DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Saturday, March 3, 2012

National Postal Policy - challenging the couriers



The Indian Postal System was in the news recently for something that appeared to be a little more positive. The Minister of Communications and IT, Kapil Sibal, is reported to have turned his focus on India Post, a department that also happens to be in his charge. He has done so none too soon though, as the department seems to have been sliding downhill rather rapidly despite vigorous efforts made by one of his predecessors, Jyotiraditya Scindia, to modernise post offices and introduce into them Information Technology.

Starting from the scratch, rejecting the departmental logo and introducing a new one, he devised the Project Arrow under which hundreds of post offices were done-up and computerised with a view to improving mail delivery, banking and other services. Soon, the department bagged in 2010 the PM’s award for excellence in public administration. However, the parameters on which the department was adjudged for the award are not known as the improvement that was sought to be brought about in the quality of service largely remained unachieved. Scindia was taken off the ministry even as the Project initiated by him was in the process of implementation. And, therefore, as normally happens in the government, it lost steam.

Now Sibal is talking of a national postal policy which, apparently, will spearhead action to “take on” the couriers and to introduce in more-than-a-century-old Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) most of the banking operations that are carried out by regular banks. While bestowing on POSB the status of a regular bank will have to be decided upon in consultations with several other departments of the government of India and its agencies, action to meet the challenge posed by private couriers will have to be stepped up by none other than India Post.

At the outset, Sibal may have to look for the weaknesses that enabled the private couriers to make significant inroads into the preserve of India Post. The most important reason would seem to be the want of quality in the performance of the department in so far as mail delivery is concerned. Over the years the plummeting standards of performance left the field wide open for couriers to troop in. The department could very well cite exogenous reasons for the same, but many were the ones that could be attributed to its own lack of initiatives.

Time was when the Indian postal system was acknowledged as one of the finest in the world in this regard. Although working in a monopolistic environment it had that in-built system of monitoring mail handling to ensure quality that was coupled with a spirit of rendering service to the community. With all 1st class mails being flown down to the closest air terminal of destinations without any surcharge (not prevalent even in the West) and in-train sorting of letter mail on almost all railway routes, the department developed an unique capacity to reach most of the letters to distant destinations within 48 hours. On occasions letters would reach faster than the then-prevalent telegrams. The ‘60s, ‘70 and ‘80s were its glorious decades.

Later, unfortunately, the needs of the Railways came to the fore. With a view to enhancing their passenger carrying capacity they summarily did away with the coaches in which mail used to be sorted piece by piece. And, later speeding up of trains on the same old shaky tracks made such sorting impossible, anyway, taking that edge away from the department that ensured quality. Soon thereafter the country witnessed convergence of IT and telecommunications with the help of the World Wide Web that acted as a midwife to give birth to an era of instant communications. To start with, it was e-mail by which one could exchange messages containing texts, images, and videos with multiple addresses. While e-mail was initially restricted only to those who had access to computers, the cell phone put the means of instant communication into the hands millions of those who had just a palm-sized handset. With the advent of “smartphones”, technology has put virtually a portable computer in the hands of the people with facility, inter alia, of sending and receiving e-mails and conversing over long distances. Once “cyberspace” became the medium of instant communication conventional messaging, known now as “hard messaging”, had to take a hit.

And it did. The volume of mail traffic in India fell to 6,677.18 million pieces in 2006-07 from the figure of 15,749.30 million in 1997-98 – a hit of severe proportions. Internationally too, there were clear signs of the Internet eating into postal systems. Statistics provided by the Universal Postal Union (UPU) show that between 2008 and 2009 domestic mail volumes were globally down 12 per cent. Obviously, the World Wide Web had a worldwide impact and India Post was not alone in losing its “bread & butter” business.

With the sharp decline in traffic, India Post virtually threw in the towel. Instead of aggressively trying to trap the traffic captured by the progressively consolidating courier industry, it drastically downsized its mail establishment adversely impacting its efficiency. Whatever mail it received – mostly the documents, periodicals and other 2nd class stuff – got horribly delayed in delivery. Even the department’s answer to couriers, the EMS Speedpost, could not match its potential because of lack of manpower and, of course, that kind of agility which is needed to compete with private operators.

No wonder people lost confidence in it. Predictably, the couriers moved in, capturing the traffic originating from corporations, banks and other sundry mailers. They seem to be cashing in on the reported “exponential” growth in mail volumes unleashed by the country’s rapid economic growth and widespread use of the very same technology that hit the department hard. IndiaKnowledge@Wharton, an online resource, found that Pitney Bowes, a mail-management service-provider, is bullish about India finding in it, inter alia, “... rapid increase in cell phone subscriber-base, statement-based credit and debit card usage, and computerized billing by utilities” suggesting an upward trend in mail traffic. Only it was escaping the departmental radars.

One would therefore tend to think it is not a policy that is necessary to “take on” the couriers. What is needed is revamping of the system with proper, pragmatic staffing and a new work-culture that is committed, agile and vigilant to raise the standards of performance by several notches. The Post Office is synonymous with mail (including its express variety); all its other activities, even those related to social and financial sectors, are only add-ons. It is, therefore, imperative for it to take steps to revitalise its mail delivery system to re-inspire confidence among its users and give the couriers a run for their money.
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