For 80-year-old Neeru and his wife in Himachal Pradesh’s snowbound village of Reshwal in Kinnaur district, the monthly pension of ₹1,500 that each of them receives is crucial. They have no children they can depend on or any other income. For the old couple to go down to the post office at Sangla, 2 km away, is well-nigh impossible.

Luckily, they need not worry. Their old age pension is delivered to them at home. Kuldeep Singh, the postman, walks uphill on the path covered with one foot of snow, an hour-and-a-half, 2-km ascent from Sangla. With the lockdown on, Singh brings them ₹18,000 in cash — their accumulated pension for six months.

Under an MoU with the Himachal Pradesh government, the postal department delivers pension at the doorstep of all those above 80 years and people with 70 per cent disability. But in the lockdown situation the benefit has been extended to all beneficiaries of old age, widow and disability pension.

They include 110 beneficiaries of a remote village 8 km from the Darvin branch post office in Chamba district. The nearest market for this village is 16 km away. On April 15, postmaster Anup Singh, along with mail delivery man Ashwini Kumar, started from their post office at 6 am. After delivering pension to beneficiaries in six villages the duo reached this remote village atop a hill at 8 pm, carrying ₹3-4 lakh in cash.

As they could not return at night, they stayed back in the village courtesy the village head. Thanks to this, a family comprising 110-year-old Dhoni Devi, her two sons (one of whom is 80), one daughter-in-law and a physically and mentally challenged grandson received their pension for the next three months.

In another instance, Pawan Kumar, branch postmaster at Saho in Chamba district, with mail delivery man, Subhash, walked 9 km on foot for seven hours in a region prone to attacks by wild bears to reach minority-dominated Kurale village. In a similar manner, 42 beneficiaries of a cluster of villages that come under the Hikkim branch post office, the highest post office in the world, also received their pension. Hikkim post office is located at a height of 4,440 metres in Spiti valley.

Altogether, there over 8,000 branch postmasters, postmen and helper postmen ( sahayak shekhar daakpals ) who have been reaching pension to beneficiaries across the State. Many beneficiaries live in remote areas accessible only through winding footpaths. Postal department employees also carry hand-held devices for Aadhaar-enabled account number holders to draw money. The postal department is also performing the role of the bank in the lockdown situation. Before going to a particular village, they find out the cash requirement of the citizens and carry the amount to deliver.

Blessings, their reward

These corona warriors, however, do not get any additional remuneration for traversing miles by foot through difficult terrain, often in severe weather conditions. “The way they greet us and shower blessings on us is our sweet reward. The fact that we are able to contribute to their happiness gives us immense satisfaction,” says Anup Singh, echoing the sentiments of others like him.

Earlier, pensions were paid through money order, but since the last few years payments are deposited in the bank accounts of the beneficiaries. Delivering it personally at the doorstep across the State, including in remote villages, has been a huge challenge, especially with no public transport available.

“It was not easy to manage this mammoth task with limited resources and vehicles available with the postal department, but we did it,” says a satisfied Bishen Singh, Assistant Post Master General, Himachal Pradesh Postal Circle. What’s more, the whole operation was carried out in around 10 days after the lockdown was announced. In some instances, parcels of medicines were also delivered on a priority basis as it was difficult for villagers to reach a chemist or dispensary.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi