Thursday, April 19, 2012

Mail Ordering Accelerated Development

With more than 154,000 offices and 4.7 lakh employees (roughly half of them non-staff “Grameen Dak Sewaks”), India Post is the largest mail distribution system in the world. It is also the largest retail bank in the country, for post offices allow people to maintain savings accounts, buy life insurance, invest in mutual funds and transmit money within the country and globally. Organized in 22 state-centric “Circles” (with a 23rd serving the military), the average post office in 2010 served an area of 21.21 Sq. Km and a population of 7,176 people (5682 in rural areas, 20,346 in towns and cities). If we consider the magnitude of work done under far from optimum conditions, India Post is undoubtedly the most efficient of public sector undertakings.

Despite all those positive factors post offices are “facing a big challenge to survive” as The Hindu headlined recently (13 March 2012). In a story pegged to the opening of a new post office in Cuddalore the paper said that in the same district over the previous two years “declining turnover and rising establishment charges” had led to the closing of 10 “sub-post offices.” (Each “administrative “Circle” in the system is ordered in a hierarchy ranging from Head Post Offices to Sub Post Offices; the Grameen Dak Sewaks operate autonomously.) The reporter quoted an official of the BSNL who believed the reduced demand for postal services resulted from the growing spread of mobile telephones and computers, and stiff competition from private courier companies.

According to statistics released in response to RTI requests, the Department of Posts (part of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology now under Kapil Sibal), the number of urban post offices dipped fractionally (0.72 percent) over the last five years, while in rural India it grew at a compound rate of 0.2 percent. Most of the country’s 500,000 villages are without a post office and even among those large enough to have a Gram Panchayat 51 percent have none. Lack of budgetary resources will prevent this situation from being remedied if the system continues as currently conceived.

To see the development potential of the postal system we merely have to envisage it as the foundation of a national e-communications resource network. If every post office in the system had computers for public use and one or two staff members to guide first-time users, India could close the digital divide in a few years. If the government makes it a time-bound goal to extend the system to all villages it would kick-start a process of national change especially beneficial for the young, women, farmers/fishermen and entrepreneurs of all kinds.
This is not just hopeful speculation; it has been the actual experience of those who have been working to bring e-development to rural areas. On a recent visit to the hub of Pondicherry’s small network of rural “Knowledge Centres” run by the M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation I was told how members of those different groups have responded to the opportunities offered by e-knowledge centres.

Ms. Girija who is in charge of the hub at Pillaiyarkupam told me that once the young get over the initial hump of unfamiliarity, they become adept at using computers and often outdistance the foundation’s “knowledge guides” in exploring their own interests on the Web. For women, computer access is a liberating escape into networks that expand their horizons dramatically and, not incidentally, improve their capacity as care givers. Farmers and fishermen benefit not by using computers themselves but by accessing the information services available on weather forecasts, market prices and technical guidance.

The content of the advice comes from the foundation’s strategic partners that include public and private organizations. “We take the information they provide and turn them into audio messages in Tamil” Ms. Girija said. The Metrological Service provides weather forecasts, the National Agricultural Bank for Rural Development supplies information useful for farmers at the time of sowing, transplanting and harvesting, and from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University comes bulletins on market prices. The Indian National Council for Oceanographic Information Systems has information on weather and wind conditions that fishermen receive in audio or icon-based messages over mobile phones (which most of them now have). At the request of fishermen INCOIS now also provides guidance on water temperature gradients that often indicate what type of fish are likely to be available where.

Among the entrepreneurial initiatives made possible by the new connectivity is artificial insemination of cattle. Dr. A.R. Thiagarajan, a retired veterinary surgeon who is a member of the Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy, has trained “about 40 to 50” young men who now receive calls from farmers whose cows are in season and race off on their motorcycles to provide a service that would once have required the cow to be transported to a government facility. “They make 400 to 500 rupees a day,” Dr. Thiagarajan said. “The farmers don’t mind paying 200 rupees per cow” he explained, for the service saves them from an often stressful trip that can take up a whole day. Also, the adrenalin rush the cows get in making the trip often makes it difficult for them to conceive.

Many other types of entrepreneurial activity will also be possible. As Aditya Dev Sood, CEO of the Centre for Knowledge Societies, a Bangalore-based consulting firm wrote in his 12-page 2001 guide on “How to Wire Rural India,” “information networks can become conduits that allow money to flow into the village through new kinds of non-discriminatory, clean and relatively unoppressive industries.” They could “also compensate for other kinds of infrastructure limitations. For example, if online work, trade, or payment were to become available for members of a village community, the poor quality of roads to and from that village becomes less of an obstacle to earnings and employment.” Also, with money flowing more easily into villages they could themselves finance and undertake the building of basic infrastructure including roads, adequate educational facilities, power generation, and water and sanitation systems.

The vision of such development has always been constrained by the issue of who will pay to start the ball rolling. For instance, in 14 years the Pondicherry network of knowledge centres has developed only 13 spokes to the hub at Pillayarkupam. Growth has been hampered by the requirement that each village centre must be “community owned:” it must receive rent-free space and have two local volunteer “knowledge guides” (trained by the foundation). For India Post to shoulder the responsibility of making that initial investment should not be too difficult if it is able to draw on the very substantial rural development funds already in state and Central budgets.

The knowledge-centre network of India Post will bring the entire country on a shared information platform. Many of the disparities between rural and urban we now take for granted will not endure. Teacher training programmes and access to the most advanced teaching techniques and materials can radically improve the quality of rural schooling. The e-facilities of public libraries throughout the country (and indeed, throughout the world) can be hooked into the system, remedying what is now a dire national shortage of libraries. Among the major near-term benefits of these developments will be a generation of eminently employable young Indians even if their formal education does not extend to college.

In extending the network of knowledge-centre post offices to all villages India Post could expand its existing programme of public-private partnerships. In fact, much of the development described above can be financed and managed through such partnerships.

The major demand for computer hardware and language-specific content from information providers will open up a range of opportunities in that regard. (Quality control will have to become a top priority for government.) Other major sectors of private business will also benefit from the surge of rural economic activity and they should be keen to provide funding for specific initiatives such as installing solar power capacity and training of maintenance personnel.

The resulting boom in economic activity can be expected to begin closing the urban-rural gap opened up by corporate globalization. It will help slow the headlong thrust of the Indian economy into greater integration with a global system that is not only caught in a major crisis that could get much worse but is environmentally unsustainable. 

No comments: