By April, mango farmers in the central Indian state of Maharashtra had started to fret. COVID-19 had struck India, and on March 24 Prime Minister Modi announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown. With railways and private transportation shut down, farmers didn’t know how to sell their produce. The annual mango crop was starting to rot.
Then, in the last week of April, India Post stepped in. Although buses, tempos and trucks were in lockdown, a handful of essential services were still being allowed to function. India Post, the world’s largest postal system, was one of them.
Postal workers began going from farm to farm throughout Alphonso’s mango growing regions, packing crates of fruit into the iconic red mail vans to transport them to markets and consumers.
“The smaller farmers with no other resources were especially benefited,” explained Anant Sarangale, assistant superintendent of posts for Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district to VICE News. “They were happy to be helped in time and right at their doorstep.”
The Maharashtra circle (which also includes Goa) eventually transported more than 138,000 kgs of mangoes to Mumbai and other cities before the season’s end in early July. They also transported small shipments of coconuts.
Across the country, India has a network of 1,56,600 post offices which in 2018-19 collectively handled mail traffic of 576 crore units. But it also has a serious problem. At the end of the 2019 financial year it became the country’s biggest loss-making public sector body, losing an estimated INR 15,000 crore (2.04 billion USD).
With the communications revolution that’s been brought on via phone and email, along with the rise of private courier companies and e-commerce sites like Amazon and Flipkart, the original purpose of the postal system—to convey mail—has diminished. But it has expanded its services for India’s 1.3 billion people, venturing into savings schemes, banking facilities, and railway bookings.
“We have been trying to diversify and be more relevant to the public,” said Pradipta Kumar Bisoi, secretary, department of posts. “[During the lockdown] the quantity of mail came down but we utilised our vans across the country.”
When the pandemic hit, bringing with it a highly restrictive lockdown, India’s postal department got to work. While some post offices were shut, and regular mail was delayed, the postal service was able to deliver medicine, protective gear and ventilators, along with COVID-19 testing kits In some cases it even ferried money to locked-down residents.
“We wanted to try and fill the critical gaps,” explained Alok Ojha, senior superintendent of posts, Lucknow division in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), to VICE News.
Medicines sourced from different parts of the country by hospitals were among the most critical packages delivered. In Lucknow, for example, authorities got in touch with the Indian Drug Manufacturers’ Association to find out how best they could supply medication to people who needed it. Then there were other, more pressing logistical challenges. COVID-19 testing kits had to be shipped to laboratories within 24 hours at sub-zero temperatures or they would lose their efficacy. The postal offices had no cold storage facilities. “But we had speed and accuracy,” said Ojha. Overall, the department transported about 5000 tonnes of medicines and medical equipment throughout the country.
In some states in north and south India, postal workers even packed and distributed meals to journeying migrants in the lockdown’s early days.
Today’s postal system grew out of the early colonial attempts at institution building. British governor Robert Clive set up the postal system in 1766, and a GPO opened in the eastern Indian city of Calcutta in 1774. At the time of India’s Independence in 1947, there were 23,344 post offices, most of them in urban areas. That number has since grown seven-fold, with 90 percent of rural post offices served by post workers moving door-to-door on cycle or by foot.
As postmen and postwomen were at the frontline of essential service deliveries, they faced the additional danger of contracting COVID-19. They were equipped with masks and gloves, while packets and offices were sanitised. The department also announced a INR 10 lakh (13,574 USD) payment for the families of those who died of the disease while on duty. Sadly, some 100-odd employees have so far lost their lives.
In the US, where the postal system has become the subject of fraught political debate, at least 9,000 workers have been infected with COVID-19. The USPS has acquired greater importance in an election year, where mailed-in ballots—seen as safer than in-person voting—have become more common. While USPS faces privatisation, some countries have already privatised their postal systems, including the UK and Japan. Postal workers in Brazil went on strike mid-pandemic against moves to privatise and cut jobs. But in India, there has never been serious talk of this.
Postal workers have also long-maintained relationships with the residents of the neighbourhoods they serve. In Ahmednagar, a city in Maharashtra, retired resident Anupama Byatnal grew worried when she could not reach her brother as the lockdown progressed. He was a senior citizen living alone in Hubli, in the southern state of Karnataka. His phone wasn’t working and she didn’t have the contact numbers for any immediate neighbours. So she started calling the local post office. Eventually, someone picked up, and the postman agreed to go check up on her brother.
“During the lockdown period, who will pay this much attention?” she asked. “But he went immediately.”
Once he arrived he made a call to Byatnal from his phone and put her brother on the line; she felt reassured that he was well and safe.
“I could tell she was worried, and they were both happy when I was able to connect them,” said Bharamappa Kaddi, the postman who saved the day. “I also felt good to be able to do a good turn like this.”
That wasn’t all. Across the country, postal workers were the only ones able to facilitate cash deliveries. Through the India Post Payment Bank facility, anyone with a bank account and linked national identification number could directly withdraw money from their local postman; a kind of mobile ATM.
“Our tag line itself was “your bank at your door”,” said Harish Agrawal, chief postmaster general of the Maharashtra circle.
Bisoi said that almost INR 5,000 crores (678.6 million USD) was disbursed from March until September.
In UP, there were even reports of postmen travelling by boat to cross a river to reach cash-strapped villagers.
The postal system, even when functioning with lower staff capacity during April and May remained a lifeline for citizens.
“The best last mile and first mile connectivity is through the postal networks,” said Agrawal.
In his jurisdiction, besides ferrying mangos and coconuts, the red mail vans also transported cotton seeds, insecticides and drip irrigation pipes to the farmers that needed them.
Vilas Kadam, 60, a Mumbai postman who will retire next year, commuted for four hours from his home a few times every week during April and May to ensure that urgent parcels, mainly medicines, reached those who needed them. In Mumbai, outsiders were barred from housing societies. Residents had to pick up their parcels from the post office. But for many senior citizens this was simply not possible. “If they could not reach us, we would go to them,” said Kadam, who also made deliveries outside his designated beat due to short staffing. “It is our job after all, we have to look out for people.”
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