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Telegram makes a quiet exit

Started 163 years ago in Kolkata, the telegraphic service, which is also India’s oldest communication tool, finally loses out to improved technology. Telegram services terminate on July 14, 2013, at 9pm. Arpit Basu writes.

kolkata Updated: Jul 14, 2013 10:51 IST
Arpit Basu
Arpit Basu
Hindustan Times
telegrams,telegram services,telegraphic equipment

As we step inside the whitewashed building nicely adorned with its British-era colonnades, the constant chatter of a keyboard of a large computer monitor fitted with a printer catches our attention.

This is the building from where India’s oldest communication services — the telegram — was operated, but till today. The 163-year-old telegram service will formally close down on July 15 marking an end of an era.

There was a time when this telegraph machine used to send 10,000 messages a day.

For many decades, people have been coming to the Central Telegraph Office at BBD Bag to send news of most momentous natures – births and deaths, condolence and congratulation, arrival and departures, health and education results – across India and around the world.

William O’Shaughnessy sent the first telegram 163 years ago from Calcutta to Diamond Harbour.

The growing use of mobile phones and Internet has led to steep decline in the usage of the telegraphic service.

“There was a time when this office used to send around 10,000 telegrams a day. Even a decade ago, the count was around 1,500 to 2,000 a day. But on Friday, we dealt with only 120 telegrams,” said Jayanto Chakroborty, a senior official from the office.

Known as the “taar”, the telegram has quite an eventful history in Bengal. In 1850, six years after Samuel Morse sent the first telegram in the US, the East India company appointed Irishman William Brooke O’ Shaughnessy to lay down the first telegram line.

That first stretch of wire was laid between Calcutta and Diamond Harbour in South 24-Parganas. Within five years, more than 4,000 miles of cable had been laid, establishing a vital, near-instant communication link between all the major Indian cities.

Predominantly, the telegram service was introduced to facilitate trade of the East India Company. But within the next five years, it became an important instrument to exchange important news and events. During the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, the telegram played an important role in communicating message and instructions to and from different barracks in Kolkata and helped the British regain control over the rebels.

With time, telegram services crossed the ambit of government strategic messages and became the most important tool of communication for the ordinary people.

“I am working here for the last 27 years and have seen people sending various kinds of messages, some happy and some sad. But there was one woman whose message I will never forget. The year was 1994. I typed out a message from a 25-year-old woman. It said: Love you, will you marry?” said an official of the Central Telegram Office.

Post Independence too the telegraph had played a very important role. It was a norm to officially intimate winners of President’s Awards through telegram. Though nowadays President’s office call up and send emails to the winners, the tradition of informing the awardees through a telegram continued till this year.

“I still remember the time when I received a telegram from the President’s office informing me about the award. It was a very important event of my life. Even as the service is being called off, it will hold a special place in my life,” said Subir Paul, a clay artisan from Krishnanagar in Nadia.

Officials at the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) decided to stop the telegram services owing to considerable losses. It is not only because of the advent of SMS, fax, emails and smartphones that the service has been called off. The charge for a telegram is far less than the cost of sending them.

“We charge Rs 28.10 for the first 30 words. Thereafter, R1 for each subsequent word. Telegrams containing death news are subsidised and cost just Rs 7. But for us we have to spend at least Rs 80 to send the message. No wonder why we had to bid goodbye to the service,” added Chakroborty.

First Published: Jul 14, 2013 09:54 IST