Telegrams: India

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Telegrams in India: 1850-2013

The Times of India 2013/07/13

PTI | Jul 14, 2013 The Times of India

The coming generations will never know how one’s heart lurched when the khadi-clad postman, the bearer of news much awaited or dreaded, handed over the missive.

The 163-year old telegram service in the country - the harbinger of good and bad news for generations of Indians – was discontinued on Jul 14, 2013.

In its heyday—till the early 1990s—a network of 45,000 telegraph offices served the country. Only 75 of those remained in 2013, with just 4 open in Delhi till July 15. Shameem Akhtar, BSNL senior manager, said, “About Rs 150 crore was spent on this department in 2011-2012; the revenue generated was a mere Rs 13 crore. The department was overstaffed. The government tried to shore up the telegram by revising the rates from Rs 3 per 30 words to Rs 25 per 30 words for the first time in 60 years.”

Telegrams were the bread and butter for many. People made a living by teaching how to write a telegram. Nudged out by technology - SMS, emails, mobile phones - the iconic service gradually faded into oblivion with less and less people taking recourse to it.

Started in 1850 on an experimental basis between Koklata and Diamond Harbour, it was opened for use by the British East India Company the following year. In 1854, the service was made available to the public.

It was such an important mode of communication in those days that revolutionaries fighting for the country's independence used to cut the telegram lines to stop the British from communicating.

Old timers recall that receiving a telegram would be an event itself and the messages were normally opened with a sense of trepidation as people feared for the welfare of their near and dear ones.

For jawans and armed forces seeking leave or waiting for transfer or joining reports, it was a quick and handy mode of communication.

Lawyers vouched for the telegrams as they were registered under the Indian Evidence Act and known for their credibility when presented in court.

Bollywood was not to be left behind and immortalized the service with many sudden turns in films being announced by the advent of the 'taar'.

Pockets of rural India continued to use the service [in the 21st century] but with the advent of technology and newer means of communication, the telegram found itself edged out.

State-run telecom firm BSNL had decided to discontinue telegrams following a huge shortfall in revenue. The service generated about Rs 75 lakh annually, compared with the cost of over Rs 100 crore to run and manage it.

In July 2013 there were about 75 telegram centres in the country, with less than 1,000 employees to manage them. BSNL decided to absorb these employees and deploy them to manage mobile services, landline telephony and broadband services.

Faced with declining revenue, the government had revised telegram charges in May 2011, after a gap of 60 years. Charges for inland telegram services were hiked to Rs 27 per 50 words.

Within a short time of BSNL handling telegram services in 1990s, the PSU had a rift with the Department of Posts following which telegrams were accepted as phonograms from various villages and other centres from telephone consumers.

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