New Delhi: Minister of state for information technology, communication and posts Jyotiraditya Scindia was born in 1971 as the heir to the titular throne of the Scindias in Madhya Pradesh. Ironically, that was the year prime minister Indira Gandhi ended the practice of the privy purses, or grants, to the rulers of princely states.
After 37 years of living in his grandmother’s and father’s shadows, the young member of Parliament (MP) finds himself keenly aware that he is about to enter his first major political battleground. After the death of his father, Congress leader Madhavrao Scindia, in a plane crash, the younger Scindia easily won from his father’s constituency, Guna. Elevated to being the minister of state in a cabinet reshuffle in April, Scindia has zealously taken to reinventing the post office. He spoke to Mint about the makeover and plans at the polls. Edited excerpts:
What are the initiatives you have undertaken in the department of posts?
I assumed office on 6 April, realizing that I had less than a year, and within that period of time we wanted to effect and show change. So, along with Union telecom minister A. Raja, we thought of a number of initiatives we should look at. I firmly believe there is no department in government which conveys a sense of responsibility as the department of posts. It is not something that is rupee-driven, or volume-driven, it is something that is emotion-driven.
Clear-cut: Jyotiraditya Scindia says a terrorist has no religion and there can be no bigger crime than an individual taking another person’s life. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
You prefer posts to something much more in the news such as information technology?
I think its important to tackle something that can deliver the most change. The department of posts has 155,417 post offices spread across 600,000 villages, 550,000 employees and 350,000 grameen dak sevaks (village postmen). I believe that the department had the most potential to be realized. And so the phrase I coined on the day I took over was that the department of posts must be a window to the world. By that I mean not only a purveyor of mail, of human emotion, but of every service that a common man, you and I, would need on a daily basis. I believe that the post office should be a distribution network through which health and education services, financial services and other government schemes could be delivered most effectively.
You’ve started a programme called Project Arrow. What have you done in these past five months?
After detailed discussions, we decided to go back and look at our core delivery service, effectively implement that and look at add-on services after that. Like in any department, the front end is as important as the back end, and I wanted to bring in specialists that could advise us on both sides. So I brought in Piyush Pandey from Ogilvy and Mather to rejig and redo the branding on the front end and most importantly for the back end I brought in (consulting firm) McKinsey to advise us on business process re-engineering, redoing our service levels, and our key performance indicators. What we’ve got in place in Project Arrow, we started on a very small pilot, started sometime in late May and put a deadline of August 17, with 50 post offices. We looked at 50 post offices and created two work streams. We called the first “Look and Feel”, and looked at four silos within that: branding, infrastructure, technology and human resources. The other work stream was called “the core”, where we looked at four services that we deliver: savings bank, mail service, remittances, office service levels... I am really glad to say that we’ve brought about a degree of convergence in our department. We’ve got BSNL (Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd) providing broadband to all post offices on Project Arrow, and data from all 50 post offices on a daily basis is uploaded and presented to the department every single day at 5pm. So this is not a static process but a dynamic one, where we are measuring ourselves against our key performance indicators on a daily basis. For example, to demystify the process: How many letters were delivered, when did the mail go out, how many money orders were delivered, and if 90% was delivered, what happened to the balance 10%?
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You’re monitoring the service levels of these post offices. But as a user…
That is why we have identified key performance indicators. So if I go in with my passbook and I want to do a remittance, there is a time limit, which is 2 minutes 45 seconds, you need to have served that customer. We’ve put a timer in place in each of those computers.
But as a customer how will I be satisfied?
There is a charter in every post office on every service level. The key performance indicators that we are talking about is not in a cloud in the Internet, they are there on the board in every single post office. We’ve also got post office forums that we’ve set up across these 50, which meet once a month with customers to get feedback.
The other thing that I want to talk about is that it’s all very well to put up a blueprint, but the proof of the pudding lies in the execution. In order to execute successfully, it was important to me to ensure that we had the buy-in of every member of our team, not sitting in Delhi, not sitting in Bhopal or Jaipur, but right down to the grass-roots level of the grameen dak sevak. So I have met with every one of them to ensure their buy-in. My position is a temporary one. I may be here today, I may not be here 10 months down the road, but the most important thing is to ensure that the permanence of that change is brought about across the length and breadth of the country.
Why reinvent the post office? In an age of instant communication, wouldn’t we be better off if we improved Internet-related services?
How is that in conflict with each other? The post office is a medium that is never going to go away, but it has to evolve. It has to reinvent itself, it has to re-present itself. And that is what this exercise is about. It is about the infusion of technology, it is about taking our employees also up the value curve, a new way to serve, using new tools, using technology as an enabler.
Do you look at the post office as a totem, a symbol of convergence?
The post office to me, very simply put, is a medium to deliver all kinds of services to the common man. Every worker must be made to feel a member of the family. I have 350,000 family members in the grameen dak sevaks, and unless they feel energized, passionate, committed, dedicated, as much as the office is, you’re not going to see success.
A number of issues came up, which may seem mundane to you and me, a shoe allowance, an umbrella allowance, some of them didn’t even have a fan in their office. A big issue that came up was about the education of the children of the grameen dak sevaks. Because they’re extra-department employees, their children could not go to government schools. I raised the issue with (human resource development minister) Arjun Singhji. We have a new order in place in two months’ time, which is that the children of the grameen dak sevaks will get admission in Kendriya Vidyalayas. That is about 70,000 children.
A quick question on the shoe allowance. What did you do with that?
Today your dakiya, your mailman, delivers mail from house to house to house. It’s a simple concept which came up when I met about 8,000 grameen dak sevaks. “Sahab, hamein to joota-chappal ka allowance bhi nahin milta, hum ghar-ghar jaate hain” (Sir, we don’t even get a shoe allowance, we go from house to house). At least once a year, a shoe allowance is what we have mandated.
And an umbrella allowance as well?
My father had a great passion for the railwayman, because he, come hail, storm, sun or winter, was there at the signal point... That’s the same passion that I, as his son, carry for the grameen dak sevak. He is an employee of the government who performs his service, no matter the inclement weather.
I am sure your father would have been really proud of you, but can I ask if you, as his son, feel that you’re in his shadow all the time?
My father was my ideal, my mentor, even today. I get a lot of strength, a lot of commitment from the way he led his life, his morals, his values, his principles, and it is those that I have dedicated myself to.
Do you miss him?
Every single day. I had just finished business school (at Stanford, in the US) and had been out of the country for two years, and I was on a completely different track. I had just arrived back in India in August 2001 and (his death, in an air crash) happened in September.
How have you moved on these last years?
Life has changed a lot. I find a lot of happiness and pleasure in what I am doing, and unless you’re happy in what you’re doing, you won’t stay in it for very long. For me, my passion in life is not politics, it’s public service, it’s development. That’s what I go to bed with every night, and wake up with in the morning: What is it that I could do that I haven’t done? Is there something new that I should be doing? Whether that happens to be my department or my constituency.
So this humble little post office has become the symbol of something that you want to do for your country?
Not only that, it’s something that burns in me from my heart, not something that I work on in my mind.
Because I believe it has the ability to transform lives in rural India where 80% of our people live. This whole disconnect that we talk about, this whole digital divide that we talk about, it is not only broadband or the Internet that can solve problems, it can only be through mechanisms like the post office that we can bring about awareness… For example, there are a number of schemes that we are deploying through the postal department, like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), a very ambitious scheme, a scheme thanks to Rahul Gandhiji is now rolled out across the length and breadth of this countryside, something that Soniaji (Congress president Sonia Gandhi) had thought of. And for us one of the biggest challenges today is the issue of corruption. People toil for days and don’t get their remuneration because it’s been taken away by someone else, whether a government official or politician. We have signed an MoU (memorandum of understanding) with the government of Orissa for a pilot project in 10 districts. We have installed a software on your and my ubiquitous mobile phone, we’ve issued a smart card to every single NREGS employee in that district. His or her whole savings bank account will be on that smart card, so you don’t need a passbook any more, that smart card is your identity. She hands the smart card to the dakiya, the mobile has a tracking software beneath it, place it on smart card and your face and name and bank account appears on the screen.
Click here to watch video (Part 2)
This ensures that the money that is your due is credited to you. The dakiya goes back to the post office, and immediately the collector’s server, the NIC (National Informatics Centre) server and the ministry of rural development server are updated with the record. What is happening today is that you are distributing money in a village atmosphere, showing the muster roll actually being filled, but where is the veracity of that? Today, using technology as a tool, the veracity of that is ascertained.
Of course, the job of young people is to generate ideas, but in Parliament, so many of you young MPs hardly speak up. Why is that?
I think it’s not fair to pass judgement, many of us participate in many debates across the board. I have always spoken when I’ve felt passionate about something, whether it’s the budget speech in the government or in the Opposition. When we launched the NREGS, I was the lead speaker from my party’s behalf, or on the Indo-US nuclear deal debate I responded to (Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP leader L.K.) Advaniji… I prefer quality to quantity.
Are you worried that Rahul Gandhi doesn’t speak so you mustn’t?
Not at all. I think he created a landmark and an imprint for himself when he spoke during the Indo-US nuclear deal debate.
When he spoke about Kalavati…
It was a remarkable statement and I think in terms of his positioning as an Indian, not necessarily as a Congressman, or a BJP person or as a Left person, I think that’s the spirit what we need in this country. The spirit of coming together, of working as one, as opposed to dissenting on issues.
This spirit of being Indian, rather than being a member of a party, do you think this is something that binds many of you young MPs?
Across the board, I think it is. I think with Rahul Gandhiji’s lead, in terms of the perspective that he’s taking, a lot of us cutting across party lines speak quite openly in terms of issues that are close to our heart on which we have a fair degree of commonality.
So this young group of MPs is far more comfortable with each other, cutting across party lines, than the older generation?
I wouldn’t quite put it like that. In terms of the perspective Rahul has shown, in terms of the nation coming first, in our group of MPs cutting across party lines, there’s a great degree of commonality on many issues and we voice that openly.
On the assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, you’re seen to be a key Congress leader there, but a lot of infighting marks the party. Why is that?
I don’t think there’s a lot of infighting at all. I think we have to work together, and our goal has to be that we return to power in Madhya Pradesh. The current situation on the ground, in terms of the astonishingly dismal performance of the BJP government, I am confident that we will be back in power in December 2008.
Would you agree that the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party), which is growing in strength, could play the role of a spoiler and harm the Congress party’s vote?
I believe in politics, you must take every single opponent seriously. The cardinal mistake is if you take anyone lightly. Whether it’s the BJP or the BSP or anyone. That being said, at least in Madhya Pradesh, the time for negative politics is over. People want a change, want to see something different. People want proactive policies, what is it that we’re going to bring to the table. So along with the criticism of the last BJP government, we must present an agenda that we adhere to and the formulation of that agenda is taking place now. What we’re going to do in the first year, second year, etc.
One last question, on (terror attack suspect) Sadhvi Pragya (Singh Thakur), who belongs to Madhya Pradesh. On the issue of terrorism, the Congress party seems to be getting it from both Hindus and Muslims. What is the answer to that?
A terrorist has no religion. If you’re culpable, you’re guilty, you must be tried. There can be no bigger crime that an individual can commit (than) taking another person’s life.
So the government should go after both Hindu groups like the Bajrang Dal and Muslim groups like the Indian Mujahideen?
We should not link terrorism with religion. A terrorist is a criminal, he has no religion, he has no caste, he has no colour. Whoever is guilty, must be booked.
And if they have links with the Congress?
He or she must be booked. There cannot be a greater crime… There are two big crimes in the world today. One is corruption, the other is murder. There can be no excuse for either.