The anonymity that goes with making calls from phone booths is likely to be a thing of yesterday.
A recent circular by Mumbai police directs all public call offices (PCOs) to maintain copies of callers’ identity cards. It emphatically specifies that if booth operators are unable to supply the name and address of a caller the police are on the lookout for, they will be held liable.
The directive is an offshoot of the annoyance that calls from criminal suspects, usually made from phone booths and therefore untraceable, cause police personnel. Cops say calls made for criminal purposes are usually from PCOs, which makes it a formidable task to search for the person. “Anti-social elements mostly prefer public phone booths because it makes it difficult for us to trace them. We have seen that in most kidnapping cases the accused use PCOs,” said Jayendra Sawant, assistant police inspector of Dadar police station.
Bad for business
The shift in responsibility has PCO operators overwrought. For them, making a copy of the ID card means added expenses almost equal to the profit they make from charging a customer for making a phone call. Even maintaining a log entry after verifying customers’ ID is cumbersome, since a great number of people stream in, and not everyone carries an ID proof.
“How can we make a photocopy of the caller’s identity card as they come in to make single call for which we earn Re 1. The photocopy will cost us Re 1,” said Jabaar Khan, a PCO operator near Girgaon court.
Achintya Mukherjee Of Bombay Telephones Users Association said, “A person comes to a PCO booth if his mobile phone battery drains off or some such situation, and he has to make an emergency call. Nobody keeps an ID card on him at all times.”
Some PCO owners, at the behest of the police, have started maintaining name and address entries of customers after checking their identity cards. But many booths are run by disabled persons — deaf or blind — who have been allotted a PCO by the state government. For them, maintaining records is difficult and this presents a problem for the police.
Bother for callers
Mukherjee sees the circular as a bother for those without phones or ID cards. “So many phone service providers, just to show huge databases, have given SIM cards on fake addresses since the spectrum was allocated on the basis of the number of subscribers. Terrorists use such fake identity cards.” His implication that police should bother about that more than running after small booth operators was clear. “This decision will only trouble poor people who don’t have identity cards and use PCOs,” said Mukherjee.
Nisar Tamboli, deputy commissioner of police, Zone II, kept his response to the problem terse and pointed. “If the PCO owners have entries of the persons making calls from their booths, we will readily trace the persons making anti-social or hoax calls.”
As it is, the number of PCOs in the country is declining. The police circular threatens to down shutters on the remaining, an operator rued.
As per figures from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the total number of PCOs in the country as of December 2011 stood at 2.37 million. Compared to the 0.65 million in 2000, this is an increase of 12.5 per cent. Whereas, the total number of telecom subscribers in the country, as of February, 2012, is approximately 945 million, of which 911 million are wireless.
Did you know?
>> Only 6,000 persons per lakh of the population don’t have cellphones. The total number of cellphone users was 94,181 persons per lakh of the population at the end of December 2011
>> Private sector operators control 91.7% of the wireless market share whereas the two public sector operators - Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd - together hold only 8.3% of the market share