KOLKATA: India Post has changed its priorities in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Boasting the largest postal network in the world with more than 1.56 lakh post offices, of which 1.41 lakh are in rural areas, the robust India Post has become a lifesaver, working round the clock, delivering COVID-19 testing kits, ventilators, masks and medicines to far-flung places.
The red mail vans, which are used for delivering parcels within the city limits, have now become the mode of transport to faraway locations during the nationwide lockdown, with no trains and flights in operation.
Last weekend, a COVID-19 kit consignment packed in dry ice arrived from Delhi for delivery to hospitals in Ranchi.
"The next day was Sunday and we could not afford to have waited till Monday.
Our challenge was to rush, so we made arrangements with postal circle of Jharkhand and it was delivered to the hospitals by midnight," Chief Post Master General of West Bengal Circle, Gautam Bhattacharya, told PTI.
"The other day, 650 kg of medicines and PPEs came from the national capital to the Kolkata sorting hub by a cargo flight.
There were 25 cartons and we ensured delivery by midnight," he said.
There are more than 50 red mail vans in operation from the Kolkata hub that transports PPEs to districts and other areas of the West Bengal circle.
Mobilising the staff, who mostly come from suburbs and subsequent coordination, means that Bhattacharya, whose circle also includes Sikkim and Andaman & Nicobar islands, is having sleepless nights.
"This is an all-new challenge for us.
A lot of movements are taking place of COVID-19 related items.
The big challenge is about making the logistic arrangements.
" It also means extra responsibility for those engaged in the delivery process, such as the drivers, who venture out to faraway places, and that too, at odd hours.
"We are operating with reduced staff of about 60 per cent as the small post offices are closed.
We bring the parcels to head post offices. We have now become a transport system with no railway and airway service. This is an emergency situation and we are up for it," Bhattacharya added.
He cited the example of a post master from Debagram sub-post office in Nadia district, Sanjit Halder, who cycled more than 150 km, all the way from Garia here, to reach his work place.
It was any other weekend and Halder had retruned to his home in Garia, knowing little about the imminent Janata Curfew and the nationwide lockdown that followed in the subsequent weeks.
He kept his work commitment and took his daughter's 'Kanya Shree' (state government-gifted) bicycle and started off at the break of dawn.
Halder was in office by 9 pm, ready to serve more than 300 pensioners and monthly-income-scheme holders.
"Most of our clients are illiterate and poor, and we work like a close-knit family.
I cannot afford to sit at home.
I had contacted a taxi, but the driver demanded a hefty Rs 6,000.
So, I decided to take my daughter's bicycle," Halder said in an interaction with PTI.
The 48-year-old took small breaks thrice on the way to keep himself hydrated amid scorching heat.
"First, I had some biscuits, then I stopped for sugarcane juice and finally at a sweet stall, I had curd.
" By the time he reached Krishnanagar, it was pitch-dark and there was a jungle ahead.
Luckily, the local police came to his rescue and took him in their van.
"For me, it was like a small service to Mother India," said Halder, who has been at the Debagram sub-post office ever since the lockdown came into force.
The Kolkata circle of India Post has also made door- to-door distribution of pensions to the super senior citizens during the ongoing lockdown.
There are about 60,000 pensioners in the circle of which nearly 30 per cent are in their 80s.
"We prepared a list and the respective branch post offices contacted them to facilitate the pensions," Bhattacharya said.
India Post is also open to regular mail service, although the priority now has changed, he said.
"We were never closed and most of the post offices are open.
One can come and book general items.
But, we receive them with a disclaimer -- 'the service could be delayed', as we are dependent on cargo flights now.
The traffic is less for mail and e-commerce articles, and people are not turning up in large numbers," Bhattacharya said.