Raids on franchises put a dampener on legal sale of SIMs
KARACHI: The franchises of different cellular companies have ‘restrained’ or in some cases temporarily suspended sales activities in the wake of raids by personnel of law-enforcement agencies and arrests of sales agents on charges of selling illegal SIMs.
Perturbed at what they termed as ‘harassment’, five leading cellular service operators of the country have sought intervention of the telecom watchdog Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and Karachi police to resolve the issue, it emerged on Sunday.
A recent correspondence between the cellular companies, the telecom watchdog and the police authorities set alarm bells ringing in the quarters concerned when the multi-billion dollar stakeholders warned the situation was ‘causing panic’ among the companies and could prove to be ‘counterproductive for a sound investment climate.’
The police authorities appeared to concede the companies’ allegations about ‘harassment’ and ‘raids’ on franchises by hastily appointing ‘focal persons’ to address their complaints.
An officer of inspector grade has been appointed in all three zones of Karachi police to ‘deal with matters relating to cellular operators in connection with illegal arrests/detention of persons involved in cellular business’, said a recent order issued by a DIG for his zone.
“As many as 15 to 20 franchise owners were targeted by Karachi police’s specialised unit in recent months,” said a franchise owner whose sales staff was picked up lately when he was returning home after winding up business.
“There are some 150 recognised franchises of all five operators in Karachi but most of them have restrained their staff from running ambitious sale campaigns. Some of our fellow franchisees have even closed down their business units due to uncertain situation,” he said.
He accused police officials of exploiting the government policy on cellphone subscribers’ data to extort money from legal business operators. As a result, he said, buying new cellphone connection for a consumer and selling it by franchises had become a difficult job. Just a week ago the franchise owners went on strike after pulling down shutters over the raids which forced the cellular companies to move in and take up the matter with the regulator and Karachi police.
In a letter to the PTA chief all the five companies — Mobilink, Ufone, Telenor, Warid and Zong — sought immediate resolution of the complaints. “Within the last few weeks there have been several instances of police and LEAs crackdowns on franchises, retailers and even sales related workforce of the cellular mobile operators at the pretext of curbing sale of illegal SIMs,” said the companies.
“Such raids in diverse regions across the country have resulted in the closure of franchises and arrest of even cellular mobile operators’ employees on sometimes trumped-up or no charges at all,” they said.
A young staff member of a franchise who claimed to have been picked up by police’s specialised unit did not know under what charges he had been held but only after 48 hours he walked free from the police station after the investigators reached an agreement with his family and the employer.
“I don’t have any doubts over the government’s intentions behind toughening up of measures against illegal sale of SIMs but I do have suspicions over police actions,” he said while wishing not to be named.
“During the 48-hour detention the investigators were asking the same question over and over again ‘why am I selling illegal SIMs’ in ignorance of the fact that a franchisee or its agent can no more sell activated SIMs to customers.
“They could only issue inactive SIM, which the buyer could get activated after having his or her CNIC numbers and thumb impressions verified by Nadra,” he said. He admitted that a number of people were in the business of illegal SIMs’ sales. “But what the police officials are doing is not a result of any ignorance on their part, I believe. This appears to be a deliberate exploitation of new measures (to extort money) which seriously hurts business environment and employment of a large number of people,” he added.