What is the history of Post Office regulations in India?

India saw opening of the first post office by East India Company in 1727 at Kolkata. However, it took more than 125 years for a proper regulation with then Governor General Lord Dalhousie appointing a Post office commission in 1850. Finally, the approved recommendations of Commission were framed as Post office Act XVII, 1854. Lord Dalhousie recognized the Indian Post Offices as separate organization of national importance.

The said Act was replaced by Post Office Act 1866, which was amended number of times. Later, considering the defects and omissions in the Act of 1866, a new Bill was introduced. It proposed to confer the protection and powers which have been found necessary in the extension and increase of postal business. It included within its scope postal insurance, the value payable in post, and the Post Office money order system, and declares and limits the government liability in respect of these matters. 

“The Bill is to a large extent an enabling bill reserving to Government the power of dealing by rule with numerous questions of postal practice and procedure affecting the public,” the Gazette Notification on the bill said. Post enactment, the bill became the Indian Post Office Act, 1898.

Now almost a gap after 125 years, a new bill, The Post Office Bill, 2023 was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in August this year. The upper house passed the bill on December 4 and now, the Lok Sabha has approved it. 

Why was the need felt to amend the post office regulations? 

Post office now is now not just an office to distribute letters. It has become a hub of various financial and other services. Now the postal network has more than 1.5 lakh post offices, with over 1.29 lakh in rural areas. A colonial era law is not relevant in today’s world where services have massively expanded. Also, since there is overlapping of various other laws, a new law was required. Keeping these in mind, the Post Office Bill, 2023 was introduced to repeal the Indian Post Office Act, 1898 and to consolidate and amend the law relating to the Post Offices in India.

The statement and object of the new Bill says the Indian Post Office Act was enacted in 1898 with a view to govern the functioning of the Post Office in India. This Act primarily addresses mail services provided through the Post Office.

Over the years, services available through the Post Office have diversified beyond mails and the Post Office network has become a vehicle for delivery of a variety of citizen-centric services which necessitated the repeal of the said Act and enactment of new law in its place. It aims to provide a simple legislative framework to facilitate evolution of the post office into a network for delivery of citizen-centric services, the statement said.. 

What are the main changes made by the Post Office Bill 2023? 

Key changes are:

(i) The Bill prescribes power to intercept, open or detain any item or deliver it to the customs authority. 

(ii) An officer of the Post Office will be empowered to deliver an item, received from domestic or international source, to customs or any concerned authority in case there is suspicion of duty evasion or if it is prohibited under the law. 

(iii) The Post Office and its officers shall be exempt from any liability by reason of any loss, mis-delivery, delay or damage in course of any service provided by it. 

(iv) Every person who avails a service provided by the Post Office shall be liable to pay the charges in respect of such service. If any person refuses or neglects to pay the charges, such amount shall be recoverable as if it were an arrear of land revenue due from him 

(v) The Post Office shall have the exclusive privilege of issuing postage stamps. 

What do these changes mean to common man? Are they good or bad? 

The amendment relating to interception of articles being transmitted through post offices could be a concern. According to PRS Legislative Research, the Bill does not specify procedural safeguards. This “may violate freedom of speech and expression, and right to privacy of individuals.”

Another issue is related with the grounds for interception include ‘emergency’, which may be beyond reasonable restrictions under the Constitution, PRS said. 

The Bill does not specify any offences and penalties. For instance, there are no consequences for unauthorised opening of postal articles by a postal officer. This may have adverse implications for the right to privacy of consumers, added PRS.