/ 1 January 2002

Indian mail-runners deliver first class service

At a time when e-mail threatens to banish the postman to the museum, mail-runners are still the only means of communication in remote regions of the north Indian mountain state of Himachal Pradesh.

Called ”Harkara,” the khaki-clad mail-runners armed with a staff, bell and mail bag are a welcome sight in scores of isolated villages of the region bordering Tibet.

The runners cover long distances on foot across deep valleys, gushing rivers and snow-smeared mountains, and brave heavy snow and avalanches to keep lines of communication open.

”The runners’ job isn’t over with just mail delivery,” said 80-year-old Sukh Das, who has been delivering mail between villages for decades.

”He is also the roving reporter, the carrier of news from one village to another and it is not uncommon for him to be an adviser to the tribals in the regions of Lahaul Spiti, Kinnaur, Pangi or Dodra-Kawar,” Das said.

Das said runners are popular in villages because often they help tribespeople read or write letters and even advise them on various issues.

Even heavy snow which cuts off parts of Himachal Pradesh for more than half the year does not deter the mail-runners who dig themselves paths, officials said.

”Their territory begins where motorable roads ends,” said an official from the state’s postal department in the provincial capital of Shimla, India’s most popular summer resort.

”Without their services mail may never be delivered in several villages perched atop ridges or hidden in icy mountains,” another official said, adding the harkara even deliver to Hindu holy men meditating in caves.

Vijay Bhushan, Himachal Pradesh’s chief postmaster-general, said only a few of the runners were full-time employees of the state-run postal department.

”There are 1 719 mail runners in the state and of which only 65 are working as full-time employees, while the rest are part-timers,” he said.

Bhushan admitted the job could be dangerous.

”It is not unusual for some of them to be buried in avalanches in the high mountains,” the department chief said. He did not give details of their wages or working hours but admitted the runners were bottom in the postal department’s pecking order.

The practice of running mail dates back to the 15th century, when Mughals ruled most of India. The harkaras became part of the postal service in 1854 under British rule. – Sapa-AFP