Parliament passes Bill to replace 125-year-old Indian Post Office Act, 1898

Parliament on Monday passed a Bill that authorises post office employees to open or detain any item during transmission in the interest of national security or public safety.

It also prescribed immunity for post office employees from liability in providing services, but with conditions. These provisions are part of the Post Office Bill, 2023, and it “seeks to repeal the Indian Post Office Act, 1898, and to consolidate and amend the law relating to the Post Office in India.”

After Rajya Sabha passed the Bill on December 4, the Lok Sabha gave the nod on Monday. Now, once the President gives her assent, it will become law. There are more than 1.5 lakh post offices in India with around 1.30 lakh in rural areas.

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

Critics, including Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, raised alarm over the potential violation of fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to privacy the latter being accepted as a facet of the fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution in the Supreme Court’s landmark KS Puttaswamy judgment.

“Over the past decade we have often seen this government, in the guise of decolonising our minds and updating colonial era laws, bringing in legislation that is equally if not more arbitrary and unreasonable than the ones they seek to repeal. And, more often than not, encroaches on the fundamental rights of our citizens. Unfortunately, that is true even in this case. Even when it retains the draconian provisions of the colonial era law, it also eliminates the burden of accountability which a governmental enterprise like the India Post Constitutionally should shoulder,” said Tharoor during the debate on the Bill.

Powers to PO

“The Central Government may, by notification, empower any officer to cause any item in course of transmission by the post office to be intercepted, opened or detained in the interest of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, emergency, or public safety or upon the occurrence of any contravention of any of the provisions of this Act or any other law for the time being in force,” a provision said.

Further, 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 it is prohibited under the law. Those authorities will deal with such items in accordance with the provisions of law.

Other provisions

Another provision says the post office and its officers shall be exempt from any liability by reason of any loss, misdelivery, delay or damage in course of any service provided by it. “No officer of the post office shall incur any liability with regard to a service provided by the post office, unless the officer has acted fraudulently or wilfully caused loss, delay or misdelivery of service,” it said.

The Bill has a provision related with recovery of sums due in respect of services provided by the Post Office. “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,” it said.

The Bill makes it clear that the post office shall have the exclusive privilege of issuing postage stamps. Also, the Central government may prescribe standards for addressing on the items, address identifiers and usage of postcodes. Postcode means a series of digits, letters or digital code or a combination of digits, letters or digital code used to identify a geographic area or location and ease the process of sorting and delivery of items and for other purposes.

According to the statement of objects and reasons of the Bill, the Indian Post Office Act, 1898 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 that necessitated the repeal of the said Act and enactment of new law in its place.

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