Bad news in the air for India's flying postmen Patel

India's public servants are a breed apart, with language and procedures dating back to the British Raj, and the security of a job for life. But some of the country's most docile and loyal public workers may soon be laid off: the state of Orissa is under pressure to shut down its carrier pigeon service, the only one in the country.

The 50-year-old service still maintains a flying squad of nearly 800 homing pigeons to carry messages from police posts in outlying corners of Orissa, and employs 40 gentle constables who spend their days training and feeding the plump grey and white birds in 29 lofts across the state. But India has moved into the computer age - especially in Bangalore, where software wizards work on contract for hi-tech Texas firms. E-mail is making inroads, and even far-flung policemen are equipped with radios.

Police pigeon fanciers argue, however, that radio messages are too easy to intercept, and that batteries for walkie-talkies tend to go flat, due to excessive heat or moisture. Carrier pigeons are reliable, hard to bribe, and have proved especially valuable during recent floods, strikes and elections when more modern communications failed.

Supporters say it is premature to declare the pigeon post defunct. "They are obedient birds who never fuss or snap," said Sub-Inspector Rabi Narayan Mallick, who has spent seven years caring for his 60 birds in Cuttack. Not once, however, has any of them been used to carry a message.

In 1990, just before Sub-Inspector Mallick signed up with the Orissa police, 9,000 messages were dispatched by the birds each year. Since radio links were installed in remote districts, the annual tally of messages has dropped to just 2,000. The Police Central Breeding and Headquarters Loft in Cuttack is now overshadowed by an ugly short-wave radio mast.

Dovecotes are an Indian tradition which can be seen in Mughal miniatures dating back four centuries, when pigeons carried love notes over harem walls and coded orders to military officers in the field. Today's police feed their charges the same mix of grain and ghee (clarified butter) that the Mughals did.

In Cuttack, thousands of enthusiasts keep pigeons on the roof and race them for pleasure, sometimes gambling on the outcome. Every evening they stand above this cramped city on its narrow river island, arms outstretched to the minarets and clouds. They call out for birds to break off from the wheeling flocks and come home to roost. Sub-Inspector Mallick is consulted regularly as a local expert. If the police pigeons are retired, returning to a regular beat will take some getting used to.

Orissa's Inspector General of Police, P K Senpati, says he hopes to delay scrapping his state's unique message service. Once trained, when just 30 days old, the pigeons can work for up to 20 years, and require no pensions. They can travel 500 miles on a mission, and attain speeds of more than 50mph on the wing. Their only threat are the great birds of prey which swoop down from Indian skies: some 18 common species, ranging from harrier to pariah kite, may menace them. The ageing flock in Orissa still has years of service left, but stays grounded unless a special race or display is planned. New breeding is officially discouraged.

Nearly all the police pigeons are descended from a Belgian breed imported to launch the service in 1946. After the Second World War produced feathered heroes that flew coded messages through hails of bullets, pigeons were enthusiastically proposed as the best solution for a region with minimal infrastructure.

"Clipping the wings of the service because of financial reasons doesn't make much sense," said Mr Senpati. Only 125,000 rupees (pounds 2,300) is budgeted each year for the programme - literally, pigeon feed. "The pigeons may have outlived their utility, but they have served us exceedingly well. Machines can fail you, but birds never will."

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