Last-minute rush as India ends telegram service

Indians flock to send souvenir last-minute messages as service shuts down after 162 years

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 July, 2013, 2:43am


Thousands of Indians crammed into telegram offices to send souvenir messages to friends and family in a last-minute rush before the service shuts down after 162 years.

Yesterday was the last day for messages to be accepted by the service, the world's last major commercial telegram operation, and the Central Telegraph Office in New Delhi said it was geared up to tackle the expected rush before accepting its final telegram at 10pm.

The service, known popularly as the "Taar" or wire, will close today because of mounting financial losses.


Leave for all staff was cancelled in an effort to handle the volume of messages, which cost a minimum of 29 rupees (HK$3.75) and are hand-delivered by workers on bicycles. Early yesterday morning joggers, housewives and students were among those sending messages to loved ones. Many were seen making calls on their phones to get the postal addresses of their friends so they could send the last dispatch.

"I have never seen such a rush before. There are some people who are sending 20 telegrams in one go," said Ranjana Das who is in charge of transmitting the telegrams.

"The service would not have been killed had there been this kind of rush through the year," added worker Vinod Rai.

In the days before mobile phones and the internet, the telegram network was the main form of long-distance communication, with 20 million messages sent from India during the subcontinent's bloody partition in 1947.

At its peak in 1985 the state-run utility sent 600,000 telegrams a day across India but the figure has dwindled to 5,000.

When Lata Harit, a telegraph officer at Delhi's historic Kashmere Gate telegraph office, joined the service more than three decades ago, she did six months of training at a school for telegraph operators. Telegrams were sent using the complex dots and dashes of Morse code that had to be decoded at their destination.

"It required enormous concentration to decipher, but some of us were so good at our work, and so fast, that at the end of a day, we would feel exhilarated," she said. "It made us feel proud."

Other operators were important messengers for crucial news.

Baljit Singh, who became a telegraph operator in 1972, recalled the frenetic rush following the 1984 assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi and the turmoil that followed.

"People came in droves to send telegrams. We worked round the clock. I don't think we went home for days," he recalled.

Over the years, Morse code gave way to telex machines and teleprinters, and finally electronic printers and computers. One five-word telegram sent from the centre summed up the change. "The end of an era," it read.

Additional reporting by Associated Press