India Post: A Story of Missed Opportunities [Part IV: Causal Factors Rooted in Structural Issues]

In the first three parts of this blog story I discussed three major opportunities that could have rejuvenated India Post and given a big boost to rural Indian economy while improving economic wellbeing of a large section of Indian people. India Post could not exploit those opportunities due to the structural issues that face the organization. Fourth and concluding part of this blog story focuses on some such relatively important structural issues.

Dynamics of policymaking within India Post

My own experience of working with India Post at various positions and the interviews with the higher officials suggest that much of the policy decisions within India Post are taken by the bureaucratic arm of the organisation contrary to the general theme of politics administration dichotomy in the literature on public administration. The dichotomy is premised on the idea that policymaking is the role of the elected politicians while the bureaucrats’ job is to implement the policies, and both the institutions should restrict themselves to their prescribed areas of activity. However as Bohte (2007: 811) points out that ‘a true dichotomy between politics and administration has always been and will most certainly continue to exist only as an idealised fictional construct’, and the bureaucrats are often required to take policy decisions. Bureaucrats have been observed to be having much bigger role in policymaking than the legislature in countries like Germany, Japan, and Russia (Moloney 2007). In India too, the bureaucrats at the topmost levels have been actively involved in policymaking (Maheshwari 2005). N. C. Saxena, a former top Indian bureaucrat, points out that ‘[in India] the civil servants have been given the task of initiating the policy and taking it through, whereas most politicians are totally indifferent to what the policy is’ (discussion quoted in Taylor 2005: 753).

Mosher, a much respected scholar on public administration, argues that a majority of policy decisions are initiated and influenced by the appointed officials and not by the elected politicians. He further argues that such decisions are shaped by ‘their capabilities, their orientations, and their values,… [and] these attributes depend heavily upon their backgrounds, their training and education, and their current association’ (Mosher 1982: 1). Maheshwari (2005) points out that the top bureaucracy in India is mostly drawn from urban middle and upper middle classes and from a certain number of universities, and is influenced by its own value system while designing policies. The feeder cadre for the top bureaucrats in India Post, Indian Postal Service (IPS) officers, is no exception to this observation. The IPS officers are also extensively trained with induction as well as in-service trainings. An analysis of the training modules (India Post undated) reveals that the training contents are largely technical with an overt emphasis on operational issues. The trainings appear to be more suited for India Post as a business organization rather than an important public institution. The training does not provide the officers with the information and tools to analyze the larger socio-economic issues facing the poorer segments of the population, and the contribution India Post as a public institution can make towards addressing some of these issues, especially in rural areas where it has an extensive presence.

Continued colonial traditions within the management of organization further ensure that the higher management never has an opportunity to learn actual operations that take place in a post office. Indian Postal Service officers are always positioned at an arm’s length from day-to-day operations. They are trained to ‘inspect’ and ‘visit’ actual postal operations but not to participate in managing their actual delivery. This results in their not entirely understanding the potential of this great institution and failing it whenever opportunity arrives to bring it to development mainstream of the country.

 Neo-liberal discourse, NPM and Post-NPM

Predominance of neo-liberal discourse in the government after the 1991 reforms in Indian economy is also a contributory factor for excessive focus on the profit-making and treating India Post more of a business entity rather than a State institution. When organisations such as the World Bank advocate larger role of the post-office and make suggestions for India Post to come out of the red, it invariably involves strengthening India Post’s capabilities to provide infrastructural support to other sectors of the economy (World Bank 2005; 2002). Such prescriptions do not consist of measures aiming to engage it towards the pro-poor development of rural areas and promote the government agenda for the rural areas, for which it is one of the most suitably located organisations among all the State agencies.

The neo-liberal discourses are also accompanied by the efforts to reform public administration across much of the democratic world, collectively referred to as the New Public Management (NPM) and its successor post- NPM. Such reforms seek ‘managerial and economic solutions to complex problems’ within public administration (Jun 2009: 161). However as Denhardt and Denhardt (2003) point out that such solutions are inadequate to address the larger issues involving the people such as public good, social justice and ethical considerations. These solutions are also found wanting while dealing with ‘[s]ocial factors, such as delivery and access hurdles as a result of caste-based discrimination’ in Indian context (Jayaram 2009: 784). Argyriades (2007: 18) is severely critical of ‘one size fits all’ approach of NPM, among other things, and argues that the NPM has failed to adequately deliver on its promise. The NPM however largely informs policymaking within India Post as is evident by the response of India Post to the changing realities around it.

 Urban bias and the bias towards business and corporate sector

Mainstreaming of neo-liberal discourses explains another bias towards the business and corporate sector while developing premium products and value additions on the existing products, ignoring the competitive disadvantage facing the organization while serving such a set of clients. This is perhaps based on the assumption that the additional revenues to reduce the recurrent losses can be generated through the business community only. This approach tends to ignore the business opportunities requiring the utilization of about 89% of its network available in rural areas. Such business opportunities may not only generate additional revenues for India Post, but may also help reduce rural-urban and rich-poor divide in Indian society as is testified by various social enterprises across the world. Although it is important to tap the business potential in urban areas where a large part of India Post’s capital investment is concentrated, there needs to be a balance between the urban and rural-centric efforts within its business strategy. Such a need is particularly acute in view of the fact that India Post does not enjoy a competitive advantage in urban sectors.

Aforementioned dynamics of policymaking within India Post also explains the overt urban bias in decision-making within India Post. In addition, the recruitment procedures do not provide an opportunity to the IPS (and Indian Civil Service, in general) aspirants to be tested on subjects such as social work, development studies, international development, rural management and rural development, study of which could have given them an understanding and the sensitivity to explore and engage their organization towards serving the poorer population in rural areas.

The urban-bias is further explained by the fact that due to their work conditions, the top bureaucrats have very little functional exposure to rural areas, rural economy, social and business networks, and power structures in rural areas. A sizeable portion of top bureaucrats has never had any opportunity to work beyond metropolitan cities.

 Leveraging rural and semi-urban networks

Due to a pronounced urban bias in the policymaking within India Post, a majority of new and premium services introduced by India Post in financial as well as non-financial sector can have their clientele in urban areas only. They cannot be introduced in rural areas, as they do not have rural market. The semi-urban and rural networks cannot support new sophisticated products or value additions on existing mail products due to the fact that such needs do not exist in the rural and semi-urban areas. It can however support appropriate products in retail and financial sectors where there are vast amounts of unmet needs and demands. Due to this reason, new products and services that have been relatively successful in generating revenues for India Post have been the ones that have leveraged the rural and semi-urban networks (Priyadarshee, 2015).

Such outcomes naturally follow from the structure of the postal network particularly in rural areas. The postal personnel for rural post offices are largely drawn from the local communities and therefore enjoy trust of the people. Post offices are suitably located to deliver financial services and social protection measures due to their proximity to the rural people, and their personnel being known to the local people. Additionally, India Post, being a government department, is in a better position than similarly placed agencies such as banks and telecom companies to coordinate with other government departments offering social protection. By involving post offices, state governments and the government of India may also be in a position to avoid extra expenditure on creating new financial service channels or new delivery mechanisms for social protection programmes.

This will however need post offices to reach out to the deprived households, which will be far easier for them than any other network due to their geographical proximity with such households. This will, in turn, require postal management to be trained in the methodology of community engagement, and understand the necessity to  do the same. Significant public resources have already been invested in creating and sustaining such mammoth organizational capital and it will not be in the interest of Indian people to let India Post remain under-utilized.

References

  1. Argyriades, D., 2007. ‘Resisting change’: Some critical remarks on contemporary narratives about reform. In: D. Argyriades, O. P Dwivedi, and J. G. Jabbra, eds. Public administration in transition: Essays in honor of Gerald E. Caiden. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1-23.
  2. Bohte, J., 2007. Governmental efficiency in our time: Is the “What” really more important than the “How”? Public Administration Review, 67 (5), 811-816.
  3. Denhardt, J. and Denhardt, R.B., 2003. The new public service: Serving, not steering.E. Sharpe: Armonk.
  4. Jayaram, S., 2009. Postreform India. Public Administration Review, 69 (4),783-785.
  5. Jun, J. S., 2009. The limits of post-New Public Management and beyond. Public Administration Review. 69 (1), 161-165.
  6. Maheshwari, S. R., 2005. Public Administration in India: The higher civil service. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  7. Moloney, K., 2007. Challenges in growth and development: Lessons from comparative bureaucracy: Today as yesterday. Public Administration Review, 67 (6), 1083-1086.
  8. Mosher, F. C., 1982. Democracy and the Public Service. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
  9. Priyadarshee, A., 2015. Towards reducing poverty in India: A case for mutually leveraged and reinforced delivery of microfinance and social protection. Saarbrucken, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishing.
  10. Taylor, M., 2005. Bridging research and policy: A UK perspective. Journal of International Development, 17 (6), 747-757.
  11. World Bank, 2005. Report on seminar, transformation of India Post for Vision 2020, June 15-16 [online]. Available at: http://www.worldbank.org.in/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/SOUTHASIAEXT/INDIAEXTN/0,,contentMDK:20568412~menuPK:295589~pagePK:141137~piPK:141127~theSitePK:295584,00.html [Accessed 28 December 2009].
  12. World Bank, 2002. India Post 2010. Conference on harnessing the outreach infrastructure of India’s postal network [online]. Available at: http://www.iief.com/Consulting/13march.pdf [Accessed 12 July 2009].
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