Email, instant messaging and mobile phones have side-stepped the humble letter. World Post Day, we thought, is a good time to take stock of how the Indian postal system is embracing change while honouring tradition.
In a city like Mumbai, post offices now exist like mysterious relics for the net-savvy and email-enabled citizen. He looks at its counters, often dark, to wonder about the bygone era and ponder about times before the Internet. This trip of nostalgia often leads to two questions: Who writes letters these days? And what goes on in post offices? To seek an answer to these and similar questions we headed to the Mumbai’s General Post Office (GPO) on the eve of the World Post Day on October 9.
An overview of the main hall of the General Post Office from the second floor. Pic/ Bipin Kokate
It perhaps is not an exaggeration to say that one is transported to a different world when one steps out of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) to head to the dome-headed GPO. Majestic buildings with colonial air, including the station, inform us about the city’s past that merges into the present to not just stand as sites of heritage but functional centres of important activity.
The GPO is one such centre that recently completed a hundred years. But this fact added with notions of a dying postal service, somehow led us to believe that we are perhaps visiting a museum. But as we crossed rows of people typing vigorously at their computers and others busy with huge sacks of envelopes: sorting, stamping, shifting, things certainly did not to match up to notions. What is all this work for? “60 percent of our revenue is now generated from banking and insurance,” Ashok Kumar Dash, the chief postmaster general, explained. “The other 40 percent is from traditional mail, which includes money order and even parcels.”
(Above) The grand old lift that greets visitors at the main entrance of General Post Office at CST; (top) letters being sorted according to destination. PICS/Atul kamble
Letter of approval
So is the postal system dying? Dash dismisses the thought lightly. He pointed out that with cities and smaller centres developing there is a higher need for commercial and other posts to be sent to erstwhile less busy areas. “So the postal system has to grow in manpower and size. Though, not as exponentially as till the 1980s.
Chief postmaster general AK Dash speaks with mid-day
But it is still growing.” He, however, agreed that the messengers of personal letters: the envelopes, postcards and inland letters are getting phased out. But he pointed out that rural India still writes letters. Handwritten letters now pass a lot from village to village. Though phasing out, the presence is still staggering.
A postal employee busy at work
“The business is still in crores. It is, after all, the cheapest mode of communication,” he reminds us. But he was sure that the future of the post and its greatest push is in partnership with e-commerce. “The Indian postal system is the largest in the world and with this system, we plan to make a robust partnership in the e-commerce world.” This vast network is in fact being considered for more.
Vistors at a postal exhibition organised by the GPO . Pic/Bipin Kokate
Bank on us
In August, this year, RBI granted payment bank license to India Post, which means apart from the savings schemes, post office accounts can also be used to make payments. But even before that, there was large-scale modernisation going on in the banking part of post offices.
A view of GPOs architecture designed by John Begg and completed in 1913.
“The department has already rolled out Core Banking Solution across 622 locations in Maharashtra and 11 ATMs have already been installed in Maharashtra,” Dash says. India Post is also undergoing an IT modernization project that aims to connect all post offices across the country and this year the theme of celebration of World Post Day and National Postal Week is Digital India Post.
Slots for letters to different cities at the main entrance
Though it has evidently not hurt the postal system, every person at the GPO batted for the dying art of writing letters. “Nothing can replace the personal touch of a handwritten letter. It carries your identity. Many European countries are taking different initiatives to revive this art,” an official in charge of the traditional mails section said. He informed that to revive this art, India Post takes initiatives like conducting letter-writing events for children. We left with the feeling that though not threatened by the takeover of emails and messaging, the postal world wants us to write letters, perhaps, for the pleasure of it.
Inside view of the GPO
Cost of an envelope
Cost of an inland letter
Cost of a post card
About October 9
>> United Nations World Post Day falls on October 9
>> 150 countries observe the day
>> The day was first declared in 1969 at Universal Postal Union in Tokyo
Did you know?
India has the world’s largest postal system with 1,55,000 branches
World Post Day: Lesser known facts about postage stamps (Read more)