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Communications

India bids good-bye to the telegram

Millions of people relied on it for decades. But now India's state-run telegram service has come to an end. Authorities felt telegrams were no longer commercially viable in a fast-growing age of digital communications.

It served as the harbinger of good and bad news for generations of Indians. The telegram conveyed the birth of a child, a death, and greetings on birthdays and festivals. But the curtains finally came down on the iconic 163-year-old Indian telegram service, on July 15.

The service closed because of mounting financial losses and becoming redundant in an era of mobile phones and the Internet. "The losses were getting bigger. It was not practical to have kept it going much longer. We lost 250 million US dollars in the last seven years and it was time to put an end to the service," said Shameem Akhtar, general manager at the Bharat Sanchar Nigam, which runs India's telegram service.

One last telegram

To commemorate the last day, thousands crammed into telegraph offices across the country to send souvenir messages to family and friends before the service passed into the annals of history. The last recorded telegram was sent to Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.

Employees feed in telegram messages onto computers to be sent via telegraph at a telecommunications office in Bangalore on June 13, 2013. (Photo: AFP)

The state-run telegram service was closed due to increasing financial losses

"It is indeed a sad day for me. I have sent thousands of telegrams in my 35 years working in this small, dingy office. I even started typing up messages on computers to be sent via telegraph, instead of using Morse code," Madan Gopal, a telegraph operator in Delhi told DW.

Known popularly as "Taar" or wire, the telegram service, which provided millions with a fast and reliable mode of communication, began in 1850, when the first trial telegraph line was established between Kolkata and Diamond Harbour, a southern suburb nearly 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the city center. The British East India Company then started using the telegraph a year later, and by 1854, lines had been laid across the country.

By 1856, the network stretched 6,000 kilometers across the British Raj, connecting the strategically vital cities of Kolkata, Agra, Mumbai, Peshawar, and Chennai. "It certainly played an important role in the independence struggle and research shows that back in those days freedom fighters in the forefront of the movement used to cut the telegram lines to stop the British from communicating," sociologist Dipankar Gupta told DW.

From telegrams to smartphones

At its peak in 1985, the service sent 600,000 telegrams a day across India and had a network of 45,000 telegraph offices. Countless remote towns and villages across the country depended on the telegram for getting news where telephones were rare. Most telegraph workers criss-crossed inhospitable terrain to deliver the messages.

In this picture taken on July 12, 2013, an Indian employee stamps a telegraph message at Katchehri telegraph office, in Allahabad. (Photo: AFP)

Experts say the telegram played an important in the Indian struggle for independence

But with the arrival of the e-mail and reliable landline phones, the days of the telegram were counted. According to estimates, there are now over 850 million mobile phone subscribers and over 160 million Internet users in India. A recent study by Cisco has claimed that India has the fastest Internet traffic growth in the world, and that the number is expected to grow to 348 million users by 2017.

India is only the latest country to bid goodbye to the telegram. In the US, the main service provided by Western Union was shut down in 2006. Over the past decade, several countries have also phased out telegram services. The closing of the world's last major commercial telegram service marks an end of an era.

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