Chronicles of the Odisha Police Pigeon Service
Since 2006, 105 pigeons in Cuttack and 44 pigeons at the Police Training College in Angul continue to be taken care of for ceremonial purposes
On the morning of March 6, there was a surge of curiosity among the crew of the Odiya fishing trawler Sarathi, coasting 40 nautical miles off the Paradip coast. They had spotted an oddly behaving pigeon, perched on the vessel, something attached to its legs in a green plastic clip, some illegible writing scrawled on its wings. The crew caught the bird, and found that it seemed to have a small camera and a microchip on its body, and two days later when they reached shore, handed the bird over to the Paradip marine police station.
Since then, the Odisha Police have been investigating the devices, sending them to the state forensic science laboratory. Those investigations have not proved definitive, and the state police are now considering sending the electronic items to a DRDO lab. “We are approaching other labs that may clear the air whether the pigeon was used for spying,” said Jagatsinghpur superintendent of police, Rahul PR.
In the interim, while every other state in India would have been confronted with a delicate problem – where to lodge the pigeon, not so Odisha. On March 9, the pigeon travelled two hours and 82 kilometres to Cuttack to become the 106th bird at the police pigeon loft at the headquarters of the Odisha Police Pigeon Service, the only such department still in service in India. “It will stay here for several days till the investigation is complete. We have a full setup,” a senior police officer said, a hint of pride in his voice.
The Odisha Police Pigeon Service
In 1946, with the process of Indian independence well underway, the British Indian Army donated 200 Belgian pigeons to Odisha; the birds were known to fly non-stop for 500km at a stretch. The idea was that they would be particularly useful in forested, deeply inaccessible forested regions of southern Odisha such as Koraput, where sending messages to government offices that had no telephones or high frequency radios was difficult.
“The pigeon mail continued to be the vital link in ferrying messages for several years after, delivering as many as 4,079 messages in 1991 with the number rising to 5,074 in 1993. The pigeons were useful in times of crisis, whether it was floods in 1982 or the cyclone in 1971, when traditional radio networks broke down,” said historian Anil Dhir.
There are other famous examples that are part of state folklore, Dhir said, where the birds proved their utility. Such as April 13, 1948, when India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru arrived in Sambalpur to lay the foundation stone of the Hirakud Dam. He expected to meet a crowd of people when he arrived, but cautious local government officials had kept them away. An annoyed Nehru wanted a message sent to his next stop at Cuttack. “Arrangements for the public meeting should not be such as to separate speaker from the audience,” the message read. The Prime Minister took seven hours to reach Cuttack. But a Belgian pigeon, with the urgent message in a capsule on its leg, delivered the message successfully to local officials in Cuttack within five.
Between 1946 and the late 1970s, the Odisha Pigeon Police service kept daily lines of communications open between 400 police stations in the state and ran three different services.
The “static service” was a one-way communication where pigeons accompanying a police party were sent back to their loft bearing messages in tiny metal cylinders attached to their legs. This service was largely used during natural disasters such as floods and cyclones.
The “boomerang service” was a two-way exchange of messages where birds flew to another police station from their loft and returned with a message.
And this third was the “mobile service” where pigeons were carried by police units on the move and used for the purpose of communicating with the state police headquarters.
In 2006, these services were officially stopped after the auditor general raised questions about the service’s efficacy when faster and more reliable modes of communication were available.
That same year, most pigeons were released, and the service nearly disbanded till former DGP Amiya Bhushan Tripathy intervened. He was the local coordinator for Indian National Trust for Art and Heritage, and wanted a barebones service to be retained.
Since then 105 pigeons in Cuttack and 44 pigeons at the Police Training College in Angul continue to be taken care of for ceremonial purposes. The service costs the exchequer one lakh each year, and has one trainer, one police sub inspector and two constables.
In the Cantonment Road area of Cuttack, there is a brown metal board that arches over a blue iron gate. The board is pockmarked with rust, some letters chipped way, unkempt and dirty. It says, “Odisha Police Carrier Pigeon Service, Central Breeding and Headquarter Loft, Cuttack.”
The gate creaks open at 6am every morning when pigeon trainer Parsuram Nanda, sub-inspector Sanjay Mahali and constable Sanjay Biswal arrive.
Nanda, who has been doing this for 23 years, sweeps the fallen leaves inside the compound, and then begins to wash bird droppings in the five lofts that hold the birds. Each loft is identical in size, with a height of around 7 feet, and width of 6 feet. “We then check the pigeons and look for signs of sickness. If they are found to be fit, we make them exercise by releasing them out of the loft. The birds fly within a 5km radius and then return for the day’s first meal of wheat, maize, ragi, Bengal gram, pigeon pea and green gram at 9.45am,” said sub-inspector Mahali. In the summer, the birds are bathed twice a week, and once a week in the winters.
From 10am (when feedings ends) to 3.45pm, there is little work for the staff to do. But Nanda says it is crucial that the birds are fed at the same time every day. “At 3.45 we feed them the same meal again. If the time is not adhered to, their intake goes down. Besides this, they are given water with a pinch of potassium permanganate that acts as a disinfectant and helps improve plumage. The water has a tinge of pink, and this is what they now identify as drinking water. So when they are let out, they don’t go to other water sources.”
Pigeon sub-inspector Mahali says that the birds stay in their lofts, except on ceremonial days such as Republic and Independence Day, where they are set “free” by dignitaries, only to return minutes later. “Given we need such few numbers now, we don’t allow much breeding, and control numbers. Most pigeons have a life of 18 years, if there are no unforeseen circumstances. When they die, we conduct a post mortem, and records are maintained in a police register.”
The service itself may have faded into irrelevance, made obsolete by time and technology, but Nanda says the birds are living creatures, that still elicit affection, and mourning.
“Six years ago, when one bird died, I did not eat for a few days because I was so attached to it. These days I am less emotional. But it still hurts every time. It is like I am losing a child, a student.”