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Monday, March 25, 2002

E-mails affecting pigeon service
Sugita Katyal

FOR more than half a century, the Police Pigeon Service has been the pride of the force in poverty-stricken Orissa state in eastern India.

About 800 homing pigeons often succeeded where modern communications failed, beating cyclones and floods that frequently hammer the coastal province to carry messages to and from remote police stations.

But now a government proposal to scrap the courier service because it is considered redundant in an age when snail mail, or hand delivered mail, has been outpaced by e-mail, is causing a flutter among bird lovers.

"The old pigeon tradition should not be destroyed. It's a vanishing art which should be protected," Rajat Bhargava, a Delhi-based ornithologist said.


"Also, these pigeons are excluded from the Wildlife Protection Act. So they can be kept. We're against cruelty to animals. But we're not against captive breeding of domesticated animals," he said.

But officials in Orissa said the auditor general's department had proposed grounding the winged courier service launched in 1946, long before the advent of telephones because it was an unnecessary expense at nearly Rs 5,00,000 ($10,260) a year.

"The report says the pigeon service should be wound up because carrying messages by pigeons is too outdated in this age of electronic communication," B.N. Das, Superintendent of Police in Orissa, told Reuters.

"Since they are not required for the purpose for which they were first set up, why have the extra cost? But the government is still to take a decision on this," Das said.

The little grey and white birds are trained and fed by a special force of about 40 police officers in 29 lofts across the state.

Historic tradition

The pigeon courier service dates back to 1946, a year before India's independence from British rule. Used extensively by the army during World War II, they were handed to the police when peace broke out.

One of the first major marks in the annals of their history was in 1948, when the pigeons were used to send an urgent message to a remote area about arrangements for a visit by India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Supporters say the service should be maintained despite modern technology because pigeons are reliable and have proved highly useful during floods, strikes and elections when modern forms of communication have failed.

They proved invaluable in the aftermath of a cyclone that slammed into the state in 1999, snapping communication links with coastal areas for days.

Moreover, officials say, the winged courier service offers a higher level of secrecy than wireless communication.

The birds start training when they are around four to six weeks old, and those that eventually make the grade as "boomerangs" can fly non-stop up to 500 km (310 miles), eat a square meal of wheat and millet at their destination and then return to their starting point. The messages the pigeons carry are written on a scrap of paper, which is rolled up and inserted into a tiny plastic capsule. This is then attached to one of their legs, before they begin their journey.

Pigeons have a special place in Indian history: they are present in centuries-old Moghul miniatures and texts where they were used to carry love notes into harems and coded orders to soldiers in the field.

"Pigeon breeding is an art that goes back to Moghul days. Emperor Shahjehan was one of the greatest breeders of pigeons. The tradition should be preserved," Bhargava said.