WHILE delivering his Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort in 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke glowingly of the post office as an example of national identity and of how the postman was loved by everyone and vice versa . He also said that post offices would be converted into payments banks. This was the time when Jan Dhan accounts were being opened and plans were on to pay Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) wages through banks and post offices. The Department of Posts was expected to be the leading agency for disbursements under the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) and Payment System. It was, after all, the backbone of the country’s communication system. Under the India Post Payments Bank system, the Postal Department was to tie up with 11 departments to disburse MGNREGA wages, DBT, subsidies, scholarships, and old age and disabled pensions.
All this certainly made for a heavier workload for the rural postman. But if Modi’s speech contained any note of promise for post offices and the bulk of their workforce spread across India’s villages, it never saw fruition. On May 22, nearly two and a half lakh gramin dak sevaks (GDSs)started an indefinite strike demanding the implementation of the recommendations of the “gramin dak sevak committee”, or the Kamlesh Chandra Committee, which in November 2016 had made strong recommendations in their favour and described these workers as the “soul” of the Department of Posts.
Of the 1,55,015 post offices in the country, 1,29,379 (83.5 per cent) are rural post offices served by gramin dak sevaks. These form the bulwark of the Postal Department, which boasts the world’s largest network of post offices. Yet, rural postal workers have never been given the status of full-fledged government employees.
P. Panduranga Rao, a branch postmaster from Nellore and general secretary of the All India Postal Employees’ Union-Gramin Dak Sevaks, said: “All these are branch post offices. The bulk of the work is done by them and gramin dak sevaks. But there are two sections of employees; those with the Department of Posts, who are equivalent to Central government employees, and gramin dak sevaks, who are yet to be regularised despite being the main medium of communication between the Central government and the rural masses.” It is a situation that has persisted for over a century.
The Kamlesh Chandra Committee was set up in November 2015. Its brief was to examine gramin dak sevaks’ working conditions, wage structure, social security benefits and welfare measures in the light of proposals to induct technology in rural post offices. It submitted its report in November 2016 with exhaustive recommendations.
One and a half years later, as the Modi government celebrates its four years in office, the report remains unimplemented and the government seems oblivious to the plight of the rural postal workforce. When, on May 14, unions representing nearly three lakh gramin dak sevaks served notice for an indefinite strike beginning on May 22, it went largely unnoticed and was ignored in the mainstream national media.
Kamlesh Chandra, who headed the committee, was a retired member of the Postal Services Board and hence best suited to understand the gramin dak sevaks’ situation. His was not the first committee on the gramin dak sevaks; five committees had been set up after 1957. But the Kamlesh Chandra Committee made a strong pitch for improvement in the “quality of life of the GDS” and for harmonising their wages and emoluments in tune with present-day needs and aspirations of young recruits joining the workforce. In the course of its interactions with gramin dak sevaks, the committee found that many of them had no other source of income.
The committee cautioned that the objectives of enabling information and communication technology (ICT) in rural financial services and getting business from payments banks would be defeated if the “reasonable demands and aspirations” of gramin dak sevaks were not looked into. This was all the more important in view of the government’s avowed focus on “agriculture, farmers’ welfare, development of rural infrastructure, rural employment, rural enterprises, rural housing, i.e comprehensive rural development” and the business opportunities that had been created in banking, insurance, third party business and ecommerce in GDS post offices.
The Kamlesh Chandra Committee report stated that the GDS post offices “constitute 83.5 per cent of the total post office network and [are] considered as the Unique Selling Proposition for the department because of their reach, trustworthiness and accountability”. Gramin dak sevaks, the committee said, were the “ambassadors of the Department of Posts, Ministry of Communications, in the rural and remote areas of India” and “represent the Government of India (GoI) in the far-flung areas of the country where barely any other representative of GoI exists and therefore create a strong organic channel between the Central government and citizens of rural India to transfer the benefits of growth”.CENTURY OF NEGLECT
The history of gramin dak sevaks, like that of the rest of the postal system, goes back more than a century. The British called them extra departmental agents, or EDAs. The EDAs were teachers, shopkeepers and pensioners who provided basic postal services to rural people in their spare time in return for a compensation. Ironically, no Central government in independent India deemed it fit to regularise their services. Regularisation, therefore, has been one of their major demands. They are considered as being “outside the Civil Services of the Union” and therefore cannot claim any parity with Central government employees. In 2011, their services were governed by a separate set of non-statutory rules titled the GDS (Conduct and Engagement Rules).
The Kamlesh Chandra Committee found that while the responsibilities of gramin dak sevaks had increased over the past few years, given the focus on rural post offices as business development entities, their emoluments had not gone up commensurately. They were allotted business targets for the opening of accounts under the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB), the Sukanya Samriddhi Scheme and policies under the Rural Postal Life Insurance and Atal Pension Yojana on a regular basis, which made their jobs “more demanding and keeping them on their toes, to bring more business”.
The First Pay Commission did not make a distinction between Postal Department employees and gramin dak sevaks. The discrimination began with the Second Pay Commission. A Supreme Court order observed that “an extra departmental agent is not a casual worker but holds a post under the administrative control of the state and that, while, such a post is outside the regular civil services, there is no doubt it is a post under the state”. This was interpreted to mean that gramin dak sevaks were only holders of civil posts but were not civilian employees. When the Fifth Pay Commission (1994) was constituted, gramin dak sevaks’ unions demanded a judicial committee to look into their issues. In 1995, a committee headed by a retired High Court judge (Charanjit Talwar Committee) recommended that EDAs (as rural postal workers were still called) should get salaries on a par with departmental employees. In 1998, during the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) first tenure, the committee report was examined by the Postal Board Officers, who concluded that its recommendations were not applicable because EDAs were part-time employees.
Panduranga Rao told Frontline that the Department of Posts had been constantly altering service rules for gramin dak sevaks. Before the Talwar Committee’s recommendations, they were administered by the Conduct and Service Rules, 1964. The department changed it to Conduct and Employment Rules. “By removing the term ‘Service’, in effect the department diluted our demand for parity with departmental employees,” he said. In 2009, a Pay Commission for EDAs was set up coterminously with the Sixth Pay Commission. Now, EDAs are called gramin dak sevaks, but the service rules are now titled “Conduct and Engagement Rules”. So rural postal workers are now governed by “engagement rules” rather than “service” rules.
The Talwar Committee had in fact upgraded all categories of gramin dak sevaks to matching categories in the Postal Department. For instance, a branch postmaster like Panduranga Rao was equated to the category of a Postal Assistant (Clerical Cadre) in the Postal Department; a rural mail deliverer was equal to a Postal Department postman. The committee also found that a good number of gramin dak sevaks were educated up to the secondary or higher secondary level, while a very small per cent were illiterate. Before the Talwar Committee, the monthly wages of a Branch Postmaster was Rs.275, whereas the minimum pay scale under the FourthPay Commission was Rs.750-940.MEAGRE ALLOWANCES
The Kamlesh Chandra Committee found young, talented, and well-educated gramin dak sevaks whose aspirations went beyond those of their predecessors. But there was no plan to either regularise them or to ensure that they received decent emoluments. They are in fact assumed to be part-timers and, at the time of recruitment, are required to have alternative sources of income. They are compensated with a time related continuity allowance (TRCA), which the committee found “exploitative and non transparent” as it is linked to workload and is “not assessed promptly, regularly and correctly”.
The committee visited Rae Bareilly division in Uttar Pradesh upon inspecting the TRCA slip of one worker, which showed his net TRCA was Rs.3,977 after deductions which, it said, was “not sufficient to manage monthly expenditures”. All newly recruited workers are in similar situations, the committee found. A senior gramin dak sevak was found to receive a wage of around Rs.9,000, which “was not sufficient to manage even the basic needs of living with a small family in the rural/urban areas without any alternative source of income and since the alternative source of income is not available, the GDS’ are facing financial problems”.
The gramin dak sevaks interviewed by the committee in various circles said that they did not have any other means of livelihood and were totally dependent on what they got from the Postal Department. Depleting income from agriculture, which once supplemented the incomes of such workers, compounds the crisis. “Is it right to take 18 months to implement the committee’s report?” asked M. Krishnan, former secretary general of the National Federation of Postal Employees.
Explaining the critical role of rural workers, Panduranga Rao said: “The last mile of the Postal Department is our post office as we are the nearest to the rural public. We disbursed Rs.27,000 crore worth of wages under the MGNREGA through post offices in Rajasthan, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Even though their working hours are limited, EDAs or GDS sometimes put in more than 10 hours of work. The public can come any time to the home of the branch postmaster, whose home is his office. There is no provision for giving us a house rent allowance or organising an office for us.” He added that in parts of rural Delhi, branch postmasters paid Rs.5,000 as rent while earning Rs.8,000-Rs.9,000 a month.
Panduranga Rao, who has a postgraduate degree in science, was forced to take up the job of a branch postmaster because of family circumstances. After 25 years of service, his monthly emoluments have not crossed Rs.10,000. “When committee after committee recommended that we should be given a pension and dearness allowance, the Finance Ministry raised objections arguing that we were “engaged” employees as per the service rules. Because of our present strike, we know that courier and postal services have got affected and we are very sorry about that. Postal employees are supporting us as well,” he said. Several central trade unions like the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, the Indian National Trade Union Congress and even the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh have extended support to the striking gramin dak sevaks.
Yet, the Central government and the Postal Department under the Union Ministry of Communications have turned a blind eye to the strike. The dissatisfaction among rural postal workers is an indicator of the growing resentment against the Central government’s policies which have sought to exact the maximum from such workers while giving them the least in the form of emoluments and benefits.MODI AND THE POSTMAN
This is what Modi said in his Independence Day address in 2016: “The post office is an example of our identity. We have revived and rejuvenated our post offices. It is now linked with poor and small persons. If any government representative gets the affection of a common man in India, it is the postman. Everyone loves the postman and the postman also loves everybody, but we never paid attention to them. We have taken a step to convert our post offices into payments banks. Starting of this payments bank will spread the chain of banks in the villages across the country in one go.”
Notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s avowed sympathy for the postman, and despite the Kamlesh Chandra Committee’s recommendations, no attention has been paid to gramin dak sevaks.