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Post offices in a brave new world

By Subir Roy
May 10, 2016 09:57 IST
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'He was asked to do the KYC again because the earlier exercise would not do as they were 'computerising.'
'Getting the records transferred to the reluctant computer would take time and so he was advised to come a few weeks later.'
'My only prayer is that post offices will survive the modernisation process with at least some customer base intact,' says Subir Roy.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/

Few know what RSVP stands for in its original French form. To the English speaking world, those initials at the end of an invitation effectively mean 'Please respond,' that is, can we expect you to turn up?

As schoolboys, we got the hang of the abbreviation splendidly through an imaginative expanded form 'Reply soon via post.' Those were the pre-Internet days.

When invitations for an event are sent out in large numbers, they often end with the words, 'RSVP, regrets only, meaning -- if we don't hear from you we'll assume you'll be there. Unfortunately, as I learnt to my cost the other day, 'regret' dominates your experience with the post office these days.

All I had to was to take a printout of my electronically filed income-tax returns, sign it and send it to the tax department's Central Processing Centre in Bengaluru by either ordinary post or Speed Post. So after dilly dallying a bit, I decided the other day to brave the heat wave, late morning sun and get the job done.

The east Kolkata township post office, which had happily received my Speed Post items earlier, delivered the first setback. "Our machine (the PC-printer based system had long replaced manual receipts) is not working, go to another post office," I was told while a crowd of depositors with passbook and cash in hand waited patiently.

That should not be a problem but already a bit wary of what may lie ahead, I asked around for another post office with enough services and decided to take the Rashbehari connector to the Kasba post office 3 km away, which also I had used earlier for sending Speed Post items. But there I met with another setback -- being told that their machine also was out of order.

What was the problem, I asked and was told that it was all because of the core banking solution which was being implemented to enable the post office to function as a payments bank for which it had been licensed.

But that should have been over I thought; the minister had promised in March that as many as 25,000 post offices would be hooked up by April, with over 20,000 having already arrived in the brave new world.

What do I do, I asked again and after much consultation, decided to go to the large spacious and modern looking (by post office standards) post office at the southern end of Sarat Bose Road. Incredibly, the service there was also down. The counter clerk looked at my helplessness and said I should go to the post office nearby, opposite DeshapriyaPark (a south Kolkata landmark).

Totally sceptical by now, I asked how could one centre operate when the core banking solution was not working? There was no answer but I reasoned that maybe Speed Post was not a part of core banking and so decided to make one last attempt.

At the DeshapriyaPark post office, happiness awaited me. A highly efficient clerk was receiving Speed Post items at great speed. So despite having to stand in a queue with a dozen ahead of me I reckoned I would be through in 20 minutes and took up my position. But I could hardly believe my eyes when after disposing of three people in the queue he suddenly upped and left the counter.

What had upset such an efficient worker?

Soon it became clear when I realised that those at the other counters where also gone. It was 1.30 pm, 'tiffin' time, and services would be resumed at 2 pm sharp! I would not be through until close to 2.30 pm, by when I would have put in over three hours to travel nearly 7 km to visit as many as four post offices.

The thought of standing in a queue under heat wave-like conditions at peak afternoon for over half an hour made me decide to give up and come another day!

When I narrated what I thought was my unbeatable story in the evening at a gathering of friends, I was disappointed in one more way. There was another story to beat mine.

The narrator has a senior citizen's fixed deposit account at a Salt Lake post office where he had completed one of those periodic KYC (know your customer) routines a few months ago and turned up a week before the deposit was to mature to submit the paperwork.

He was asked to do the KYC again because the earlier exercise would not do as they were 'computerising.' Getting the records transferred to the reluctant computer would take time and so he was advised to come a few weeks later.

When he turned up again he was told that the computer was not 'updating' and he would have to come again. Finally, the matured fixed deposit was paid -- after he had to make four visits over close to two months!

Utterly disgusted, he decided to close his ordinary deposit account there. But even this was not possible on his first visit as the computer was again taking its time 'updating.' So he will have to make another visit soon to end his long relationship with the post office.

I have long argued in favour of upgrading and modernising the post office system so that it can be the most far-flung provider of affordable financial and logistical services to the aam aadmi, but my only prayer is that it will survive the modernisation process with at least some customer base intact.

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Subir Roy
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