x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

RIP India’s telegram service: 1851-2013

After 162 years of operation and having made losses since 1991, the telegraph services will be shut on July 14, the government announced.

Days are numbered for Delhi's telegraphists. With the advent of newer technologies, India has decided to discontinue its telegraph service.
Days are numbered for Delhi's telegraphists. With the advent of newer technologies, India has decided to discontinue its telegraph service.

NEW DELHI // RP Gaur's name appears at the bottom of a large wooden plaque that lists the tenures of office holders since 1962.

As chief superintendent of India's telegraph services, Mr Gaur said he had an inkling that his would be the last name on record.

"For a long time, I felt the telegraph's time was near as I watched a drastic reduction in bookings," he said. "It was known to everybody this decision was coming."

After 162 years of operation and having made losses since 1991, the telegraph services will be shut on July 14, the government announced last week.

Word of the end of India's telegraph service brought, SK Pandit, 35, an employee at a private company, to the only counter for sending telegrams at the Central Telegraph Office in New Delhi.

"My boss heard the services are closing and he wants to send his daughter a telegram on her birthday. To let her know that once such a method of communication existed," Mr Pandit said.

He was unsure of how to write the message. After a few tries and consulting a friend on his mobile phone about how to write a telegram, he picked up a fresh form and decided to come back later.

International telegraph services from India were stopped three years ago because there were no longer any telegraph offices overseas.

The relative longevity of the telegraph service in India is because of the slow pace of mobile phone penetration in remote areas. But as mobile networks have expanded, telegrams have been exposed as lacking on cost, speed and accessibility.

It cost 27 rupees (Dh1.67) to send a telegram of up to 50 words that takes up to 48 hours to be delivered, compared with 10 paise (100 paise = 1 rupee) to send an SMS that is received almost instantaneously.

Shameem Akhtar, the senior general manager at the Central Telegraph Office in New Delhi, said that the telegraph service nationwide had revenues of 130 million rupees a year in 2012, but "the expenditure is about 1.5 billion rupees per year".

Since 2006, the state-owned telecom company has lost more than Dh90m on its telegraph services, Mr Akhtar said.

The country's first telegraph lines were laid by the East India Company in 1851 in Calcutta (now Kolkata), stretching about 40 kilometres down the Hoogly River to the Diamond Harbour. Just four years later 6,400km of cables had been laid.

In 1857, freedom fighters attacked British telegraph offices in the north Indian cities of Meerut (in present day Uttar Pradesh) and Ambala (now Punjab) to prevent messages about their movements reaching Delhi ahead of their arrival. A memorial still stands in front of the old telegraph building in New Delhi, dedicated to those who died fighting for both sides.

The service went wireless in 1902 but the length of telegraph lines grew to 160,000km by the time of independence in 1947 as cables continued to be laid in remote areas. Telegraph offices were sending 17 million messages a year at that time.

Demand surged in the 1970s and 1980s and "once upon a time, we saw everything in code", Mr Gaur said. "Transfers, arrivals, births, deaths, weather, war."

Mr Gaur has been chief superintendent since 2004 but joined the service in 1979 in Delhi as a supervisor, which put him in charge of rooms full of people tapping out the dots and dashes of Morse code on telegraph machines.

The clicking and clacking from the building was so loud that it could be heard from the front gates a few hundred metres away, Mr Gaur said.

"It sounded like a factory with machines in there," Mr Gaur said. "But it was just men tapping codes so fast."

The Delhi office sent up to 300 telegrams a day. Across India, up to 5,000 telegrams were sent a day at that time, Mr Akhtar said.

By 1985-86, when telegraph services were in highest demand, 60 million telegrams were sent each year and there were 45,000 telegraph offices.

"Even inside the weather stations we had telegraph offices, so as soon we as got a report, we could transmit messages to coastal cities about tropical storms urgently," said Shyam Lal Chauhan, a telegraphist for more than 20 years.

But it was also in 1985 that they stopped hiring, Mr Akhtar said.

Only 75 offices remain, employing less than 1,000 people. The Delhi office now sends out only 300 telegrams a month.

When the telegraph offices close next month, their workers will be absorbed into other departments in the communications ministry.

"Everything else will be scrap," said Mr Chauhan, who trained for nine months before being allowed near a telegraph machine. "My knowledge will be useless, just part of the heritage."

 

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae