Sunday, January 13, 2008

‘Post’ing my problem

A plight of public money and private profits

The Times of India has reported that Rs 153 crore in people’s savings has vanished from post offices across India in the past three years. It is reported that private agents, in connivance with postal officials, have carried out this multi-crore fraud. The modus operandi of this dodgy scam seemed to be very simple (reminding me of American short story writer O. Henry’s famous observation: “It was beautiful and simple as all truly great swindles are”). The agents took money from the depositors and channeled it elsewhere. And then to authenticate the transaction they obtained fake receipts from the officials and gave them to the unsuspecting depositors. The report further states that West Bengal tops the list with a loss of a whopping Rs 97 crore, followed by Uttar Pradesh at Rs 18 crore and Bihar at Rs 10 crores. The list goes on...

On account of penetration and reach, post offices in India have historically had a very strong foundation in the rural and semi-urban hinterlands, wherein the postmaster and the postman command supreme respect. Over the years, by constantly delivering news in the form of letters and means of survival in the form of money orders, these post offices have been able to build indubitable trust in the minds of people. Also because people had minimal or no access to banks, these neighbourhood post offices became the only recourse as the custodian of their hard-earned money. The scam has not only taken away the lifetime savings of people, but also completely shattered the foundations of the trust built over the years.

In fact for our side of the world, this scam should not come as a surprise, as on earlier occasions too there had been regular cases of swindling of money orders and drafts from post offices. Other than these, people have reported cases of bribery and rampant corruption on withdrawal of deposits. But then none of those scams had taken proportions as monstrous as this one. What is most unfortunate is that the money lost is from the lowest income groups of the society! What is worse is the fact that these people are the most vulnerable as the legacy of trust is strongly entrenched in their mindsets, also coupled with the fact that they are not so well educated and the most potential reason of all – most of the deposits are handed over to private agents and that too in form of liquid cash. And that is the reason a closer look at the figures tells us the gory tale of how the poorest and the most over-populated states of West Bengal, UP, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh are hit the most.

All in all, when an institution like the post offices (which got established way back in 1764) and with a formidable presence of 1,50,000 branches across the country, (that includes a great many remote locations and contrast this institutional infrastructure with that of India’s largest bank network, that of State Bank of India’s 9,100 branches), breaches trust, then it is nothing less than losing trust in our sovereignty. And unfortunately trust once lost, cannot be rebuilt in a lifetime.


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