The postman is Bharat Sarkar’s sole representative in the Indian village… One doesn’t have to necessarily go stand on the border to serve one’s nation. Doing your work properly, with blind devotion, is your contribution to the country.”
In a packed community hall on a humid Saturday afternoon in Mirzapur, Post Master General M U Abdali emphasises the importance of their jobs to over 300 Gramin Dak Sevaks, gathered from all 20 blocks of Mirzapur and Sonbhadra districts. The first such “mega mela” in over 20 years in east Uttar Pradesh, it has been called to, among other things, “boost the morale” of the dak sevaks.
Abdali is pleased at the turnout, amidst an ongoing strike by postal staff in the state for higher wages.
With over six lakh staff, India Post is the second largest employer in the country after the Indian Railways, with its network largest in Uttar Pradesh. Over 90 per cent of the postal operations are now dedicated to villages. But wherever a mail is headed, the mammoth system hinges on a single employee — the postman. A letter travelling hundreds of miles completes the last leg of its journey in the postman’s bag, to be delivered to the addressee.
In July, this chain of delivery came undone when a postman in Mumbai’s Kurla was found to have deliberately stopped delivering mail for two years, reportedly because he could not cope with the workload. S T Ballal had been delivering letters for 27 years, and was six years away from retirement. The area he covered in the densely populated city should have 43 postmen on paper; it only has 22. The undelivered mail by Ballal, now suspended, ran up to nearly 14,000.
In the 180-year-old history of the Indian postal system, there have been such instances before, says Abdali — of postmen “slowing down”.
Satya Narayan hasn’t heard of noted Bengali poet Sukanta Bhattacharya’s Runner. Describing a postman, Bhattacharya talks of a solitary runner covering miles of village paths carrying letters of joy, love, passion, memories and sorrow. About the postman, the poet adds, “No one will ever read out a letter of his sorrow/Only the grass dotting his path is privy to his sadness.”
Narayan hasn’t heard of Ballal either, but he can understand. What the Mumbai postman did was an aberration, he says, but it is true that people only have complaints against postmen, and that no one hears theirs.
A weather-beaten man with deep-set eyes behind his spectacles, the 56-year-old looks on blankly at the Mirzapur community hall as block postmasters go up to receive citations from Abdali for having opened the most number of bank accounts (8.1 lakh in all, in Mirzapur and Sonbhadra).
Narayan is as unfazed when Abdali describes a postman as “the great man of the village”, to thunderous applause, and acknowledges women as “more efficient and persuasive postmen”.
As the congregation breaks for lunch, Narayan opens up a little. “I come from Anpara. It is a land of hills and jungles in Sonbhadra district, with streams and ravines. I walk hours and cross a stream to deliver mail,” he says.
Narayan is a contractual Gramin Dak Sevak, like 50 per cent of the India Post work force. Designated as ‘extra-departmental’ staff, most of them earn around Rs 8,000 a month. As per a ‘Time-Related Continuity Allowance’ system, they work for three to five hours a day, and are paid accordingly. They are entitled to Sundays off and a month’s leave in a year.
After 30 years on the job, Narayan earns Rs 12,000 a month. The permanent ones, who earn around Rs 30,000, also get travel allowance and subsidised hotel stay. Around 18 per cent of the permanent workforce is women, as per India Post’s Annual Report 2016-17.
The job requires a minimum qualification of Class 10, and selection depends on marks.
The Anpara region, Abdali says, is the most inaccessible postal pocket in Sonbhadra. Junior staff in Mirzapur call it among the toughest in Uttar Pradesh.
Assistant Post Master (Accounts), Mirzapur, S K Singh says, “The situation is much better now… there has been development. Earlier, there were no roads or transport. Postmen had to wear ghungroos (anklets) to scare off wild animals as they walked through forests.”
“Only we know how we deliver letters,” Dayaram, the postmaster of the Kandhaura branch post-office where Narayan works, who has also come for the Mirzapur meeting, says. “When you come to our part of the country, you will see. It is a long, long journey.”
***Narayan covers an area of 35 sq km, collecting mail from the Radhore branch post-office of Sonbhadra, and delivering it to 19 villages under it. Sonbhadra, the southern-most district of UP, is the only one in the country that shares its border with four states — Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.
At Kandhaura, a settlement of roughly 900 households on the UP-MP border, Dayaram’s four-room house doubles as the branch post-office. Most branch postmasters, like Dayaram, work out of their homes. In this sparsely populated village of kuchcha huts, his is one of the rare brick houses.
In a room marked ‘Karyalay (office)’, Dayaram sits at his “workstation” — an eight-year-old second-hand personal computer his son bought from a friend. For over 15 km around, including villages in MP, “Dayaram, the daakiya”, is a known name.
The trip to Mirzapur and back took him and Satya Narayan three days, and Rs 100 each. They travelled part of the journey back ticketless on a train. “We can spend only so much,” says Narayan.
Reaching Mirchadhuri at 2 am on their way back, Dayaram and Narayan stopped over at the Radhore branch post-office to pick up the mail for Kandhaura. This is because the two also do the job of a ‘runner’, in the absence of one at the Kandhaura branch for the past seven years.
The runner, a legacy of Sher Shah Suri’s intelligence gathering network, who would carry mail and official secrets for the royal household and army, was absorbed by the ‘Dawk’ postal carriage system set up by the British pre-Independence. The runners would deliver mail across miles, and literally run as they were paid as per the distance covered and the weight of mail they carried.
In the under-staffed India Post, that job is now mostly performed by dak sevaks. A cluster of villages comes under a branch office, a group of branch post-offices under the town sub-post-office, overseen by the district head office, and finally, there is the regional grand post-office. Radhore and Kandhaura are attached to the Anpara sub-post-office.
While postal authorities say a postman can rope in his family to help him deliver mail and that the department pays for this, staff say the process is not as smooth.
Shyam Lal, 53, a ‘packer’ at the Anpara sub-office, says he was made permanent only last year because of the high number of vacancies. Before that, he had been working as a contractual packer, sorting and packing mail into bundles, for 35 years. His pay has gone up from Rs 10,400 to Rs 21,000. His son Shiv Kumar works as a mail packer for Rs 200 a day.
Says Ravi Kant Yadav, the block postmaster of Dhuma, a hilly and remote region of Sonbhadra, “I am the branch postmaster, the postman and the runner in my village. And I am only paid one man’s salary.”
Bholanath, the block postmaster of Radhore, is among the luckier ones. He has a 64-year-old runner, Gene Lal, who is six months from retirement. Every day, Lal rides his rickety bicycle to get mail from the Anpara sub-office to Bholanath’s house, which serves as the Radhore branch post-office. In an official arrangement, Lal also gets along with him the Kandhaura branch mail. So every morning, either Dayaram or Narayan go to Radhore, 20 km away, usually on Dayaram’s motorcycle, and fetch Kandhaura’s mail.
Apart from filling in for a runner, Narayan and Dayaram also have to make do without a second postman. The number of staff at a village post-office is decided as per the average volume of mail it gets in a day and the distance covered to deliver mail.
Abdali says the runner system is being done away with, and that the post of second postman has also been scrapped as village post-offices get very little mail. About runners, he points out, “Now there are mail vans and vehicles and most roads are motorable.”
In contrast, cities see a larger volume of mail, but postmen have to cover shorter distances. Calling the urban beat “smaller and compact”, Abdali says, “A rural postman inversely has a much smaller volume of mail but greater distances to cover. So the workload for the two remains almost the same, only the nature of work pressure differs.”
Kandhaura post-office gets up to 25 mails a day.
***Abdali, a sharply dressed man, occupies a spacious office at the General Post Office. He was transferred to Allahabad from Delhi earlier this year, and is the ‘chief executive officer’ in charge of 16 districts of east UP.
Abdali is optimistic about the future of India Post. “I have been in the department 20 years. Even when I joined, I was told the postal system is crumbling and will die. But nothing has happened and nothing will. And I can say I have another 40 years,” he laughs.
However, with the advent of private courier services and the gradual death of personal correspondence as mobile phones and Internet take over, losses have been steady, roughly pegged at over Rs 6,000 crore per annum, according to the India Post Annual Report 2016-2017.
On its website, India Post states its chief long-term strategy — “financial self-sufficiency by generating surpluses from services (existing and new) outside universal service obligation”. The Indian postal system is no longer a mere disburser of mails, Abdali says. “Where one large body of work has died for the Postal Department, other new ones have come up, like commercial mail, admit cards and exam results, and even couriers from e-shopping sites.” The volume of parcels and packet mails stood at almost 99 crore in 2015-2016, five crore more than the previous year.
A local post-office also collects the retail and wholesale prices of rations from villages for calculation of national indices; disburses MGNREGA wages; relays weather reports to farmers; as well as serves as the chief banker to rural India.
Abdali also insists that, with technology, the functioning of post-offices and postmen has improved. “Postmen no longer have to take a boat to deliver letters. Routes are designated to avoid crossing rivers and to ensure this is done via a bridge, for instance. Postmen use cycles and motorcycles.”
Few share his enthusiasm, or agree with him. Rajeev Dwivedi, secretary of the Bharatiya Dak Karmachari Sangh, says for the past few months, postmen have been agitating for salaries commensurate with the 7th Pay Commission, which incidentally doesn’t cover dak sevaks. “Why this stepfatherly attitude?” asks Dwivedi. “The exploitation of postmen during the British Raj continues.”
The dak sevaks’ main grievance is against the Time Related Continuity Allowance system, which gets them a minimum of Rs 5,400 for three hours to a maximum of Rs 11,000 for around five hours. “Safai karmi se bhi bekaar hain hum. Samajhiye, kuchch nahin (We are worse off than sanitation workers. Almost nothing),” says Sudhakar Mishra, a dak sevak.
There is, however, no penalty for failure to deliver mail, according to provisions of the Indian Post Office Act, 1898.
***Four hours after he returned from Mirzapur, around 3 am on a Sunday, Dayaram is back at work, after a short nap, and a cup of tea and biscuits. Though today is an off day, he wants to make up for the loss of a working day while they were at Mirzapur. He opens the white felt mail bag he and Satya Narayan got from Radhore, and is relieved to find just one dispatch inside. It’s an Allahabad Bank letter for ‘Narendra Prasad’, a resident of Kandhaura.
Posted four days ago, the letter has travelled 350 km, from the General Post Office in Allahabad, via an India Post mail van, to the Mirzapur Head Office, and finally Anpara.
Scribbling into his register, in his dimly lit Karyalay, Dayaram says, “We have to enter all the logs into the computer system now — when we received the mail, when we delivered it, or if we had to return it to the sub-post office as we couldn’t locate the addressee… Computers have come recently, but the distances and difficulties remain the same for us.”
There is another problem. Despite the thermal plants at Sonbhadra, power supply remains erratic. Kandhaura usually gets electricity from only 10 am to 4 pm. “And the computer does not start because the voltage is so low. I had bought it to learn, but I regret wasting my money. It’s of no use. I continue to maintain my records in a register,” Dayaram says.
Meanwhile, the Postal Department has been talking of a Rs 4,500-crore upgradation of the Indian postal system. Abdali calls it “the biggest IT scheme of the country”.
Around 7.30 am, carrying Narayan Prasad’s letter and a plastic bag with his register (for recipients of mail to sign in), pen, an ink pad, and a black umbrella, Satya Narayan sets off on foot. He has a rough idea where Prasad’s home is.
A member of the Panikar Scheduled Tribe, Narayan admits the changes over the years have not been all bad. He marvels at mobile phones, for instance. “One ring to anywhere and we are connected. No one needs to write letters now. So the load of the mail to deliver has fallen,” he says.
Dayaram estimates that mobile phone use in the Kandhaura gram panchayat, with a population of roughly 5,000 people, has gone up by around 70 per cent in the past one year alone.
However, signals remain weak. Narayan dials Bholanath’s number on his basic Nokia phone to demonstrate. There is only one signal bar.
Now, apart from mails, Narayan says, he often delivers packets of fertilisers and seeds ordered online by villagers, bringing them down from Radhore himself.
He confesses that it is earnings from his ancestral land and not his salary that largely sustain his family of seven, who live in a hut 1 km from Dayaram’s home. Two of his daughters and a son are married, while he is planning to marry off the other two sons. None of his children finished schooling. The land was left to Narayan by his grandfather, a former mukhiya of Kandhaura. It was Narayan’s father-in-law, the postman of a neighbouring village, who got him the postal job back in 1987.
Eighty-five minutes of walk later, through a jungle area and narrow tracks across fields, Narayan stops at a pair of huts, and calls out, “Narendra Prasad!” A wiry adolescent steps out, takes a look at the letter and shakes his head. He tells Narayan that Prasad’s house lies “on the other side” of the Bijul stream.
Narayan resumes his walk, balancing his mail and umbrella as he negotiates the slippery rocks and slushy grass on way to the stream. Villagers waiting to cross over exchange greetings with him.
As a mother and child get off, Narayan gingerly climbs onto a makeshift raft of four rubber tubes held together with bamboo strips. In a more reflective mood now, he recalls how he and his father-in-law used to be the chief harbinger of news from the city for Kandhaura once, and his father-in-law would write and read letters for illiterate villagers. “The postman used to be the only literate man, a man of the world, widely travelled,” he says. It is this “social standing” he misses, Narayan adds.
Sita Ram Gupta, who operates the raft, butts in to say he is crucial to the delivery of letters too, to villages deep in the Vindhyas.
Handing Gupta Rs 2 as they reach the other side of Bijul 5 minutes later, Narayan says, “When the rains set in, this stream rages, and the water goes high up. It’s then impossible to cross over. We don’t deliver letters for days, there is no bridge.”
After 20 minutes of walking, Narayan reaches the right house. Narendra Prasad is not at home, but his wife Gita receives the letter with a smile, marking her thumb on the register Narayan holds out. It is a letter from Allahabad Bank welcoming Prasad to bank with them.
Gita asks Narayan how fast Bijul’s current was, and about the prices of rations at his village. After a few minutes of chatter, Narayan sets out for the journey home.
On the way, several people greet him. Surendra Kumar, who is around 20, quips that mail reaches everybody in Kandhaura on time. “There has never been a problem.” But that in villages further down, where houses are 1-5 km apart, a delay of three days is common.
“Kaam teen ka karna hai, vetan ek ka milna hai. Aap ‘nahi’ nahin keh saktein hai. ‘Nahin’ kahenge to aapko jaana padega (You do the work of three persons, and get paid the wages of one. You cannot say no, if you say no, you will be asked to go),” Narayan complains, taking a 10-minute rest and splashing water on his face before getting onto the raft again.
Addressing postmen at the Mirzapur meeting, Abdali likened their 40-year average service to that of Kashmiri walnut cultivators. “A walnut tree takes 40 years to bear the first fruit. Like that, you must sow the seeds, the fruits of which you might not be able to enjoy, but your progeny surely will.”
Narayan wonders. Walking up a slope under the noon sun, on the other side of the bank, he says he has never done anything besides farming and delivering letters. Earlier, he says, he never thought about changing jobs. Now, he adds, “Who will give me one? I am fine with this, with what I do.”
At home awaits an evening lunch.