ALWAR, India: With his rickety bicycle and sackcloth mail bag, 62-year-old Indian postman Chet Ram does not look like a worker at the vanguard of an e-commerce revolution delivering everything from mobile phones to cow manure.
He pedals miles each day in rural Rajasthan state, ferrying packages to villages and takes payments in cash because most of his customers do not have bank accounts, let alone credit cards.
While in the United States online giant Amazon and its ilk experiment with futuristic drones and one-hour deliveries, in rural India e-commerce retains a distinctly old-fashioned feel.
Yet the dawn of online shopping is changing the lives of people in rural areas—and is breathing new life into India Post, the ailing state-run postal network, which has struggled with a huge deficit for years.
In the past two years the 160-year-old postal giant has tied up with 400 e-commerce companies including Amazon and Indian giant Flipkart to deliver a diverse range of goods.
It deploys its vast network of about 460,000 employees across 155,000 post offices to take goods to customers in remote areas, often hundreds of kilometers (miles) from the nearest town.
Government clerk Surinder Singh Yadav from rural Ula Hedi village in Neemrana district says the dawn of e-commerce has transformed shopping for his family, who now nudge him to order products they see advertised on television.
“These companies give us a variety we don’t get in our local markets, quality at competitive rates and a doorstep delivery,” said Yadav, as he accepted a delivery of a spray paint machine.
The absence of reliable private delivery companies outside the big cities led India Post to step in to fill the gap.
“Until recently, people in these rural areas had aspirations but no means to access the market,” Kavery Banerjee, secretary of India Post, told Agence France-Presse.
“Now we are delivering women’s clothes and latest electronic gadgets even in the remote regions of country like Leh and Ladakh,” she added.
It has been a huge success, with parcel deliveries increasing 15-fold to 75,000 daily deliveries in the past two years.
But India’s vast areas of rural terrain, where roads can be poor and infrastructure patchy, pose challenges to the digital revolution.
Most small post offices, like the one in Neemrana, depend on unreliable public transport to collect parcels from region’s bigger post offices.
Postal workers use bicycles and old cloth mail bags which make it difficult to transport bigger or multiple parcels.
Many rural Indians are still new to the Internet—up to a billion people are not yet online in the country — and are wary of e-commerce sites, preferring to hand over money only after receiving the goods.
Part of the firms’ success has been driven by giving customers the chance to pay cash on delivery—although it takes up to two days to find out if a parcel was accepted by a distant recipient.
“It has given a sense of empowerment to customers who are not confident about e-commerce shopping,” said K.C Verma, an assistant superintendent at a post office in Behror, a town close to Neemrana.