Here's what happens when letters lose their way

The Dead Letter Office of the Postal Department, officially received more than 8,000 articles, 700 parcels in 2017.

BENGALURU: The Dead Letter Office of the Postal Department, officially called the Returned Letter Office (RLO), received more than 8,000 articles, 700 parcels and many ordinary letters in the past six months of 2017. This little-talked-about back-end operation of the Postal Department is still busy, albeit sized down.

“We also received currency worth Rs 9,220 — which will be credited to the department’s account — along with a few other valuables which will be, as usual, auctioned off by a professional auctioneer once a significant number of items get accumulated,” said Dr Charles Lobo, chief postmaster general, Karnataka Circle. These “valuables”, he explained, could comprise utensils, small pieces of jewellery or religious idols.

Located in Benson Town, the RLO is the only wing of the Postal Department that is authorised to open a letter with the intention of delivering those that are either erroneously or insufficiently addressed or have an address written in an illegible handwriting. A relic from the colonial era, the RLO was introduced as early as in 1837 when detailed postal regulations were first introduced in India. Even today, all the letters that reach this office are manually sorted.

“When we are unable to trace the addressee, we generally take the letter back to the sender. If both refuse to accept it, it is kept in the RLO. Ordinary unregistered letters are kept for a month, before being destroyed while registered articles are kept for three months. Usually, almost all letters are delivered successfully,” said Lobo.

A decade ago, the office employed 20-odd people who could read Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Gujarati, Urdu, English and Hindi. The staff sorted more than 2,000 letters a day. According to Postal Department records, the reasons for letters being undelivered also included wrong house numbers and the addressee having moved house.

The RLO now has just a manager with an assistant. “The number of letters has come down drastically because of increased awareness about pin codes and writing addresses. Even at the booking stage, Postal Department officials ensure that the address is written properly,” said Lobo. This is also why the RLO has seen massive downsizing in the recent years. So much so that it has been shifted to three locations in the past decade — from RT Nagar to the GPO on Raj Bhavan Road to the Benson Town address. A department official said, “Given the reduced workload and that it is more of a back-end and not a consumer-facing vertical, it just keeps getting moved from one location to another depending on the availability of space. In fact, it should be called the Rotating Letters Office instead.”
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