Tucked away in a corner of the Sansad Marg Head Post Office in Delhi, a well-lit, unpretentious room serves as a walk-in retail point for the Ganga in a bottle. On a small glass shelf stand two plastic bottles of Gangajal — about all that the Department of Posts has to show for its latest initiative. The room does not breathe the existence of the divine, it only delicately advertises its presence.
Rajkumari, the woman at the counter, reassures customers they have arrived at the right place. “Till Saturday, we only had Gangajal sourced from Rishikesh, now bottles from Gangotri are also available,” she says. This post shop opened on July 11 with 30 bottles; by the end of the launch week, Rajkumari had recorded the sale of more than 20 in her hardbound notebook.
In Delhi, the bottles are being retailed at 12 post offices including this one, says senior postmaster Roop Chand. Epost orders (placed online) are despatched from the Sansad Marg post office, he said. Around 300 orders have been received online so far. Countrywide, the numbers are huge — over 33,000 bottles have already been sent out from nearly 850 HPOs and 56 post-shops, an average of around 36 bottles per outlet.
What makes the scheme unique is that it is the “first end-to-end product operation being handled by India Post”.
At India Post’s Dak Bhavan headquarters, a senior Indian Postal Service officer handling the scheme said, “We sell lots of third-party items, but we don’t get involved in the end-to-end processing of anything… This is the first product where we are involved in end-to-end product operation.” From bottling to transportation to sale, nothing is being outsourced, he said.
Dak Bhavan sources said India Post had been told to “focus on delivery” and “keep costs low”. And if customer perception is anything to go by, those boxes have been checked.
West Delhi housewife Urmila Maggon said she got her bottle of Gangajal in less than 48 hours. “I was delighted when the postman rang. I have ordered (Gangajal) from other online retailers earlier, and it usually takes about a week. It’s as though the product is not priority for them.”
At the retail counter, retired government servant Gopal Mishra scrutinised the plastic bottle, shaking it vigorously and watched the sediments swirl around. The water remained cloudy even after the sediments settled, but Mishra turned sunny as soon as he heard the 200 ml bottle costs only Rs 15. A 500 ml bottle is for Rs 35.
“Sarkar achchha kaam kar rahi hai. Hamare mein chalta paani saaf mana jata hai,” he declared.
Nothing on the bottle claims it is from a flowing source, however. All that the label says is Gangajal in Hindi and English, and where it comes from — Rishikesh in this case. There is an India Post logo, but no information on gross weight, date of packing or price. The Epost receipt says “zero” in the price column, but puts packaging and handling charges at Rs 151 for a 500 ml bottle and Rs 101 for a 200 ml bottle.
“We are not selling Ganga water… we are only distributing it. You cannot sell Ganga water. We only recover our packaging cost and the cost of despatch,” another HPO official said.
But while everyone associated with the initiative says it is not meant to generate revenues, the scheme has put India Post squarely in competition with established players selling bottled Gangajal, such as Delhi-based Gomukh Ganga Pvt Ltd and Faridabad’s Uttarkashi Mineral Corporation.
A K Aggarwal, director of Gomukh Ganga, a company that has been in this business for the last 25 years with the aim of reaching “ghar-ghar Gangajal”, said he was not worried.
“There has been no impact (on our business) in the first week. Any customer will compare the products and settle for quality. We remove impurities from Gangotri water without chemical treatment and without human touch. What you get is sparkling, drinkable Ganga water. The government is supplying it without proper treatment. It’s being bottled directly. Besides, if you go to a puja shop to buy saamagri, you will not make a special trip to the post office for Gangajal.”
He does mention India Post’s huge price advantage, though. “Our wholesale rate is Rs 30 per litre. But the retailer margins are high. The retailer will have to cut down on his margins,” he said.
At Dak Bhavan, the senior officer countered Aggarwal: “You may be filtered, you may be better packaged, but the fact is a person walks into a post office and says, ‘Well, this is from the post office, collected at source and just for Rs 15, and yes, I will pick it up’.”
Asked if filtering the water was considered, he said: “We bottle the water ‘as is where is’. Basic hygiene SOPs are followed, but we can’t get into the intricacies of a filtration plant. That’s not our core competence.”
Criticism has also come from the Gangotri temple. Mukesh Semwal, chairman of the Gangotri Temple Committee, complained that “selling” Gangajal at post offices was “hurting religious sentiments”. His argument, essentially: go to the Ganga, don’t transport the holy river home. “No one should do business in the name of Gangaji.”
For now, the Department of Posts has decided to give the scheme a run-time of 5-6 months, before reviewing the outcome and making changes, if required. “Unless you run a pilot for 5-6 months, you don’t know the volumes that are coming up. Right now, it’s a learning curve. We want to test the market. But it’s a product that should last our lifetimes,” the officer said.