Many of us are familiar with the visits of the friendly woman, a vanity bag dangling from her shoulder, an umbrella and your local post office Recurring Deposit book in hand.

She would sit in your verandah, wiping the sweat from her brow.

Occasionally, she would flash a big smile as she collected Rs.50 or Rs.100 to help you tide over a winter’s day. There was a time when the small savings agent was a confidant, and a trustworthy mobile bank.

Today, these working women whose motto is ‘service at your doorstep’ are a waning breed, crippled by adverse employment circumstances.

The Mahila Pradhan Kshetriya Bachat Yojana, the Central scheme which employs these women agents, was started in the early 1970s by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with a two-fold aim to help poor and “not very educated” women to earn a livelihood and to promote small savings in families.

“For every Rs.100 we mobilise for the government after walking from house to house, we get Rs. 4 as commission. It has not been increased for the past 13 years. Most of us are widows, divorcees, and the sole breadwinners. A kg of rice does not cost Rs.2 anymore, it is Rs.37 now. We just cannot make ends meet,” Molly George, president of the 1,600-strong Kozhikode wing of the National Savings Agents Association, said.

“Earlier, we used to write down and hand over our daily collection list to the post office. Now, the post office insists on computerised printouts. So, every agent has to give five copies of her daily list and a CD or a pen drive. This costs us a minimum of Rs.50 a day. How do we manage this with a 4 percent commission? Most of us live in rented houses and cannot afford computers,” P.V. Jayanthi Devi, an agent, said.

E.N. Komalavalli is a typical case. In her early 50s now, Ms. Komalavalli started out as a small savings agent immediately after her marriage. She wanted to supplement her husband’s then salary of Rs. 750 to raise her two children.

Or take the case of Sundari P., who has been an agent for 25 years, unmarried and whose sole income is her daily commission. “Our typical day starts at 9 a.m. There are clients who don’t even give a glass of water. We take the risks, carrying our clients’ life savings in our bags, visiting unknown houses, canvassing for deposits. One day, if we miss work, we starve. If we fall ill, there is no back-up. When we quit, we do not get any benefits and there is nobody to turn to,” Poorneswari G., who is suffering from partial facial paralysis, said.

Dharna today

“Today, we are at crossroads,” Ms. Komalavalli said. The agents are staging a dharna before the Kunnamangalam post office on Tuesday (May 13) seeking a rise in their commission percentage. “Will someone be kind enough to hear us? Our collections in Kozhikode itself in 2013 are about Rs.15 crore,” Ms. George said.

Post Master General (Northern Region), Hemanth Kumar Sarma, says the percentage of commission is a policy matter. There is very little the postal department can do. “These commission agents come under the Union Ministry of Finance. We are only providing an agency function. They mobilise funds for the government. If there is an impact on their earnings, it will impact fund mobilisation,” Mr. Sarma said.

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