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Service charge saga: From dal makhani to WWE in less than one NCR-minute

Reasons for not wanting to pay service charge may vary, though not according to the restaurant lobby.

What do you do when the bill arrives with an additional 10 percent service charge and you don’t want to pay it?

Reasons for not wanting to pay the extra amount may vary.

The food may arrive late, by which time your expectations have turned cold.

You may feel that customers at every other table are being treated like New York Times food critics or our own desi rude food guru.

You may be unsympathetic towards restaurant workers. (You shouldn’t be. Look around. They work hard.)

You may assume that the service charge is included in the price of the food. Why else would a dal makhani cost ₹399 plus taxes?

Is service charge mandatory?” you google under the table.

Service charge is voluntary, optional and at consumer’s discretion,” replies the smart internet authoritatively.

Armed with this knowledge, you ask the waiter who has been serving you all night to take the bill back. He mutters non-compliance.

Call the manager,” you say. The manager arrives. A discussion, within the boundaries of politeness. One side relents.

Either you pay the service charge with the appropriate amount of reluctance, or— and this is the more likely scenario— the manager apologises after trying to explain why they charge the extra amount and agrees to deduct the amount from your bill, his almost-inaudible sigh the only reference to your penny-pinching.

That will be the end of it in most places. But Delhi–NCR is not like most places.

A typical Delhi–NCR Sunday evening?

For proof, we don’t need to travel back in time at all. On a typical Delhi Sunday night this past week, a family was dining at Float by Duty Free— a restaurant whose name must have been chosen by the gods of scriptwriting— in the Spectrum Mall in Noida.

There was the aforementioned dispute about service charges. Only this time, true to Delhi-NCR’s reputation, the dispute turned into a feisty scuffle. A video from the incident has gone viral.

Three restaurant employees and two customers have been arrested by Uttar Pradesh police. Two cross-first information reports (FIR) have been lodged under Sections 147 (rioting), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 506 (criminal intimidation), 504 (insult to provoke breach of peace), 354 (assault with intent to outrage modesty of a woman) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 at Sector 113, Noida police station.

What is the official policy on service charge?

The Department of Consumer Affairs on Tuesday clarified that service charge is a discretionary charge and should not be levied on a mandatory basis. It should not be imposed forcefully on consumers, “especially when consumers are dissatisfied with the service provided to them by the restaurant,” the department said in its letter to the National Restaurants Association of India (NRAI).

You would agree that any such charge is in the nature of tips or gratuity, which a consumer may decide to pay voluntarily depending upon (their) satisfaction with the quality and service provided by the establishment,” the letter says.

The NRAI might not agree; otherwise why would it fight tooth and nail to prevent a State diktat against service charge?

In July last year, the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) issued guidelines barring the levying of service charge in hotels and restaurants, which stipulated that such a charge cannot be added to a bill by default.

It may be mentioned that a component of service is inherent in (the) price of food and beverages offered by the restaurant or hotel,” the CCPA had clarified.

The restaurant lobby mightily resisted the guidelines, with the NRAI and Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India (FHRAI) moving the Delhi High Court asking for an immediate stay against the guidelines.

One of the arguments presented before the court was that tips by customers  only help the staff at the front of the house. “What about cooks and cleaners?” they asked.

Was it a glaring admission that the staff at the back of the house were even more underpaid since they didn’t have the benefit of tips? Arguably.

To their relief, the high court on July 20 last year imposed an interim stay on the guidelines, stating that the matter requires deeper consideration.

Though, at a later date, the high court asked the restaurant lobby, “Why don’t restaurants increase prices? If restaurants are worried about staff, then increase salaries.”

If the sequence of events are anything to go by, increasing salaries is an idea that the restaurant lobby might find radical, repulsive even.

Still, the question really is, what if you find the service bad? Shouldn’t the restaurant give you a discount in such cases?

The Leaflet