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Why I miss the postman

November 09, 2011 18:58 IST

Mahesh Vijapurkar laments the decline of Indian Post.

Fifty years ago, my granduncle would drop a post card into the neighbourhood post box in Chennai's Thyagarajanagar after his afternoon coffee. Next morning by 9 am it would announce to my grandmother in Egmore in the same city some 10 kms away that he was coming for lunch that day. Both of them had no telephones but communicated excellently using what was generally called 'the card'.

During the late 1960s, a dear classmate of mine had shifted to Bangalore to avoid wasting his time waiting for colleges to reopen if the Telangana agitation simmered down -- it did after about a year, to resurface periodically as it did now -- but kept in touch. He would mail an inland letter on a Monday reaching me in Secunderabad on Tuesday. The reply would be with him the next noon. It was, in those days, almost in real time.

But sadly, things have changed. The other day, a Diwali greeting card from the Speaker of Maharashtra legislature, posted at the Mantralaya post office in South Mumbai, cheek by jowl to the state secretariat – set up there to facilitate handling of government 'tapal' reached me in Thane on November 5, taking all of 19 days to arrive. This is not an exception. The feedback forms that Maruti mails, for instance, from Gurgaon, often arrives a month later. Some don't.

Multiple flight connections between cities, faster trains, speedier vans and even technology to sort letters seem to have failed to reach letter quickly to their destinations. And yet the post card gets lost or crawls. Delivering a letter within two days is apparently the lost art with the India Post. It is all very well to blame the email and the cell phone with its text messaging but there are more literate, more poor people who need that; the courier is beyond them.

So much so, the famed dakiya -- the postman -- in his khakhi uniform that included a cap, trudging from door to door, street after street, is almost a missing feature of many a place. All he brings is company documents, about shareholder meetings, annual reports, and the occasional greeting card. In my building with 80 apartments, he is seen perhaps once a week. Not that he is AWOL but because he does not enough to deliver.

His place has been taken by the private couriers who seem to be prompt, give you a proof of delivery though such PoD takes time in arriving. He replaced the postman because on a call, the courier boy also picks up the letters for me as he does for most others. He is as ubiquitous as the postman once was. The call on the intercom from the security downstairs is about the courier, seldom the postman.

This despite the best efforts of India Post to thwart the growth of the courier industry which said delivery of letters was its monopoly and the courier industry, growing faster than the India Post circumvented this by claiming they were not delivering letters but documents. This subterfuge worked and India Post has been languishing. It is under the assumption that advertising can replace the lure of efficiency and bring the custom back.

That is unlikely for several reasons. In an increasingly urbanising India, where cities are growing both by population and spread, new post offices are unheard of. The postman has to walk longer, climb higher and have lesser documents than he did perhaps a decade ago; it is just as if we have learnt to live without the India Post. Even post boxes appear so rare. When have you heard of a post box being installed anywhere? If it were, it would be breaking news!

Alright, because urban India is becoming increasingly dependent on courier services therefore rural India is better served? Unlikely because rural first generation migrants to Mumbai's metropolitan region tell me that they don't like to send money back home by money order because it reaches the addressee late, often by a month and more.

They suspect that instead of being delivered, the recipient post office personnel may be 'rotating' the money for benefit. They complain that sending it as insured parcel is expensive. They prefer the bank route -- deposit, send a text message and it is withdrawn in the next hour.

That this should have happened to India Post, established as 'Company Dawk' by East india Company, which saw the first post office open 1688 to carry its official letters which also saw the world's -- yes, world's -- first airmail flight in 1911, is sad. It has now been forced to look to non-postal business to stay afloat though like the Indian Railways, it had knit and held the country together. The postal system is not holding together.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator on public affairs

Mahesh Vijapurkar