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Wednesday, July 11, 2001

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Opinion | Next | Prev


Doomed?

B. S. Raghavan

ONCE upon a time, ``Sir, post!'' was a resounding announcement that pumped adrenalin into the bloodstream of every man, woman and child within the household and the neighbourhood. On hearing it, the baby stopped crying, the schoolboy left his marbles, th e couple ceased fighting, and everybody dropped everything and ran to the door. Letter writing was elevated into an art, and people waited patiently for days and (in the case of letters to and from foreign countries) weeks for a reply. Rabindranath Tagor e has immortalised the mail carrier in a moving prose-poem replete with romance and nostalgia.

Those days are fast becoming a mere memory. The pervasive use of e-mail has made redundant, if not obsolete, the time-honoured postal service run under the auspices of governments worldwide. E-mail and the universally available facility of online transac tions seem to have pretty much doomed the postal service. Nerds had already dubbed it snail mail, to mark the contrast to the speed and ease with which e-mail messages can be exchanged with persons all over the world.

Unlike in the case of letters, requiring observance of the rules of protocol and composition, e-mail has evolved a unique crisp, staccato style of its own that helps draw persons closer with a touch of informality and intimacy, providing networking capab ilities. The emergence of hitherto unimagined modes of convergent and wireless communication and possibilities of instant beaming drive the postal service out of the consciousness of people altogether.

Or, do they? No, assert the spokespersons of the US Postal Service (USPS). The USPS delivers more than 200 billion pieces of mail annually, with around two million new addresses being added every year. For ensuring efficient service, it has streamlined a nd modernised its delivery system, and introduced hi-tech equipment capable of sorting and distributing 700 million pieces of mail among 136 million locations every day.

The advocates of postal service contend that e-mails are no match to it in forging serious, meaningful, mutually reinforcing and enduring relationships, free from the risk of false steps and pretences. They remind us how doomsayers had confidently predic ted the demise of the postal service in the era of the telegraph, telephone and television, but how, on the contrary, they had been unable to dent the popularity of surface mail which is as strongly entrenched as ever. The publication of books and the ap peal of print media were also expected to suffer a reverse because of the Internet and e-books, but nothing of the sort has happened.

However, there are some alarming facts concerning the viability of the USPS: It is currently facing a deficit of up to $3 billion. One estimate puts at $17 billion its loss of annual revenue in the course of the next decade due to competition from e-mail , or equal to half its first class mail volume which, again, is projected to decline at an average rate of 2.5 per cent from 2003 to 2008.

No such analysis of the likely situation confronting postal service nor an idea of the corresponding figures relating to projections of future scenarios is readily available for India. In any case, the threat to India's postal service from Internet, e-ma il and convergence is not imminent in terms of volume, value, scale or magnitude, since the country is not as extensively wired as the US. Even so, it is time the postal department in India geared itself up to face the challenges of new technologies on t he basis of experiences of industrial nations.

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