Enter an unlikely harbinger of doom – the courier guy.
He is a familiar sight. He rings the door bell. You peep through the spy-eye and see a youngish man, sorting through a sheaf of papers, a parcel in one hand, a sidebag on his shoulder. You open the door to sign for your package.
And then BAM!
Kalpana Pan, a housewife in Kolkata had a handkerchief soaked in chloroform pressed to her face. When her husband came back home he found her on the floor, the almirahs ransacked and Rs 4.5 lakh worth of gold jewellery missing.
The consequences were even deadlier for Chaitali Santra. The freelance journalist and women’s rights activist had been getting some threatening calls for a few days. She told her daughter to be careful but it didn’t occur to her to beware of the courier guy. She opened a parcel the “courier” delivered on her bed. It had a bomb. She was killed instantly.
The courier has become a double-edged sword. We are dependent on them and thus at their mercy. They have become the strangers whose kindness we implicitly trust.
Kalpana Pan did all the right things. She looked through the spy-eye. She called her husband to ask if he was expecting a letter. But at a time when everything, from telephone bills, to sari exhibition opening announcements, to your latest online gadget purchase comes via courier, you don’t have very much choice when it comes to opening the door for the courier.
Our grilled balconies and collapsible gates might thwart the cat-burglar but as a society “Courier here” has become our open sesame. As The Telegraph writes in an editorial this week.
No amount of caution on the part of the police or citizens can prevent such cunningly aggressive forms of access to what used to be regarded as inviolable domestic spaces. And this is happening while online shopping, and therefore the importance and ubiquity of courier companies, is catching on as an inevitable part of modern life and its new conveniences.
Part of the problem is while the neighgbourhood had one familiar postman on a regular beat, we now have a slew of unfamiliar couriers. You don’t remember their faces because they are the courier guys – a vast army of 20 something men on bicycles roaming through our cities in the dead of afternoon. The old police advice of not opening the door to strangers is meaningless in a world where six different couriers can ring your doorbell in one afternoon.
The courier business is huge. A survey by ICRIER found over 2500 companies, many of them small family businesses. That gives the customer a great buffet of choices. If you don’t like one company, you can always find another. But it also means they are harder to regulate according to the ICRIER survey.
Moreover, since the courier industry/sector constitute of a large number of small, family-based unorganised companies spread across India, it is difficult to monitor them unlike companies in sectors like telecommunications where there are only a few large corporates.
As Kalpana Pan and Chaitali Santra found out almost anyone can pass themselves off as a courier guy.
Of course, we would not need as many courier guys as we do now if the postal service was more reliable. The government’s proposed solutions have all been about protecting the lacklustre postal service instead of improving it. A. Raja in his ministerial days wanted to amend the 1898 Indian Post Office Act to ban private courier companies from carrying anything below 500 grams. That would be the exclusive dominion of the post office. Mind you, the post office is not promising this letter will reach its intended recipient any time soon. A friend sent an invitation to her mother’s funeral by ordinary Indian mail. It reached me a full week after the last rites were over.
Anyway most of us will shudder at the prospect of going to the post office anymore and standing in a snaking queue to pick up a parcel. The memories of the postmaster sitting behind a mounds of yellow files, the didi doling out stamps at a reluctant snail’s pace, the little pot of gooey green paste on a rickety table are all part of a country we hope have long left behind.
The courier is the symbol of a newer more efficient 21st century go-getter country. He epitomizes what we want from life – things delivered at our doorstep, efficiently, quickly and securely. It turns out that he is also our most obvious security breach. We spend inordinate amounts of time and money insulating ourselves from the big bad world outside with its terrible traffic, its choking pollution, its purse-snatching thugs. Ironically, the more we insulate ourselves at home, the more we depend on the courier guys to bring the world to us.
So ask not for whom that doorbell tolls.
It is, indeed, tolling for thee. Can you afford not to open that door?