In his nearly 38 years of reading,typing and sending telegrams,R D Ram was struck most by those sent by runaway young men and women to their parents.
Willing or not,it has been the nature of my job to read all messages,because they need to be keyed, says Ram,now chief telegraph master at the Central Telegraph Office in Delhi. Of all that I may have read all these years,I still find it striking that young boys and girls would run away and get married,and then wish to confidentially inform their parents with a telegram.
He believes no means of communication is more secure even today. The world may have modernised and sure,there are superfast means of communication today with phones and the Internet. But the telegram was,till date,the most secure and confidential means. BSNL has announced it is discontinuing the telegraph service from July 15.
Telegrams by runaway couples apart,staff at the CTO remember another important category: the death telegrams. Today,these make up less than one per cent of all telegrams. Yet the arrival of a telegram always struck the recipient with fear of the news within.
Remember the scene in the film Aandhi,which starred Sanjeev Kumar? He received a taar in the middle of a meeting and the entire room was shocked, says Usha Gautam,who has been sending telegrams since 1980 and is set to retire in October.
Once he opened and read the telegram,he laughed because it carried news of his wife being pregnant, Gautam says. So,receiving a telegram was a scary thing always,because you never knew the news it would contain,but it was always certain that the news was important.
Recipients of the President’s awards are still informed through telegrams. The Railways still uses these to send results for its recruitment exams. The armed forces still use them for seeking leave or a transfer.
But the numbers elsewhere are falling. Of all the telegrams still being sent,only 25 per cent are sent by the public and five per cent are business related 65 per cent are government telegrams. Though 5,000 telegrams are still sent across the country everyday,it is not enough to make the service sustainable in a world with access to faster technology.
The telegram has now lost its utility and the service is only making losses. The losses incurred in the last year were to the tune of Rs 135 crore, says Shameem Akhtar,BSNL senior general manager (telegraph services). The telegraph department had a 22,000-strong force till 2008; now only 989 are left. The CTO has made no fresh recruitment since 1986.
Once working 24×7 at the Eastern Court building,the telegraph office today functions from 7 am to 10 pm. Early telegrams were sent using the Morse keys,named after founding father Samuel F B Morse.
The first telegram in India was transmitted between Calcutta and Diamond Harbour on November 5,1850; the service was opened for the public in February 1855.
A telegram of 30 words costs Rs 25,with Re 1 for every additional word. A death telegram is still Rs 5.