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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Reinventing the Snail Mail

Any ‘ode to the postman’ may not resonate with the Gen X populace that proudly flaunts the latest in mobile and digital technology in urban areas, but the lyrics would surely tug at the heartstrings of those who still swear by the old-fashioned bearer of good and bad tidings. Unfortunately, the Indian Postal Service has been slipping rapidly for quite some time now, both in terms of performance and revenue. Does it have what it takes to pull itself out of the rut? Granted it has perhaps the biggest infrastructure footprint across India. With 1,55,015 post offices, the Department of Posts (DoP) has the most widely distributed postal network in the world, according to its website. Chennai city region alone, with an area of 25,548 sq km and population of a little more than two crore, has 2,340 post offices: 1,799 in rural and 543 in urban area. Of these, 18 are head post offices, 648 sub post offices, 19 ED (extra-departmental) sub post offices and 1,655 ED branch post offices.
Add to that the number of personnel manning them. “Within the city, including Tambaram, we have 1,394 postmen and 160 Gramin Dak Sevaks (GDS),” informs Mervin Alexander, Post-master General, Chennai city region. “Besides, for Speed Post service, there are 234 postmen and 62 GDS. The numbers have not been reduced at all,” he says.
Despite the humungous network and manpower, there is no denying that the quality of services has dipped, say social workers like C Gopalan (67), who runs a socio-cultural organisation called Aravind Bharathi. He blames it on the “corporatisation” of the postal services. A resident of suburban Mudichur, he says he has been writing letters for the last 45 years and still relies on the postal system for delivery to intended destinations like educational institutions, newspapers and devotees. Hence, any inordinate delay in delivery rankles. “India is a federation of villages, not a cluster of cities,” he points out. “People like me still rely on the postal system and, therefore, it should be made effective. But what was conceived as a service department is now gradually catering to corporates,” he rues.
With personal mail traffic plummeting rapidly, it is a criticism the post-master general readily acknowledges. “Over the years, personal mail traffic has become few and far between,” Alexander said.
“The mails are now mainly in the nature of business to individuals.” Now, the bulk of traffic – mostly one-way – comprise letters sent by finance companies, telephone department, public and private sector banks, insurance companies and credit card companies to their customers. Add to that, lawyers and bank recovery tribunals, who use the service to fulfill statutory requirements and maintain written records. However, the DoP still performs two vital monetary functions: disbursal of money orders and old age pension. According to the All-India Federation of Pensioners Association, the pension of retired government personnel is remitted directly to their bank accounts or through the post office. “Pensions go to the postal director’s office, where they are recorded, and then sent to the respective post offices. Retired employees collect their pension from there,” says V Krishnamurthy, association secretary (railways).
Writing personal letters and sending them by snail mail is an art that is slowly but surely heading towards its grave. For, cheap mobile phone calls, texting and social media have occupied that space for good. Take the case of A Sathyanarayanan (48), finance professional and resident of Triplicane, who vigorously pursued writing ‘letters to the editor’ as a student to experience the joy of seeing his name appearing on print. “I used to go to newspaper offices and personally hand over inland letters,” he said. That was then. It is nearly 10-15 years since he picked up the pen to write a letter. Also, newspapers provide email address now, he points out. 
So, the postal department turned its focus to revenue earners like Speed Post and parcel services. According to Alexander, revenue earned through Speed Post has gone up by 25 per cent this year compared to last year. Since December 2, the DoP has introduced two new parcel services – Express and Business – in Chennai and the revenue earned in the first few days touched `40 lakh, he informs.
The surge in parcel services and decline in personal mail traffic is a global phenomenon and not confined to India alone, he adds.  Ask him about complaints relating to delay in delivery of mail and he blames it on several factors. Wrong delivery address tops the list. “In 10 per cent of the cases, the delay is due to wrong postal address, wrong pin code,” Alexander rues.
The delays have been mainly reported in suburban areas, which are expanding rapidly. With frequent migration of population, it has become difficult for postmen to locate the addresses. More importantly, postmen assigned to the outskirts keep looking for the first opportunity to come to the city, as they do not get house rent allowance in the suburbs. Therefore they lack familiarity with their ‘beat’ as compared to their entrenched counterparts in the city.
Moreover, the workforce mainly comprises contract employees. Engaged to work only for five hours, these employees are free to pursue other jobs and play truant. Also, except for a few IT companies, many of them do not allow postmen inside their premises or accept mail of their employees. “We have taken up the issue with them,” the DoP officer says. Alexander also blames the malaise on the falling morale of postmen. “Earlier, they were well-respected and there was social control. Now, the city is not postman friendly. Go to a place like Sowcarpet; it is difficult to move around,” he says.
In a competitive environment where private courier companies are mushrooming across the city, postmen already are on tenterhooks. The fittest alone can survive.

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