never miss chance to show bossy nature on others :p So guys, this is also one more trick to handle them, put them on cloud no nine and ask them to do what you want to do . After hearing many exceuses like “Cable cant reach till your home”, “Phone reparing man is not available now, call later” “I am on scooter now, call me later” from Bootibori BSNL office, in one of the visit to their office, Bootibori BSNL man told my father that they can not transfer the line because new area comes under Gramin (village) area. Isn’t it clear that government employees are working to keep us busy… It took more than a month to get true response which they should give while applying for transfer itself. They should know to which areas they can transfer phone lines. And during this month when there was no service, they promptly sent phone and internet bill which is more than 1200. Finally we submitted the phone and cancelled the line.

    • Thanks Sanjivani, for sharing this experience! It was funny to read 🙂 but I can guess how frustrating it must have been for your father.. I mean all the rigmarole for nothing in the end! It’s the same ‘passing-the-buck’ culture which you can see in each and every Indian government department! As you said, it’s ‘us’ who give service to ‘them’, rather than the other way round! 🙂

    • Oh unfortunately that comment had gotten logged under spam 😦 which is why you must not have seen it! I manually transferred it out of there today so now you might be able to see your comment and my reply to it. Anyways, thanks for the comment, it sure was an amusing experience! 🙂

    • It was quite an amusing experience! 🙂 But certainly not the first or the last with the ‘government agencies’ here!

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