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The postal service is bad news

By Mahesh Vijapurkar
Last updated on: January 05, 2011 13:33 IST
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The postman used to be a joy to behold when he knocked on the door for he brought news. These days, the postman knocks on the door fewer times, and when he does, he brings the letter late, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

Union Home Minister P Chidambaram's letter to West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee caused a political flutter which in my view was entirely avoidable. It had very little to do with the content for such missives are invariable part of administering a country and a state. The problem arose because of the premature leak. And the leak preceded the receipt of the letter in Kolkata because the postal department was remiss in its duties. And every person who continues to use the postal services would have grievances about its efficiency.

Had the letter been delivered to Bhattacharjee on time, and not allowed to lie unattended to in the post office, the timing of the leak from Delhi would not have been an embarrassment. But in delayed deliveries, the postal department is a habitual offender and any number of instances could be cited. In this instance, despite being accused of grinding a personal axe, let me list a few to highlight the issue. Hope Gurudas Kamat, minister dealing with the department, reads this.

One: My credit card bill, due to be paid on January 5, but which requires the cheque to be dropped in the boxes kept near ATMs at least three days ahead, was posted in Chennai on December 24, 2010. It reached me in Thane on January 4 and I am liable to attract penalty at over 3 per cent per month for a default not due to my carelessness.

Two: A letter from Reader's Digest mailed from Noida on December 28, reached me on January 4. That it was junk mail is another matter; I, not the P&T ought to decide if it is important or not to merit quick or late delivery.

Three: My wife's two letters, mailed from Churchgate, involving the events for November at the Cricket Club of India where she is a member, landed up a full month late, taking as much time to travel the 54 km. The postage and the stationary went waste because the letter served no purpose. Another announcing the New Year's party plans, mailed on December 5, reached on -- yes, you guessed it right! -- on the New year's eve. No plans could be made and we spent it at home. Thank you, P&T.

Four: All letters from Maruti, the car maker, mailed from Gurgaon and seeking my feedback for the car serviced by their garage at Thane, invariably reaches me a full month after the letters are mailed.

Five: A friend in Bangalore needed to send me some notes which he copied and mailed as two separate items, from the same post office, to the same address. Both arrived, one three weeks late, and another six weeks later. He had little faith in the P&T but said that it would be a criminal expenditure to pay enormous sums to the private couriers and thought he found a way but alas, he failed.

Six: Telephone bills from MTNL are invariably received, if they are received at all, a day before the last day and one has to rush to pay to avoid a disconnection.

Let me hark back to the late 1960s. The world of communications was slower and the means were few. My school friend who joined a college in Bangalore would write a letter on a Monday, I would get it on Tuesday and write back the same day to be received by him on Wednesday. It was routine and it was not air mail; the letters were carried by train, sorted on train and delivered.

Let me hark back to the late 50s and early 60s. My grand uncle, living in Thyagarajanagar in Chennai would write a postcard to my grandmother in Egmore, announcing that he would come for lunch the next day. The letter would arrive around 9 am in time for her to prepare a nice lunch for him by noon. It was routine, so we were not amazed.

Then why is it that things are so bad now?

There are a few other things I have noticed. One cannot easily find a mailbox to drop a letter. The place I live in has a mailbox but which has a turban tied to its top because in monsoon, its top had begun to leak. One has to travel long distances to find a post office; it is no more the friendly neighbourhood facility. The travails of people who have taken up residences in new colonies that spring on the outskirts of a town, their plight is worse -- they need to make an effort to get to the post office which is long way off.

If the excuse is that the postal department is not expanding the facilities because the number of items it carries now are fewer than in the past, it is not because of the couriers. It is possible email has hit the postal service's volumes but let us remember that the Internet is yet to penetrate the country enough to make a real difference.

Of course, mobile phone and text messages have taken communications to another realm but there are thousands upon thousands who depend on the P&T even now. The sloth perhaps is the trigger that enabled the private sector to outwit a feeble giant which once was the most dependable arrangement to carry messages.

The postman used to be a joy to behold when he knocked on the door for he brought news. These days, the postman knocks on the door fewer times, and when he does, he brings the letter late.

In this background, the touching faith of the Union home ministry in another government department is understandable but misplaced. There was needless fracas because of a slip of the one on which the ministry depended. Perhaps henceforth, they would fax a letter after mailing it: works out cheaper than sending it by a courier.

No wonder a letter in an envelope with a stamp affixed, taken by a trudge to a red post box and dropped there is called a snail mail. Too bad but it is an appropriate description unless Gurudas Kamat shows some speed and infuses that into the postal department.

That, I think, is hoping against hope.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator on public affairs.

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