Half a Morning at an India Post Branch

Suggest any India Post branch and it’s automatically on top of my list of government-run offices I dread to visit. Branches of the State Bank of India (SBI) often compete for the top rank but recent experiences at my home branch have been heartening. The fact that I only had to drop a cheque in a box the last time without interacting with any of the staff is irrelevant.

The point is that government and government-run offices are true to their stereotype. Their staff is the most perverse aspect, followed by their computers. If you are an adult and sometimes visit government offices and never heard a staff tell you that the server was down, you don’t exist. The way they tell you makes it look like it’s your fault.

An India Post office in Darjeeling
An India Post outlet in Darjeeling / Shankar S (Flickr)

India Post offices – mainly the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) and India Post Payments Bank (IPPB) – are beyond these peculiarities. There’s a third aspect here that is more perverse than their staff and computers: agents. Visit any India Post branch after 10 am and you’ll see at least two agents, aged anywhere between 35 and 50 years old, perched on one of the counters meant for customers to deposit and withdraw money, get their passbooks updated, or transact on any of the small savings schemes offered by the government. They’ll be chatting with whoever is serving the counter, and between those chats, handing over or taking back bundles of red-coloured passbooks of people, held together with the help of a sticky rubber band past its expiry, who have invested in savings schemes through them.

If an India Post branch has two counters for POSB or IPPB dealings, one of them is unofficially earmarked for agents. And there is nothing you can do about it. You could try sparring with them but other than losing your temper and making a spectacle of yourself, there’s no gain from it. In any case, the agent is eventually going to show some fake empathy and ask you to queue up at the other counter.

It’s a common sight to see senior citizens often ignore your advice (if you’re in the branch that day) of not sparring with them and go spar with them with the hope that the agent pulls out a pistol from between her stacks of passbooks so that they don’t have to put up anymore with a government servant even if it means letting go of all that accrued wealth in their Public Provident Fund (PFF) account that was opened in 1968 when the scheme was first launched. Senior folks are more frustrated than yours truly and they have no fear meddling with the post office agents because who are they kidding! My friend M has also been a victim of and an audience to these spectacles and we have together wondered why India Post branches cannot have separate counters for agents.

I don’t believe it’s not warranted. While I personally don’t have to depend on an agent to take advantage of the Indian government’s small savings schemes (although, I have in the past), I think agents do bring a lot of business (new accounts) to India Post. I couldn’t find any statistics on how many post office agents are there in India currently or how much they contribute to the total India Post new accounts or revenue year after year. India Post doesn’t seem to publish that information. According to a PTI release, there were over five lakh agents in the country till, I’m assuming, 2012 as the release date is 20 January 2013. Although, there is no way to verify that stat. In the decade and more since then, I’m sure the number has grown wildly. (Interestingly, there is a lot of unreliable data online about how much post office agents earn as commissions. Sort of confirms my hypothesis about the exponential growth in the total number of India Post agents active.) In comparison, the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) had over 13.3 lakh agents as of December 2021.

If India Post is depending on agents so much, why not treat them well and give them a designated space in every or every other branch? Why do they have to potentially spar with other customers and be called a third perverse aspect of post offices? Beats me.

Even if you leave post office agents alone, you still can’t leave an India Post branch without cursing yourself. Although I managed to get my job done in two back-to-back visits during the day, I couldn’t ignore the plight of other customers in the branch.

  • To my surprise, there was a middle-aged woman who looked like an agent who seemed to be unlike her usual kind. She was helping someone who was double her age and looked patient enough. As in, she was not leaning against a counter and instead was waiting in a queue for her turn. I pitied those behind her.
  • Then there was a woman who lived nearby but had her Aurangabad address on her Aadhar card. She was apparently visiting to get her KYC done but looked like she wanted to curse too. Que? Why? C***. I tried to help her with a form but I couldn’t gather what exactly she wanted to do.
  • Another man working for the government (he was wearing the local municipality uniform) in front of me on the line was clueless about how to fill out the form a clerk had handed him. She said there would be a postman outside to help him, so he scampered off. I would later see him stand in the same queue, an unfilled form in hand, perhaps looking to ask where exactly to find that postman.

I have seen some agents, if they’re free and good-natured, help out hapless customers in India Post offices. But that is a rare sight and not a norm. If I had to spend half my morning to get a cheque book, I wonder what it takes for someone who has no clue what KYC is.

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