Last-minute rush as India stops telegram service

Published July 14, 2013

| AFP

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

Sunday is the last day that messages will 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.

"We have increased the number of staff in the expectation that the number of people will grow at our counters," telegraph senior general manager Shameem Akhtar told AFP.

"We will take the final telegram at 10:00 pm (1630 GMT) Sunday and try to deliver them all the same night and the remaining would be sent on Monday," he added as dozens waited to hand over messages handwritten on slips of paper.

Leave for all staff has been cancelled in a bid to handle the volume of messages, which cost a minimum of 29 rupees (50 US cents) and are hand-delivered by delivery workers on bicycles.

On Sunday morning joggers, housewives and students were among those sending messages to loved ones. Many were seen making calls on their mobile phones to get the postal addresses of their friends so they could send the last dispatch.

"I have never seen such a rush before. They 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.

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

"While we communicate with improving modern means, let us sample a bit of history," said one of the last telegrams sent.

"Keep this safely as a piece of history. Mom," read another.

In the days before mobile phones and the Internet, the telegram network was the main form of long-distance communication, with 20 million messages dispatched 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 at present, telegraph senior general manager Shameem Akhtar told AFP.

Most of these are believed to be sent from government departments.

"Since 2008 we started redeploying our telegraph staff... and at present more than 90 percent have been redeployed and only 968 telegraph staff remain," Akhtar said.

One five-word telegram sent from the centre summed up the change.

"The End of an Era," it read.

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