Post offices in the brave new world

Shihab Sarkar | Published: October 19, 2017 20:55:14 | Updated: November 11, 2017 12:40:48

In a country where letters have virtually ceased to be in wide circulation, school students are ritually reminded of them. Like in the past, the secondary level students still have to write letters in the answer scripts for their Bangla exams including that of the school final. In one segment of the question-paper, students are asked to write mock letters to parents, friends or other close people. Those with a flair for writing answer this particular question putting in their best of imagination and creativity. The only way out of this difficult exercise is learning the technique of letter-writing by rote. When the very letters have fast been becoming relics in the country, asking students to write one is filled with elements of absurdity. Letters have also become oxymoronic. Few educated or literate people write letters these days. The traditional missives have been replaced by mobile phone calls, messages, emailing, social media statuses and many other digital communication methods.

With letters on the way out, their writers' emotion and the efforts to demonstrate their best possible stylistic excellence are being pushed into oblivion. Few people now feel relieved of anxieties or overjoyed on receiving a long-awaited letter. Not only in Bangladesh, letters written on enveloped pieces of paper or on cards are fast emerging as outmoded. In this country, a posted mail now stands for an official letter related to employment, bill payment etc.  It's a reality being faced in every part of the world. Against this depressing background, countries around the globe observe the World Post Day on every October 9 to commemorate the founding of the Universal Postal Union in 1874. The day this year was also observed in Bangladesh, but the event did not see any remarkable ceremonies. For nostalgic people including compulsive letter writers, the occasion, however, has provided an opportunity to take stock of the nearly moribund postal service in the country.

Ever since its emergence as a dependable means of communication in the late 19th century, the postal service has played a great role in the life of the people in both cities and rural areas in Bengal. At the dawn of the post-World War-I modern era, the postal service was already equipped with many features that would be in place for next one century. By that time it had come a long way from the horse courier service. The service was introduced in the sub-continent by the ethnic Pashtun ruler Sher Shah Suri. It existed from 1540 to 1545. Newer facilities later kept being introduced to add to the speed of the earlier time-consuming service. With its function chiefly focused on the dispatch of postal mails and money orders, and later telegrams, in British India, it did not take much time for the service to become a multi-operational one. Although mostly operated manually, the postal service emerged as a complete system over time like in any developed country or territory. However, lack of sufficient transport facilities and other necessary infrastructure created hurdles to its expected growth. In such a state the system of 'Runner' was introduced in British India. These armed postmen used to carry letters, money, parcels etc to remote areas by hazardously crossing long distances. The system prevailed even in the mid-20th century.

The sub-continent including the Bengal region has been enjoying the benefits of a full-scale postal service for nearly one and half centuries. In the then East Pakistan, and now Bangladesh, the government-run postal department's job mainly comprised dispatch of letters, money orders and telegrams, as well as parcels & book posts. Through the passage of time, the postal authorities carved for themselves a much sought-after position among the general people. Although letters, or anything dispatched by conventional mail, carry little value for large sections of the literate people today, they once played a critical role in public life --- be it in the cities or obscure hamlets.

In Bangladesh, and earlier in East Pakistan, the postal service enjoyed its heyday throughout the decades of the 1940s to the 1970s. This phase was followed by a fast decline in service with the vast department getting beset with scores of maladies. Letters not reaching destinations on time, parcels missing etc became the order of the day. The sorry state of the postal service created a lot of annoyance among people. It was not until the mid-1980s that the postal department underwent a big overhaul. Wide-scale automation coupled with newer services was introduced. As years wore on to herald the decade of the nineties, the department found itself being equipped with new and time-befitting features one after another. The private sector courier services, introduced some time later, were set to deal a severe blow to the sloth-ridden and excessively staffed postal department. Although the private letter and parcel-dispatch companies weaned a large chunk of clients off the postal service, it could reach nowhere near it when it came to the other services offered by the government department.

The postal department's infrastructural strength far outweighs that of the courier services combined.  Yet people hardly turn to it for sending letters or the conventional money orders these days. Apparently in order to meet the demand of time, the postal department now has in place 30 types of electronically operated facilities. It appears to bother little about the drastic fall in the dispatch of its letters. Ever since the start of its renovation in the mid-1980s, it has increasingly been turning to e-technology. It now aims to shift its focus to fully digitised services, mostly financial transactions and those related to information & communication. Almost all of these modern services have been well received. The most popular of them include Electronic Money Transfer Service (EMTS), in place of the earlier money order, Guaranteed Express Post (GEP), International Express Mail Service etc. Besides the digitised financial services, the postal department now attaches lots of priority to its popular savings schemes. These days, large sections of people who remain drawn to the post offices are clients of different savings certificates. Given the radical changes adopted by the postal service, it appears to be set for entering a new era.

That may not be easy. Like many other government departments, the postal authorities too have long been grappling with their large manpower. Due to being fast digitised, a lot of its staff members have turned redundant at some sections. The postal academy at Rajshahi and those across the country impart training to selected post office officials. Owing to lack of positions and the required technical support, their skill remains mostly unutilised. In order to bring all the newly launched post office services close to the general people, the expertise of the present 40,000-strong manpower has to be made use of properly. Thanks to the sharp decline in the dispatch of letters, many of the around 10,000 existing post offices --- especially those in the remote areas, remain open with virtually no function.                 

Introducing the functions of e-centres to the largely idle rural post offices is a good idea. A post office in villages is said to have the capability to serve around 15,000 people. As the authorities view it, a post office-cum-e-centre may be of great help to this number of people. The definition of a 21st century post office in Bangladesh is changing fast. A post office is no longer a metonymy for letters. These days, post offices, in theory, are entrusted with varied types of tasks. They include services like internet surfing, remittance transfer, video calls etc. In the remote areas, people once used to feel bewildered whenever they were in need of some basic information. The digital age has put this state of helplessness to an end. They can now approach the e-centres for gathering information about education, medical priorities and agricultural matters. If anyone doesn't have an internet connection or a smart phone, and is in the urgent need of e-mailing someone, he or she can rush to the nearby post office. It has stopped selling government-sealed envelopes. The people over there are expected to offer e-mail services at a nominal charge.

However, strange spectacles can still be encountered in the cities. There one might run into an old sweating postman looking for a house to deliver an enveloped letter or a book-post. Moreover, wooden letter-boxes beside doors of residences have not yet disappeared altogether.


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