Seema Chishti: You have introduced changes in the Department of Post at a time when postal services seem passe. Please explain what you are trying to achieve.
What we have been doing at the Department of Posts is something embryonic,something revolutionary as opposed to evolutionary. It is something I hope will get institutionalised way after I leave the department.
This is a department which I knew very little about,a department which all of us unfortunately dont care too much about because it is on the periphery of our existence. But I believe it has a value proposition that can fundamentally impact the lives of the people across the length and breadth of this country.
Close to about 70 per cent of Indias population lives in rural areas — thats close to 700 million people,double the population of USA. The largest market from the consumer point of view is going to be rural India. Juxtapose that with the Department of Posts and Telegraph that has the spread of probably no other department of the Government of India. We have 1.55 lakh post offices of which close to 1.40 lakh are in rural areas. When I became minister,I wanted the Department of Posts to become the window to the world for the common man. If you look at the telecom sector,the emergence of broadband is becoming prevalent all across. Similarly,from the infrastructure standpoint I looked at the Department of Posts as a small shopping mall that could actually offer services across the length and breadth of this county.
We conceived Project Arrow in April 2008,about 15-20 days after my taking over. We looked at two areas mainly. We looked at getting our core right in terms of systems,processes of the postal department–sorting,mailing,etc. We also looked at mail delivery on time,savings bank remittances and office service levels in terms of customer services to ensure we present a modern face to the public of India. While doing that,it was very important to ensure we are all accountable. So we had to set in place performance indicators for all the parameters. This was not something that we could do on our own and therefore I roped in as a consultant McKinsey pro bono. For our branding exercise,I went to Piyush Pandey of O&M to help me rebrand the department–he is on board doing the whole rebranding of the department pro bono.
I think as a government department,it is important to recognise how we are changing the way we function within the government. We have set up a structure where along with me,the Secretary of Post and a dedicated programme office of 45 people have been concentrating on Project Arrow for the last 6-8 months.
How did we bring about the change? We looked at developing workshops,HR training across all levels. In a government,we often get completely delinked from the grassroots reality because we are sitting here working in Delhi or Mumbai or in the state capitals and there is not much interaction going on at the grassroots level. So whichever post offices we chose for Project Arrow,we made sure that people at the top are right down at the grassroots in terms of brining about a revolutionary change. We also developed automated tools for measuring performance and got external agencies to actually do an auditing of the results we are showing.
As for results,let me give an example. For phase one of Project Arrow,we took 50 post offices. Here,ordinary mail delivery that was at 97 per cent is up to 100 per cent today–that is mail delivered the same day. Registered mail has gone from 84 per cent up to 96 per cent,speed post from 89 per cent to 98 per cent,and money orders from 76 per cent to 96 per cent all in five months. We also have two reporting systems: I have a website that is updated every single day at 5 p.m. across all the post offices in this phase of Project Arrow where I get parameters for every single post office at 5 p.m. that day. It is a live website with access to all the people involved in this project and that data is uploaded from the post office itself on the ground. Similarly,there is a software,Meghdoot,which has all the data plugged in and we have a data extraction tool that pulls out the data from that software. So there is a collaboration between the two ways in which we counter-check the data.
As far as infrastructure look and feel goes,we put up information boards,changed the stationery,uniforms,gave postmen bags,etc,in addition to renovating and modernising the post office. I believe that if you want to bring about change,it has to be engendered bottom up and not top down. The last man on the last mile has to feel empowered,has to feel accountable and has to feel that the whole organisation is behind him. So the first person you take the mindset change to is your gramin dak sevak,your mailman at the village level. We did a number of things,small things like giving them an umbrella allowance once a year,a shoe allowance once a year,seeing to it that their children go to Kendriya Vidyalaya schools. Today for the first time,3.5 lakh gramin dak sevaks children can go to the Kendriya Vidyalayas from the next academic session,thanks to Shri Arjun Singh.
At every Project Arrow post office,you will see a couple of Internet kiosks. You can access anything on the Internet from that post office. From January 1,2009,to June 30,2009,we will work on 4,500 post offices and it is my fervent hope that over the next two years we would be able to change the look of the entire department.
Rishi Raj: You are trying to modernise post offices but do you still feel the need for a telegram operation when we have options such as speed post,mobile phones and PCOs?
One of the things I forgot to mention is that this is one ministry which has the ability to show convergence on a huge scale. The fact that we have telecom,IT and Department of Post under one ministry shows how you can bring about convergence. Every Project Arrow post office has a broadband connection,an Internet kiosk–this is the convergence of IT,telecom along with the Department of Post. While it important to have a profit outlook,a social obligation is important too. The telegram service is not a service that is growing tremendously but it is a service that is still used across the length and breadth of this country. Just last week I had an MP expressing great concern that there was an amalgamation of two telegram offices in his constituency. For him,that meant people would have go 3 kilometres to the next telegram office to send a telegram. So it is a service that is not as widely used with the emergence of alternative technologies but it is still used,especially in rural India.
Ambreen Khan: What is your benchmark for the model you have chosen?
There are a lot of benchmarks out there but I think there are two countries that have to make their own benchmarks–China and India,because the kind of markets that we have,the kind of pressures that we have,the kind of needs that we have to fulfill are very,very different. So this is a home-grown model. The first thing that I did when I became the minister was to visit a village outside Jabalpur. We had a sammelan with 8,000 gramin dak sevaks from half of Madhya Pradesh. For two full days,I spent 15 minutes on the podium and then had them speaking for nine or ten hours and a lot of the measures that we have taken today emanated from those two meetings.
Smita Aggarwal: Do you think social responsibility is the reason why the postal department incurred losses all these years and how does social responsibility play a role in the turnaround exercise?
Social responsibility is a given. But I personally think that even with that as an important factor,this is a department that can and will turn around and make profits. The important thing is to have other business avenues and effective partnerships in place that can give you further income. We have signed up with Western Union for international money orders. We are signing up with State Bank of India now for selling their financial products. There are many more business partnerships in the pipeline. So I think even with the social responsibility factor in place,this is a department that can turn revenue positive.
Rishi Raj: Your ministry was in a quite storm over spectrum prices and license allocation and whether that was done in a proper manner. We never heard form you. Will you comment now?
There are two issues involved. One is the issue of the licences and the issue of spectrum. This was done pretty much as per the standing policy at that time. The second issue was of some companies raising equity and in effect diluting their stake post receiving the spectrum to finance their rollout. Now we have put regulation in place that will disallow companies from selling their own equity. So dilution is alright to finance capex but not selling their own equity.
Anindita: Getting back to telecom,operators have been asking the government to reduce the levies which amount to about 30 per cent of the AGR. Are you planning to reduce levies at all?
I dont think so as of now. I think we are pretty clear in terms of the structure that we have in place. I dont think that the structure is going to change in the near future but we will see.
D.K. Singh: Your campaign in Madhya Pradesh before the assembly elections saw huge crowds but these did not translate into votes. Why?
There are a lot of issues we need to deliberate on internally. But it is important we learn from our mistakes. The first thing that we need to do is to pull all our strengths together. I dont have the advantage of years or the experience. I have been in politics for only seven years but I think we have to strengthen the organisation and the second thing is to be on the ground fighting for peoples nees on a consistent basis.
D.K. Singh: So what went wrong?
I think something obviously did go wrong. If I hold accountability as a major yardstick,the first finger that I need to point is to myself before anyone else. We did much better than last time. If you are asking me,was it up to my expectations,absolutely not. In some areas we were just plain unlucky. Some of the seats we lost by just 200,400,500 votes. But a victory is a victory,a defeat is a defeat whether it is by 200 or 400 votes. We need introspection,much more alignment with the masses and strengthening of the organisation. Somewhere along the way,we were not able to convince people of the agenda that we are putting forward both in terms of the failings of the BJP government and in terms of what we would like to do. I think it is important that we come up with a new prescription and that we actually work on that today and for the next five years.
D.K. Singh: Can we say that the Congress in Madhya Pradesh is top heavy or that it is living on past laurels?
I dont think so. I think we have a wealth of leadership and talent in Madhya Pradesh,people like Digvijay Singh and Arjun Singh. The thing is to be able to build a grassroots plan and deliver on that.
D.K. Singh: The Congress is talking about projecting a fresh face. Would the projection of a Chief Ministerial candidate in MP have helped in the elections?
We have two different models. One is the model of the BJP that is projecting a chief ministerial model. We have a Congress model. There are many states that we have won resoundingly in the last five or six years following the model that we have and there are any states that the BJP has won. I dont think one model is better than the other. I think both have their positives–we won in Rajasthan this time. The most important thing is identifying leadership at the grassroots level,making sure everyone works with unity with the combined objective of making sure that the party comes back in power. We must always ensure that our interests are secondary to the partys interest. That is the most important lesson that we need to learn.
Seema Chishti: You have an interesting political legacy. Your grandmother,your father had different kinds of politics. You aunts are active in politics. How do you handle it? Is there a big dinner table at home where you all meet up? What do you discuss?
I always try to see that we leave politics outside the door. It is difficult. It is not easy. My family had some bitter experiences in the past and I would like to ensure it doesnt happen again.
Seema Chishti: You were suddenly thrown into politics with the unfortunate death of your father. Before that,did you ever contemplate a career in politics? Were you ever torn between choosing your fathers and your grandmothers politics? Would you have considered the BJP as an option?
I actually lived two lives. In the first life,I was at Standford Business School and we were looking at setting up a team at what used to be in those days not that prevalent–outsourcing,more high-end outsourcing. We were looking to set up a network operating centre. We were far into that process when my father passed away and it became history. When I first campaigned for my father in 1984,I was all of 13 years old. A bond with the people and a desire to serve the people has been part of the DNA of this family and personally mine from a very,very young age and so it was not something completely radical or new or something very alien to me to enter active politics,although the timing certainly was. It was not something I had contemplated at the time but it happened but we dont chart our own destinies in this life.
On your second question,my family traditionally,historically has been a very,very secular family. It is a family that has been wedded to secular principles for hundreds of years and theres no way my father or I would be able to think of any involvement with any other party than the Congress.
Subhomoy Bhattacharjee: You said when you meet at family dinners you try to set aside political differences. Does that suggest the difference between the Congress and the BJP are only differences in perspective and nothing substantial?
We like to make sure that we keep our differences at bay and for that limited period of time,dont talk politics. But if you look at the economic agenda,there is a tremendous difference in the way the BJP charted their way during their tenure and the way that we have charted our path. Our path has been a twin path — one of economic growth for the whole country,and one of ensuring that our primary responsibility is to the social sector and uplifting the downtrodden. I cant say that–with the same degree of confidence–of the BJP. The other fundamental difference which I have elucidated is one of secularism.
Coomi Kapoor: You are one of the young politicians who have actually got a ministerial position. How much is that due to the political family background? And,is there space in the party for a young person?
At the end of the day,whatever advantage you may have had because you come from a particular family probably helps you the first time. The second time,it is your performance,your bond with the people,your links,your sense of or feeling of passion that results in either victory or defeat. There are innumerable examples of people from families who have not won and the greatest test for any individual is the election process.
Coomi Kapoor: Dont you feel the government or ministries must include people from professional backgrounds?
For me,the Department of Posts is akin to the passion that my father had for the railways. I always remember a phrase he used to use–that a man who holds the signal lantern at a railway crossing is there–come hail,come storm,come rain,come heat. Similarly,for me it is a gramin dak sevak. In politics,we need people who feel passion from within. But having said that,I think people from varied backgrounds always add a lot. More than being young,whats important is to be able to make a difference,of having the right passion. At the end of the day,if we look at the success stories of the world,it is more about people who have passion,commitment and dedication and it is less about those who can strategise and those can make sure that they are making the right moves. I think in many departments today in the government there committed,passionate people like that.
Suanshu Khurana: Is the swearing-in of Omar Abdullah as Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir a precursor to similar developments nationwide?
Omar Abdullahs elevation is a great sign for J&K and also for the next generation. I think he has tremendous qualities and that will hold him and the people of the region in good stead. It is about a generational shift and such general generational shifts come every 20-25 years. Lets not forget that this is not the first time this has happened in the country. It happened in 1984 when Rajiv Gandhi became the prime minister at the age of 40 and brought in a whole group of younger people with him.
Mariam: Your opening statement sounded like you were talking about the ministry as an enterprise. Do you see yourself as a politician or as an entrepreneur?
Those two things are not mutually exclusive. I think whats most important is that you see yourself as a public servant in whatever role you have–whether it is as an MP or as a minister–to be able to provide the maximum services to the people of your constituency or your region or your ministry as you possibly can and bring about innovative ways in terms of doing that.
As an MP,its important for me not only to think in terms of roads and electricity programmes and all that. There are many small programmes that are running in the constituency every year like the Lifeline Express. My father brought it in for the first time in 1985. It is a five-bogey train with two operating rooms,two conference rooms and a generator room and I take it to my constituency every year,to the Gwalior region. I take top doctors from Delhi and these top doctors prescribe medicines to the people. We run four camps over the period of a month–orthopaedic,ENT,eye and heart and we treat close to about 10,000 patients and operate on about close to 1,500 people–all completely free of cost. So to me,development is not about thousands of crores of rupees only. If you are able to affect the life of one single person,that is important and it gives me satisfaction.
D.K. Singh: What is the secret of success in politics? Secondly,theres a lot of talk about internal democracy in the Congress. For a young man with potential capability,like you possess,whats the optimum height you can reach?
Slowly you are seeing a change in the paradigm and developing is becoming a factor in terms of people making choices. You saw that in the Delhi elections and you saw that in many other states. Having said that,I think it is not the only factor. We as a people,we as Indians,we are politically extremely astute and therefore it is not the only factor that goes into political success. But it is an important factor,the most important factor for me. And that is my motivation is politics today. For me the developmental agenda is primary. It is what kept my father passionate about politics for 30 years and it is what gives me sleepless nights and wakes me up in the morning.
I have said this many,many times: all of us have ambitions and rightfully so. The reason my father is a role model to me is that he was able to carve a place for himself not in the minds but the hearts of the people he represented. That is my goal in life. If I am able to achieve that,there is nothing greater that I would like to achieve in life. And I mean that with utmost sincerity.
Shravan Sen: You said that a political dynasty does not matter much,But when we talk about the Young Turks in the Congress it turns to one Jyotiraditya Scindia or one Rahul Gandhi. Dont you think it is time to project more young people at every level especially since the urban voters are looking for more youth?
Youd be amazed that the percentage of younger people getting elected is quite high. In Maharashtra,I personally met 3-4 very young candidates and they are all sitting MLAs today. I think you are seeing that demographics change. For me,it is not a question of sheer numbers. As long as the rate of change is on an upward sloping graph,as long as more and more young people are joining the political mainstream,that is a very reassuring sign.
D.K. Singh: What do you think about Rahul Gandhi as prime ministerial candidate?
I think the vision that he has is a tremendous vision. His dedication,commitment and most importantly,his resoluteness of purpose and his execution capability is very much that this country needs. How many political leaders does a country have who actually can talk straight from the heart,how many political leaders does a country who that can actually go from village to village and actually spend nights in poor peoples houses? The very fact that he is doing it on his own and the fact that he actually feels from his heart is something that I personally get very inspired by.
Suman K Jha: Lot of people feel that Jyotiraditya Scindia is prime ministerial material.
When you talk about innovative practices or you want to strengthen the organisation it is got to be done by unconventional methods. The very fact that Rahul Gandhi ji came up with the idea of a talent hunt brought people into the mainstream,completely circumventing the middle-rung leaders. Its something that is extremely innovative and I think it is very difficult to gauge the result over a six-month or a four-month period. I think you need to give it time. I believe that it will bring about change within the Congress Party. Based on Rahul jis initiative and direction,we are not only talking about internal democracy but actually executing it. I am part of the group on future challenges which put together this paper on how evolve an electoral process right down to the block and polling booth level in the Congress Party which will throw up leaders for the next generation.
Smita Aggarwal: When the two largest coalitions fighting these upcoming elections are led by leaders who are over 75,does it mean that being young in Indian politics is a disadvantage?
You know,there is something to be said for experience. There is something to be said for grey hair. My father spent 30 years in politics from 1971 to 2001. This is not something that you acquire from a snap of your fingers. I,at least,value experience. It is important in life to make mistakes at a lower level before you go and make mistakes at a much higher level which will have a much more detrimental impact across greater constituencies. I dont mean it in a parliamentary constituency but I mean it in terms of people. I think it is very important to be actually mentored through the process. So it is important to have a good mix of youth and experience both because youth have energy,the youth have a utopian view of the world,youth have an ability to be able to take calculated and uncalculated risks and sometimes you need to take uncalculated risks. As long as you a good mix of experience and youth,I think it is a good sign.
Transcribed by Chinki Sinha