[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 March, 2004, 10:49 GMT
E-mail and snail mail united
By Baldev Chauhan
BBC correspondent in Himachal Pradesh

The Spiti Valley in northern India
Mail runners even deliver post in the remote Spiti Valley

People living in some of the most inaccessible areas of India are enjoying an improved postal service - thanks to the combining of e-mail with traditional 'snail mail'.

Post offices in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh will take a customer's handwritten letter and computer scan it. Then the letter can be e-mailed to remote, high-altitude post-offices in this Himalayan region.

From there, the e-mails are printed out and then taken by hand to their destinations - many of which are located in almost inaccessible mountain areas such as the Lahaul, Spiti, Kinnaur and Pangi valleys.

At over 3,500 metres above sea level, some of them are the highest inhabited places on earth.

They remain cut off from the rest of the world for more than half the year due to heavy snowfall over the high passes - which makes it tough for the postal authorities to reach them.

"In small towns this tailor-made service can also be accessed by customers from their home or office via the internet, by buying pre-paid cards from post offices at a cheap 10 rupees (0.12) per letter," a top postal department official told the BBC.

Traditional garb

Many letters are addressed to people living in areas that cannot be reached by car or van because of the lack of roads.

That's where the work of the 'mail runners' starts.

Mail runner in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh
The mail runner sometimes delivers - and reads - the post

The mail runner - known locally as 'harkara' - is the only means of communication in some remote areas.

The runner - dressed in khaki and a traditional highlander cap and armed with a staff, bell and mailbag - is a welcome sight in inaccessible areas.

The runners cover long distances on foot across isolated river valleys and snow-covered mountain passes.

Without their services, the mail may never reach many remote villages and hamlets, perched atop ridges or nestling at the edge of icy brooks.

The runners are even known to reach sadhus - or Hindu ascetics - who live in isolated Himalayan caves.

The mail runners date back to the medieval ages when the Mughals ruled most of India.

But they were first adopted by the Indian postal service in 1854, during the Raj.

'Roving reporter'

The runner's tinkling bell breaks the breathtaking silence of the high country.

The tinkling sometimes sets off a commotion, as the runner's arrival is a major event that breaks the monotony of everyday life in the high mountains.

"His work, though, isn't over with the mail delivery," said Sukh Das, 83, who worked as a mail runner for decades.

"He is also the roving reporter - the carrier of news from one village to another.

It is not uncommon for him to be an adviser to the tribal folk of Lahaul, Spiti, Kinnaur, Pangi and Dodra-Kawar."

The illiterate hill folk seldom let go of the runner right away.

They stop him and get him to read out the letters - listening in rapt attention - often with their mouths agape.

"There are 1,651 mail runners in the state," said M.L. Kalia, the director of postal services in Himachal Pradesh.

India's postal network is one of the biggest in the world - and has also incorporated the e-mail service in the country's southern region.

Indian bus plunge leaves 19 dead
19 Jan 04  |  South Asia
Tibetan chant CD's Grammy hope
08 Dec 03  |  South Asia
India's scenic drug haven
07 Nov 03  |  South Asia
Indian state outlaws plastic bags
07 Aug 03  |  South Asia

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific