Indian police's pigeon post finally gets wings clipped

Homing pigeons, the winged messengers of the Indian police force, are expected to be grounded, ending more than 50 years of distinguished service.

Homing pigeons, the winged messengers of the Indian police force, are expected to be grounded, ending more than 50 years of distinguished service.

About 800 birds from the Police Pigeon Service, which have defied cyclones and floods to deliver urgent police missives between remote stations in the north-eastern state of Orissa since 1946, may be retired under government proposals that suggest e-mail and telephones make the birds obsolete.

The pigeons, which were used extensively by the British Army during the Second World War and were then given to the Indian police before independence in 1947, have often succeeded in monsoon conditions where modern communications have failed.

The winged courier service is trained and fed by a special force of about 40 police officers in 29 lofts across the state, at a cost of about 500,000 rupees (£7,200) a year. Officials say the auditor general's department had proposed grounding the birds long before the advent of telephones because they were an unnecessary expense.

But the retirement plan has angered bird-lovers. "The old pigeon tradition should not be destroyed. It's a vanishing art which should be protected," Rajat Bhargava, an ornithologist in Delhi, said. "These pigeons are excluded from the Wildlife Protection Act. So they can be kept. We're against cruelty to animals. But we're not against captive breeding of domesticated animals," he said.

One highlight of the pigeons' service history was in 1948, when they were used to send an urgent message to a remote area about arrangements for a visit by India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

They also proved invaluable in the aftermath of a cyclone in 1999 that brought down communication links with coastal areas for days.

Moreover, officials say, the winged courier service offers a higher level of secrecy than wireless communication. But the superintendent of police in the poverty-stricken province, B N Das, believes the birds' time is up. "Since they are not required for the purpose for which they were first set up, why have the extra cost?" he said. "But the government is still to take a decision on this."

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