Nepali Times
You’ve got mail, maybe


Nilima, a gender expert with an INGO, was to participate in an important workshop in Japan, but the invitation was delivered to her post box two weeks too late. An irate Nilima blames the inefficiency of the post office for her missed opportunity.

Binod's cheque from London was delivered to the wrong post box. Instead, he received a letter saying that if he wanted the cheque he should pay up Rs 10,000. He called the number given in the letter and said the cheque had been cancelled and if the unidentified recipient did not return the cheque he would report it to the police. The cancelled cheque landed in Binod's post box within a week.

Postal service officials agree that unpleasant incidents "might happen" but won't admit to inefficiency. "We have been providing invaluable service to the general public, but our services are never recognised. And our small mistakes are exaggerated and overstated," says Kishor Jung Karki, a senior postal official.

An expected response, but one that is not likely to convince the thousands of customers who never received their mail, valuable or otherwise, and who believe the postal service is full of crooks. One has only to go to the general post office GPO in Kathmandu to learn what the common person thinks. The longest line there is always for those waiting to get the stamps on their letters/parcels cancelled as it is widely believed that post office employees "re-cycle" stamps while your letter/parcel ends up in the waste bin.

Instances of un- and mis-delivered letters and packages are more frequent this time of the year around the world, due to sheer volume and, perhaps, higher expectations of service. Kathmandu's GPO just doesn't have the manpower and resources to deal with rushes like those during Christmas and New Year. To top it all, this year, a two-week postal services workers\' strike in India delayed the inevitable flood-India is a crucial hub in the surface mail and parcel route between Nepal and 27 countries.

Still, the postal service has something to be smug about. The express mail service (EMS), the courier service started by the GPO in 1997, is a success story that everyone at the post office likes to narrate. In the last fiscal year, EMS did business worth Rs 30 million, up 200 percent from its first year returns. EMS' popularity is attributed to its low tariffs and reliability. For example, if you plan to send a gift weighing 1 kg to a friend in the USA, you pay Rs1,350, while using DHL or a comparable service costs nearly Rs 5,000. The low tariff, however, does not imply lower standards of service. Going by the record of volume and delivery success, EMS is as good as any multinational courier operating in the country. In its four years of operation not one unsatisfied customer has claimed compensation from EMS.

But as international EMS is limited to 26 countries only, one still has to rely on commercial courier services to send packages and documents to most destinations in Europe, the Americas, Africa and West Asia. There are plans to broaden the EMS network and introduce tracking facilities. The post office has also applied to the Department of Customs to be allowed to begin a door-to-door service and a tender has already been called for the construction of a new building to run the EMS more efficiently. Presently, the EMS "service window" is a table under a staircase in the main building of the GPO.

Email is transforming the notion of letters anyway, and an unreliable postal delivery system is only likely to drive more people away from their local post office. The GPO feels the pressure, but feel assured of business for some time to come because of the "emotional closeness" of good old-fasioned letters. The optimism isn't totally unfounded: in its 135 years of existence, the GPO has never done more business than it's doing now. In the last fiscal year, it sold services worth Rs 98 million almost five times as much as its Rs 20 million budget.

Nepal's postal network includes one general post office, four regional post offices, 70 district post offices, 807 area post offices and 3,130 extra-departmental post offices, all of which provide mail services. Besides, the district and regional post offices, 444 area post offices and the GPO also provide financial services like money order service and postal savings bank service.

In 1993, postal services were deregulated to some extent, allowing private companies to provide service that overlapped with the GPO and in September that year, Everest Postal Care (EPC) set up operations in the capital. With 8000 subscribers in Kathmandu and Lalitpur, EPC has a healthy share of the post box market, and the company has plans to expand services to other towns "in the near future". But apart from meeting the demand for post boxes (an absolute necessity if one receives mail in Kathmandu), it hasn't really revolutionised the postal service. EPC still relies on the post box number provided by the General Post Office to collect mail. "I subscribed to an EPC post box because one has to wait too long for a GPO post box. Otherwise, why should I pay higher charges to a private company for the same standard of service?" says Nagendra Sharma, an EPC client.

But the real challenge for the postal service is making the distribution system efficient. "We cannot improve the distribution system unless city mapping is done properly, but otherwise we are well equipped and have enough human resources to work smoothly," says Postal Services Director Rajendra Prasad Sharma. Kathmandu and Lalitpur districts pose the greatest challenge to an efficient distribution system given their high density of population, unplanned residential constructions, and unnamed streets.

The postal service is now pinning its hopes on the European Union-funded Kathmandu Valley Mapping Project (KVMP), which it hopes will finally systematise street addresses and house numbers. The KVMP has already requested inputs from the Department of Roads and the DPS.

Finding addresses in the Valley isn't the only problem. The 12,000 postal service workers on contract with the extra-departmental post offices are the lowest in the postal service hierarchy here, and they receive virtually no incentives. They have no income other than their meagre salaries and their jobs hinge on the whims of officials at the district post offices.

"There's no initiative for postal services workers. They aren't provided training and the scope for promotions is limited. They aren't motivated to provide world class service," says Shree Dhar Gautam, Chief Post Master at the GPO.

In order to promote specialisation of knowledge among administrative employees, seven years ago the government divided administrative services into four groups-postal services, revenue, auditing and general administration. It also introduced a provision that limits lateral entry from one class of administrative services to another to only 10 percent. There are 10,500 wokers in the postal services, and general consensus among them is that they're being sidelined. Basic administrative training for new administrative employees has been cancelled for the postal services, but remains available for other branches of the administrative service. "The government provision has fuelled frustration among postal service employees, and nobody wants to enter this sector. With this kind of mindset, it will be difficult to compete with the private sector," says DPS director Sharma.

There is a growing demand for autonomy for the postal service. The general consensus among postal employees is that bureaucratic red tape is hampering efficiency and driving away business. An amendment to the Postal Service Act that provides greater freedom to the DPS has already been drafted. That is all very fine for the postal workers, but a real change will only be when the general public can tell friends and family to send whatever they want by mail and feel confident that it will reach them.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)