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Pandemic claims colonial vestige: Railways to end dak messenger system

The Railway Board has urged officials to stop the use of these messengers, a practice dating back to the colonial era, and instead use video conferencing for any communication.

Written by Iram Siddique | Mumbai | Updated: July 27, 2020 10:41:41 am
With train operations suspended, the Railways saw its revenue slide by nearly 58 per cent in May. (File)

The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a fatal blow to the age-old Indian Railways tradition of personal and dak messengers.

In the latest move to trim expenditure, the Railway Board has urged officials to stop the use of these messengers, a practice dating back to the colonial era, and instead use video conferencing for any communication.

With train operations suspended, the Railways saw its revenue slide by nearly 58 per cent in May. The allowances of the hand-picked personal and dak messengers, apart from their salaries, were a major burden on establishment cost, an official said.

In a letter on July 26, the Railway Board stated, “As a measure to reduce cost and improve savings on Establishment related expenditure, Board has desired that all discussion among official of Railways, PUs and railway board should be invariably held over Video Conferencing, accordingly booking of personal messenger/Dak messenger should be stopped immediately.”

Dak messenger and personal messenger are picked from office peons to play what was considered a crucial role up until recently – ferrying “secret” and “confidential” messages within the Railways, between departments and up and down the hierarchy.

Officials said with the advent of technology, the system was little more than a colonial era vestige, and was being rampantly misused, with messengers being used by officials to run personal errands.

Over the last decade, the Railways has been trying to curtail the use of messengers, gradually moving to setting up e-offices to review files.

A dak messenger is entitled to a daily travelling allowance of Rs 500, while a personal messenger gets about Rs 800 per day. As they go up and down the country, they are compensated for any other transportation that they may have to hire other than trains in 3-Tier AC coaches, often on Rajdhani trains.

With roughly over 5,000 dak messengers and nearly as many personal messengers, the Railway is estimated to be spending about Rs 10 crore on their allowances annually.

The system is said to be as old as the 160-year-old organisation – the word ‘dak’ finding its earliest mention in the Manual of Office Procedures, and grew in relevance with the formulation of a Railway Board in 1905. The Board had to communicate with different railway bodies, which were then working independently.

Despite a postal service and the Railways’ own internal postal network called the Free Service, officials continued to rely heavily on dak messengers.

“During wars or a war-like situation, important movement of manpower, arms and ammunition (by the Railways) was communicated through these channels of trusted messengers,” said a retired official.

The method remained intact even as the era of faxes and emails dawned. “There was little acceptance to the use of fax and emails and a letter with a signature in ink remained heavily relied on,” said an official.

The dire financial condition of the Railways has proved to be the final nail in the coffin for the system.

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