I stand in the queue at the post office. More than a decade after retirement (as a Chief Post Master General), none of the staff members recognise me here, and I am able to experience the service from a different perspective altogether. The ambience has changed: it is brighter and cleaner than a decade ago. There are signs of a technological transformation under way, and there is a computer at each counter. The line moves quickly, and you get a legible, printed receipt. Money transfer is electronic, even to other countries. The signage has received some attention.

But all this has come after nearly a century of neglect. And, this is the picture only in chosen urban centres where the clientele is likely to be vocal.

In the village where I live on the periphery of Bangalore, the branch post office continues to play its traditional role. The arrival of e-mail and cellphone services has not diminished its significance. It is the fulcrum of life in this rural community, next only to the local temple.

The most popular dimension of a rural post office is the banking facility. Women in particular find the post office accessible. And the pass book serves as the almighty proof of residence. They can wave it in the face of the man in the LPG agency office confidently and demand a connection. In the bigger post offices, the attractive deposit plans for senior citizens are run competently. I have my money there.

In some offices, staff members at the counter, who constitute the proverbial ‘cutting-edge’ of the service, are not quite familiar with technology oriented operations. Many are not even aware of the rules. During a transaction they are cold and indifferent, and tend to communicate through gestures — an annoying habit across such counters all over India.

I find the door-to-door delivery of mail satisfactory, and am particularly pleased with the Speed Post service, both within and outside the country. You can track the movement of an article easily. The WorldNet Express that the post office here offers is faster than most of the international couriers. Yet, Speed Post could be marketed in a better manner. People still think that a private courier, who more often than not bears no indication of the date of booking or the date of delivery, is better. In the case of the private agency, you cannot easily call anyone to complain, and there is hardly any accountability. Speed Post is an unfortunate victim of the conventional prejudice against a government-run service.

The omnipresence of the post office — there are more than 1.55 lakh of them in India — has been traditionally an under-utilised phenomenon. However, in the colonial years, quinine tablets to combat malaria, the cause of a sixth of all deaths then, was available in the post office. One of the reasons for people coming to neglect the valuable presence of the post office is lack of coordination among departments.

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