Can inland letter make a comeback?

Ting tong! And there stood the khaki clad postman holding the blue square folded paper in his hand. What followed was a ritual of everyone in the family pouring over the letter freshly torn open with the kitchen knife.

Often such letters also came in the form of a creamish yellow colored stiff paper called a postcard. Apart from the content of the letter, the stamps pasted on them were also an object of interest and collection for many amateur philatelists like myself.
Such nostalgic thoughts!

But the drift from these postal joys to electronic means of communication was gradual and no less welcoming. The Videsh Sanchar Nigam LTD launched the internet for public access in India on Independence Day in the year 1995 and the first emails started being exchanged from 1996/97.

AOL mail, Lycos were some key email service providers already present in the international market. However, the first mail IDs of most Indians happened to be Hotmail or Rediffmail or Yahoo. Gradually Gmail took over since 2004. Today, 95% emailers are using the Gmail account and it makes perfect sense to do so because almost all Google apps ask for a Google account.

So what happened to the khaki clad man or the blue paper? Have they become extinct as the Dodo?
Well practically “yes”, but factually “no”.

An RTI query by The Indian Express with the Department of Posts shows that inland letters and postcards continue to sell reasonably well in post-offices across the country. The newspaper reported that even in the year 2015, that is, two decades after the arrival of the internet, the sale of inland letters stood at 4.8 crore and postcards at 13 crores across the country.
So why do the inland letters still sell? Here are four reasons why they do:

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A) Save a penny: Inland letters and postcards continue to be a cheap source of communication. The cost of an inland letter and a postcard is 75 paise and 50 paise only. Even with the recent proposal to increase the cost of the inland letter by another 25 paise, it continues to be economical. With Jio making internet access free of cost, one still has to account for the cost of a smart phone or a computer. But with the postal system, the only other thing one needs to account for is the cost of a pen.

B) The arms of the internet are still not long enough: As per the 8th Jan 2019 report by TRAI, total Internet subscribers in India (with a population of 130 billion) is a meager 560 million as of Sept 2018, of which, 366 million are urban subscribers. This means that even after 25 years of internet, the country has only 42.9% internet penetration. On the other hand, India’s postal network system is the largest in the world. As per the official website of India post, of the 154,965 post offices in India, 139,067 (89.74%) are in the rural areas.

C) Personal touch: Anybody remembers what’s a love letter? A lot of sweet-nothings, mushy words, the spray of perfume and the touch of a lover’s pen. Some would even be “signed with blood”, ouch! But leaving aside the extravaganza of a love letter, the much humbler inland letter goes a long way in communicating the sender’s touch. My grandfather had a file of all the letters I have sent him so far. Apparently, as a child, I used to write “q” backward, like a “p” with a reverse loop. And I would draw a swan on every “s” with which a word began. Now, those were the things that made my grandfather smile. Could a computer typed email carry this essence? However post the advent of emails, I stopped writing to him because he did not have a mail ID. His postal address was active though.

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D) User-friendly: Literacy in India has risen by leaps and bounds since Independence and computer literacy has shot up with most schools making it mandatory. However, communication through emails is dependent on the tech-savvy-ness of the sender and that of the recipient. The day isn’t far when an infant will be born with the aptitude for using smart phones. Even as I’m typing this article, my toddler has been making several futile attempts to see if she can somehow tap on the screen to play Dave and Ava. But on a serious note, how about the people who are not so tech savvy. By “not-so-tech-savvy” I do not necessarily mean the people belonging to the baby boomer generation, but they happen to constitute a large percentage of this section. They are those people who find it cumbersome to tap on the right section of the screen or drag the cursor to the place where they want to type. They are clueless about the autocorrect function in WhatsApp, as a result of which they end up sending a message which the inbuilt AI in the phone thinks is correct but not them. Can computer literacy really solve this issue? As per a study by the National Commission on population projects, senior citizens will comprise 10.7 percent by 2021 and 12.4 percent by 2026. By 2050, 1 of every 5 persons will be aged 60+ as compared to the current 1 of every 10. With technology becoming redundant very quickly, who knows what’s next year, forget about forecasting what’s in 2050. The time tested method of penning down the message in a letter and dropping it in a nearby postbox after sealing it close with a lick, works best. No redundancy.

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So if all is so well with the iconic inland letter, the question that arises is: Can it not make a comeback?

In order to answer this question, it is important to understand that all this hullabaloo is not just over “olden days, golden days” sentiment. In addition to bridging the deficit of over Rs 5k crore of the Department of Post, the future of 184,417 departmental employees are dependent on the usage of this product. The inland letter contributes fairly to the revenue generation of the DoP.

What can possibly be done to redeem its status? How can the sale of this key postal tool be promoted?

Can the postal mail compete with the speed of WhatsApp and email or other electronic means of communication? No, it can’t. Yet, the system has come a long way to wash its name off epithets such as “snail mail” etc. Apps such as Nanyatha are available to even track the movement of letters. But who will write these letters? The present generation is accustomed to at best “pinging”, sending emoticons, Instagramming and posting on Facebook. How to make them see the single most valuable USP of the letter? Personal touch.

Recently some schools in Hyderabad and Bangalore have started communicating with the parents through inland letters. They have organized letter-writing competitions to inculcate the habit of writing a letter. Such efforts go a long way in building an appreciation for a handwritten message and in turn paving a strong future for the letter industry. I hope these humble efforts are replicated everywhere in India.

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