The Village Post Office
The post office serves the six villages of Kiapada, Narendrapur, Ayatpur, Garudpurm, Baghadobinayakpur and the hamlet of Tamakhandi
Dasharathi Das, 75, of Kiapada village in the Basudevpur Block of Odisha’s Balasore district, visits the village post office every day. That is not because he has business there, but because he likes it. The Post office has been there since the last 50 years. The small culvert near the post office is his favourite spot. Old village folk like him gather there every day and sit and chat for hours. “We come here because of the Dak Babu, he is a friend of the village,” says Dasharathi. By the Dak Babu, he meant Sukhdev Jena, the Branch Post Master of the small post office in Kiapada.
At the first glance it seemed a poor villagers’ hut. A small worn thatched roof, mud caked walls, a small door and a decrepit rusty letter box hanging crookedly and precariously outside. It was just outside the village, near some rice fields with coconut and other trees towering. I have seen many post offices all over the country, but never one in such a deplorable condition.
The post office serves the six villages of Kiapada, Narendrapur, Ayatpur, Garudpurm, Baghado-binayakpur and the hamlet of Tamakhandi. For Sukhdev Jena, a typical day starts at 9.30. Till noon, he sits in his office tending to paper work, sells stamps and covers, and makes or accepts payments. His runner, Bhaskar Dalei, goes about on his ramshackle bicycle and delivers the letters. “On most days of the week, I’m required to visit all six villages,” he said. The 60-year-old Rural Post Employee (RPE) has been doing this for 42 years.
The villagers have often written to the higher authorities for making a suitable room for the post office, but in vain. The small post office offers a number of services like savings bank, recurring deposit, money order and registered post, among others, but the diminutive structure is now discouraging customers. According to the rules mentioned in the manual for the department of posts, space for branch post office should be arranged by the ‘gramin dak sevak’ or branch postmaster. The rule says the branch post master, who gets a basic pay of Rs 2,745, shall provide the house for the post office from his own salary and only a monthly allowance of Rs 100 towards the maintenance will be paid to him by the office.
But for the gum bottle and the two calendars, everything could have belonged to a period seventy years earlier. The rusty table and chairs, the small scales and weights, the ancient paraphernalia, took one back in time. The postmaster sat on his rickety chair and told me how the roof leaked. Even the ubiquitous red post office board with white lettering had rusted away, and there was no sign that said that this little thatched hut was the Kiapada post office. A big plastic sheet had been put up below the thatch. He told me that the post office had nearly a thousand savings accounts. Ever since the new government’s Jan Dhan Scheme came into being, has increased volume in the letters received.
The Post is no longer what it was and it is going through a period of profound change. We see change everywhere; the Indian economy is experiencing an incredible growth story. The Post is transforming itself into a one-stop shop that will touch the lives of every Indian. ‘Dak seva’, is now ‘Jan Seva’. With 155,333 post offices covering the urban and rural populace, Indian Post is the largest postal network in the world. Even a large country like China has less than 80,000 Post offices.
It has gone unnoticed, but writing personal letters and sending them to addressees through post offices has been declining at an alarming rate of about 3 per cent every year in the last decade. Letter writing in itself may become a passé or be reduced to something practised by a minority in the next few decades.
As a journalist, I have photographed the high and mighty, the monuments, structures and edifices that make the modern nation. But my passion has always been photographing a more humble side of the government: the small village post offices and the abandoned letter boxes. During my travels in the past ten years, I have photographed hundreds of post offices and letter boxes in nearly every state of the nation. I see a certain magic in the nearly forgotten mailboxes. More than that, I am drawn to the Postal Service as a modern-day ruin crumbling before our eyes. It’s fading away.
Its slowly dying. My photographs are in one way elegiac—I am mourning the lost art of letter writing. The photos are unadorned, almost simple at first glance, without a trace of sentimentality.
I perceive the three stripes of India Post’s Logo as a national ribbon that ties far-flung places together. At first glance, the logo is an envelope and at the next glance, it is a bird in flight, unhindered and unrestricted. The bold strokes convey free flight, and the fact that India Post carries emotion across physical distance.
As we continue to abandon the mailbox for the Internet, India Post is considering closing thousands of branches. This isn’t a story about whether we could live without the post office. It’s about whether we’d want to.
As in the rest of the world, the post office is on the wane in India. Unless it reinvents itself and takes on new roles to meet emerging expectations and needs, it is entirely possible that we may see them on their way out, at least in the present form.
By Anil Dhir