Bengaluru-based communications professional Karthik Srinivasan has started a unique protest to express his displeasure with what he calls an unethical programme by a private bank. A popular handle on Twitter and known blogger, Srinivasan has just completed 50 days of his so-called ‘Twitter satyagraha’ against the bank’s opt-out programme for preferred customers.
In a blog post, Srinivasan said he received a mail on January 30 with subject “Welcome to HDFC Bank Preferred Banking Programme!” When he opened the mail, he got to know that he had been automatically enrolled into this ‘programme’ in January 2016 and will be charged Rs 100 + service charges every quarter, and if he wishes to opt out of the program, then he will have to click on a button given at the end of the email. The cost of Rs 400 per year is mentioned in fine print, that too at the bottom of the email.
“In other words, HDFC depends on the customer to,
1. open the mail,
2. read through the contents,
3. notice a way to opt-out,
4. click the opt-out link,
5. choose ‘No’ as confirmation and
6. submit the form
… to not charge him/her,” he wrote in the blog.
Calling the policy “unethical” and “disingenuous,” he said, “If the customer doesn’t perform even one of the above six tasks, he/she will be charged.”
When contacted, Srinivasan told indianexpress.com said: “Opt-out is a bad, unethical practice the world over. It should be ideally opt-in where customers volunteer to pay after knowing what it is for.” He said he asked HDFC this question and found their answer to be evasive. “But, I fully understand that they cannot decide on things like this with their complex organisational structure and hierarchy — this is not a one-person problem but an institutional problem. The only way to make them feel compelled to address it is to use a classic media tactic – keeping the story alive. That is what I’m trying with daily tweets,” he added.
In their response, HDFC has said they have been fair and transparent in giving the customer the opportunity to test the service for free for a year before levying any charges. A representative for the bank said that the charges have been communicated to customers at regular intervals. “A welcome letter is sent to customers introducing them to the programme. Subsequently, the nominal fee is mentioned in 12 monthly bank statements during the course of the free trial. Information on the charge is also available on our website, and with the Relationship Manager.”
To Srinivasan’s argument about the opt-out practice being unethical, HDFC bank says it meets with regulatory norms. “We provide an opt-out facility for those who do not wish to avail of these services, in compliance with all regulatory requirements.”
Srinivasan, however, has decided to stage a 50-day Twitter satyagraha against the bank with one tweet a day on his handle which has over 25,000 followers:
Day 2: Good morning, @HDFC_Bank! Could you please apologize to all your customers for this unethical move? https://t.co/wEbKI13c6x
— Karthik (@beastoftraal) February 2, 2017
— Karthik (@beastoftraal) March 22, 2017
Asked why he chose Twitter as a platform instead of moving court, he said: “Consumer court is for individual problems. I do not have a problem with HDFC at all. I have been a customer of the bank since 1998 and even in this case, I have opted out and I have not been charged (as far as I know and can see). So I do not have a complaint at all, in my case. But I felt what they are doing is completely unethical and when I Googled ‘HDFC preferred opt out’ I found many many people expressing surprise that they have been cheated of Rs.115 per quarter without their permission. So, the only way to make people aware is to broadcast what HDFC is doing consistently and repeatedly.”
So, what exactly is he seeking through the satyagraha and what would be his next step? “Just that the bank stop doing this unethical tactic with some public communication (if not an apology). I intend to tweet every day till end of 2017. After that I’ll stop, with or without HDFC doing something about it. They have to find their own moral compass eventually,” he told indianexpress.com.
And what measures would he suggest to the bank so that customers do not have to face these issues in the future?
“Very simple. When communicating this charge, please have an appropriate email subject. Like, ‘Your consent needed – please see on priority’ instead of ‘Welcome to Preferred Banking Program!’. Imagine how much we have to run around submitting papers to bank – why can’t the bank ask us to confirm 100 per cent that we are willing to pay, instead of predeciding on our behalf that we like to pay, and in a way literally take money off our wallets without permission,” Srinivasan said.
HDFC, though, claims that the benefits of the optional programme far outweigh the nominal fee of Rs 100 per quarter. In a statement issued, the bank said among the benefits offered are lifetime waiver of between 25-100 per cent on locker charges, waiver of charges for non-maintenance of the required Average Monthly Balance (AMB) on all accounts and preferential pricing on loans.
While his protest has earned him little rewards, Srinivasan is firm on his ‘Gandhian’ path of protest. Only time will tell if his satyagraha will bear any fruits.