AT A TIME when the Department of Posts, now popularly known as Indiapost, is celebrating its 150th anniversary, there is a real opportunity to take stock and see how the huge network of post offices in the country can become key service centres for the people. True, the local post offices may have lost some of their relevance in the electronic age and yielded ground to private courier services. As President Abdul Kalam and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have suggested, Indiapost will have to convert this challenge into an opportunity. Already, major post offices have started retailing various financial instruments. They handle some mutual funds and Central schemes such as the Public Provident Fund (in addition to what is marketed by the Department of Posts). These have also helped augment the revenues of the Department in a competitive environment and made up for a loss of business. The question before the authorities now is how to make the best use of the enviable network of 1.55 lakh post offices that has been built up over the decades and utilise the 5.65 lakh-strong workforce, including the three lakh-plus extra-departmental employees, who know their area of operation and the people they serve better than any other institution does.

A few concrete and well-thought-out steps have already been taken. The Election Commission of India has decided, sensibly, to use the post offices for the revision of electoral rolls. There cannot be a better way, especially in the rural areas, of carrying out this task efficiently and fairly. Opposition parties have tended to accuse the ruling party in the States of misusing the government machinery, be it in the Revenue department or the local bodies, and manipulating the voter list. There are complaints all round of a significant deletion from, or addition to, the rolls that is either manipulated or inaccurate for some other reason. The post offices can make a real difference to this situation. Their role in Tamil Nadu Government's scheme, now abandoned, of dispensing subsidies to farmers on the electricity charges was invaluable. These are examples of new and creative ways in which post offices can serve changing social needs. It must also be remembered that Indiapost runs the largest banking operation in the country and this needs to be modernised, networked, and harnessed efficiently.

In various countries, the post offices, even where they are privately run, have become transmission links with the people. From paying electricity and telephone bills to renewing driving licences, they offer a host of indispensable services. Engagement in such productive work can help raise more resources for Indiapost. A heartening trend seen over the past five years is a steady increase in revenue and better discipline exercised in the matter of expenditures. In 2002-03, for instance, revenue rose by 132 per cent but expenditure only by 68 per cent. The search for more alliances to retail services must continue. In an era when subsidies are being phased out, this is one Department that need not depend on government budgetary support to make ends meet. Indiapost needs to become even more aggressive in marketing and cementing new partnerships with the private sector, which cannot obviously invest in such a network. The possibility of offering sorting services to foreign countries or companies (as suggested by Prime Minister Singh) holds promise as a new kind of outsourcing business. As it celebrates 150 years of socially invaluable service, Indiapost faces a bright future. The vision and direction worked out for the next decade will be crucial.