India Post plans to launch 1,000 ATMs in next six months, to bring all branches on single technology platform
Mumbai: India Post is going ahead with the rollout of a nationwide network of automated teller machines (ATMs) and bringing all its branches on a single technology platform, notwithstanding the reservations of the finance ministry and the Planning Commission over its proposal to venture into commercial banking.
The state-run postal service is among the 25 applicants that have sought a banking licence from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). A four-member panel, headed by former RBI governor Bimal Jalan, will scrutinize the applications to pave the way for the entry of a third set of private banks into India’s ₹ 81 trillion banking sector in two decades.
India Post will use Infosys Ltd’s Finacle software to cover all post offices under the so-called core banking solution (CBS) over the next 14-18 months. It also plans to launch 1,000 ATMs nationwide in the next six months in the first phase, according to a senior official at the postal department who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media.
The CBS process, which would allow India Post customers to access their accounts and perform transactions from any branch of the postal network, has already begun with the Greams Road Post Office in Chennai on a pilot basis. “The idea is to cover all offices as soon as possible," said the official.
As of 31 March, commercial banks in India had an ATM network of 114,014 machines, led by State Bank of India (SBI) with 27,175 ATMs, followed by Axis Bank Ltd (11,245), HDFC Bank Ltd (10,743), ICICI Bank Ltd (10,481) and Punjab National Bank (6,312).
The plan is to issue ATM cards to all savings deposit holders at India Post. As on 31 March, the department was managing ₹ 6.05 trillion of deposits, nearly half the deposit base of government-owned SBI, the country’s largest commercial bank, and double that of the largest private sector lender ICICI Bank. Of this, about ₹ 2 trillion is under the savings scheme in 280 million accounts.
Out of the total 155,000 post offices, 139,040 are in rural areas. About 6,000 people are covered on average by a post office in rural areas and about 24,000 in urban areas, according to a 2011 estimate by the postal department. Once the ATMs are in place, the post office savings bank account customers will be able to access their deposits through ATMs.
“Like every other aspirant for the banking licence, India Post is building up their capacity for banking services," said Abizer Diwanji, a partner and head of financial services at the consulting firm EY, formerly known as Ernst and Young.
“Building a unified nationwide network for financial services makes sense for the department to develop their financial service offerings, even if they do not get the banking licence," Diwanji said.
India Post’s plan to venture into commercial banking has been opposed by both the finance ministry and the Planning Commission, which have reservations about the postal service’s ability to take up the role of a bank. The proposal is yet to get funding clearances from the Expenditure Finance Committee. The finance ministry has been opposing the plan arguing that the postal service doesn’t have the expertise needed in relevant areas, such as handling credit.
The Expenditure Finance Committee’s approval is required for proposals involving spending of more than ₹ 300 crore and the setting up of new autonomous organizations, regardless of the amount. A new bank needs to have equity of at least ₹ 500 crore.
The Planning Commission, too, has reservations on the banking plan, though the panel hasn’t overtly and officially spelled out its stand.
According to people familiar with the development, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commissions, said in an internal note recently that arguments raised against India Post’s banking plan were strong and the proposal could be a bad idea.
An email sent to Ahluwalia on 3 December did not receive any response.
“There is a strong feeling in RBI that India Post doesn’t have the expertise to manage a bank," said a financial services expert with a consultancy firm, requesting anonymity.
“While technology and reach are positives for the postal department, their lack of experience in dealing with credit is a big negative," the expert said.
India Post is keen to set up a commercial bank under the name Post Bank of India, arguing that it can significantly boost financial inclusion in Asia’s third largest economy through its nationwide network of post offices. This will also enable India Post, which posted a loss of ₹ 6,346 crore in fiscal year 2012, to make up for business lost over the years to private couriers and email services.
Losses have significantly increased in recent years on account of higher expenses.
While India Post’s banking plan is nearly two-decades-old, the department stepped up efforts towards it in 2006, conducting internal viability studies and seeking the opinion of consultancy firms. The move gathered momentum when RBI unveiled its final licensing norms for new banks in February.
The postal department, which had appointed EY to advise it on the plan, wants to open 300-400 branches after starting the proposed bank, with each branch managing a specific number of postal outlets.
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