Alwar / AFP
With his rickety bicycle and sackcloth mail bag, 62-year-old Indian postman Chet Ram does not look like a worker at the vanguard of an e-commerce revolution delivering everything from mobile phones to cow manure. He pedals miles each day in rural Rajasthan state, ferrying packages to villages and takes payments in cash because most of his customers do not have bank accounts, let alone credit cards.
While in the United States online giant Amazon and its ilk experiment with futuristic drones and one-hour deliveries, in rural India e-commerce retains a distinctly old-fashioned feel. Yet the dawn of online shopping is changing the lives of people in rural areas — and is breathing new life into India Post, the ailing state-run postal network, which has struggled with a huge deficit for years.
In the past two years, the 160-year-old postal giant has tied up with 400 e-commerce companies including Amazon and Indian giant Flipkart, to deliver a diverse range of goods. It deploys its vast network of about 460,000 employees across 155,000 post offices to take goods to customers in remote areas, often hundreds of kilometres (miles) from the nearest town.
Government clerk Surinder Singh Yadav from rural Ula Hedi village in Neemrana district says the dawn of e-commerce has transformed shopping for his family, who now nudge him to order products they see advertised on television. “These companies give us a variety we don’t get in our local markets, quality at competitive rates and a doorstep delivery,” said Yadav, as he accepted a delivery of a spray paint machine.
The absence of reliable private delivery companies outside the big cities led India Post to step in to fill the gap. “Until recently, people in these rural areas had aspirations but no means to access the market,” Kavery Banerjee, secretary of India Post, said.
“Now we are delivering women’s clothes and latest electronic gadgets even in the remote regions of country like Leh and Ladakh,” she added. It has been a huge success, with parcel deliveries increasing 15-fold to 75,000 daily deliveries in the past two years.
But India’s vast areas of rural terrain, where roads can be poor and infrastructure patchy, pose challenges to the digital revolution. Most small post offices, like the one in Neemrana, depend on unreliable public transport to collect parcels from region’s bigger post offices. Postal workers use bicycles and old cloth mail bags which make it difficult to transport bigger or multiple parcels.
Many rural Indians are still new to the Internet — up to a billion people are not yet online in the country — and are wary of e-commerce sites, preferring to hand over money only after receiving the goods.
Part of the firms’ success has been driven by giving customers the chance to pay cash on delivery — although it takes up to two days to find out if a parcel was accepted by a distant recipient.
“It has given a sense of empowerment to customers who are not confident about e-commerce shopping,” said K.C Verma, an assistant superintendent at a post office in Behror, a town close to Neemrana. One such customer is Sudesh Yadav, a farmer’s wife in Daulat Singh Pura village in Neemrana who refused to accept her parcel of a car cleaning kit.
“The company has sent the order almost a week late,” she told the postman who had cycled to her home on a cold January morning to deliver the goods. “We have already purchased it from a nearby town. Take it back,” she said.
India Post, which was founded under colonial rule in 1854, hopes the huge growth of e-commerce will enable it to reverse its ailing financial situation. The value of cash-on-delivery parcels handled by the postal department is expected to register a 300 percent increase by the end of financial 2015 compared with last year, India Post said.
It hopes to slash its $800 million average annual deficit and improve profitability at its 140,000 rural post offices. Communication and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters last month that the Indian postal department had the potential to become the “world’s leading e-commerce delivery platform”.
The department has upgraded or added around 70 modern parcel handling centres with existing post offices in the last two years and plans to add to its standing fleet of around 900 mail vans across India. It also plans to address the issue of tracking deliveries, including by giving handheld devices to postal workers.
For rural India’s postmen, the flood of parcel deliveries recalls the days of the 1980s or 1990s when sending letters and postcards was much more common. “These parcel deliveries in the last couple of years are once again making us busier,” Ratan Lal, a postman with Neemrana post office said.