- The Washington Times - Monday, April 8, 2002

NEW DELHI India's unique police carrier pigeon service, a crucial communications lifeline throughout more than 50 years of cyclones, floods and drought, is being grounded, making more than 800 of the country's cheapest and most reliable civil servants redundant.
The government in the eastern state of Orissa, one of India's most underdeveloped regions, is expected to approve a police recommendation submitted last week that the service, which costs just $2,700 a year to run, be scrapped.
While supporters argue that the so-called "p-mail" service proved invaluable when all communication networks were knocked out by floods in 1982 and a cyclone in 1999, critics say that radios and e-mails have rendered it obsolete.
"The pigeon service has outlived its utility with the advent of advanced communication facilities," said N.C. Padhi, the state's director general of police. The pigeons carried only a handful of messages last year, down from about 9,000 in 1990, and their usefulness was "drastically declining."
At the pigeon service headquarters in Cuttack, B.N. Das, the superintendent of signals, said the service "made practical sense two decades ago when there were no VHF radio sets."
But now that all police stations in the state are on the radio network, the winged messengers had been reduced to the status of museum pieces.
India's pigeon service, the only one of its kind in the world, is surprisingly sophisticated. The birds, which can fly more than 300 miles at a stretch at an average speed of 50 mph, are trained for several different missions.
The static service allows for one-way communication: Pigeons accompanying a police party are sent back to their loft bearing messages in tiny metal cylinders attached to their legs with rubber bands.
The boomerang service, operated by better-trained recruits, offers a two-way exchange of messages. The birds fly to a police station or an outpost, feed from a wooden box stacked with grain, and then make the return journey home with their message.
The service was pioneered in southern Orissa's mountainous Koraput district in 1946, a year before Indian independence, on an experimental basis. The first carrier pigeons were procured from the army to establish communications with areas that had neither wireless nor telephone links.
The service proved its worth two years later when a pigeon carried an urgent message for the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, from Sambalpur to Cuttack, taking five hours to cover a distance of more than 150 miles.
Thereafter p-mail linked most of Orissa's 732 police stations and outposts in 30 districts, many of them sparsely populated and underdeveloped tribal regions. By the mid-1980s, however, the service was declining as technology advanced. The redundant pigeons, which live for up to 20 years, are now destined to be given to the state's wildlife department.
Supporters of the pigeon service emphasize its cheapness: Just a third of the budget pays for the 40 policemen who train and look after the birds in 29 lofts across the state. "This is a small price to pay for being the world's only active pigeon courier service," a police official said.
T.K. Mishra, Orissa's home secretary, hopes that a skeleton pigeon service might be maintained to operate between remote police stations in case of a paralyzing natural disaster. "Machines can fail you, but birds never will," he said, but he added that their relevance would be "significantly toned down."
An ornamental brood of pigeons is also likely to be kept on display at police headquarters in the state capital, Bhubaneshwar, 900 miles east of New Delhi, as a symbolic reminder of their historic role.

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