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."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Sport
Wayne Rooney warms up ahead of the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane
football
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
News
Danielle George is both science professor and presenter
people
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015