So you thought that being a policeman only involves glamorous tasks like chasing smugglers? The cops working for the Carrier Pigeon Service in Cuttack would disagree. Their daily to-do list includes mopping pigeon droppings, feeding pigeons, changing their water — in general, looking after the precious birds in their keep round the clock.

It is a tedious job, true, but the cops have never complained over the last seven decades. Indeed, it is because of their efforts that the world’s only police-run pigeon messenger service still thrives. Last month, on Odiya New Year, a small fleet of pigeons flew with messages from Bhubaneswar to Cuttack, covering 25 km in an amazing 20 minutes.

The pigeon messenger service dates back to 1946, when World War II had just ended. During the war, the military had used trained pigeons to ferry messages. The Odisha police decided to preserve the legacy even after the war ended, using the pigeons to send messages to places which did not have either wireless or telephone links.

That involved maintaining a flock of Belgian Homers, best suited to act as messengers because of their homing skills. No matter where they are released, Homer pigeons, with their uncanny knack for identifying their loft, will find their way back home. What also helps is their sharp eyesight and unique body build, which reduces air resistance, enabling them to fly long distances. Homer pigeons can fly at an average speed of 70-80 km per hour and cover a distance of 250 km at a stretch, even at night and in inhospitable conditions.

The service was first introduced in the mountainous Koraput district and was soon expanded to cover 38 places: at one point, the Carrier Pigeon Service boasted of a 1,500-strong trained fleet. In 1982, when massive floods hit coastal Odisha, disrupting road connectivity for weeks, pigeons were the ones delivering messages. They were so much an integral part of the police administration that till 2010 it was mandatory for newly-recruited officers to clear a 10-mark test on pigeon service.

In April 1948, when Jawaharlal Nehru had visited Odisha, messages about his public meetings were delivered in advance by pigeons. Former President R. Venkataraman launched 300 pigeons as a gesture of peace during Cuttack’s millennium celebrations in 1989.

The service used to have three categories — static, boomerang and mobile. “Static was a one-way service put into use during floods and cyclones; boomerang was a two-way communication system between police stations in inaccessible areas; and mobile pigeons were carried by police units on the move and used for communicating with headquarters,” says B.N. Das, Superintendent of Police (Signal). Usually, pigeons were released in pairs to lessen the chances of their being stalked by hawks and kites.

Golak Behari Das, a retired sub-inspector of police, who spent more than half his service tenure with the famed pigeons, says, “In the 1980s, our carrier pigeons used to fly to remote areas affected by left-wing extremism where the wireless network had limited range. They were very effective.”

But what relevance could a pigeon messenger service have in these days of email and WhatsApp? Back in 2000, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India had expressed doubts about its relevance, deeming it a “wasteful expenditure” and recommending that it be wound up.

In response, intellectuals, conservationists and traditionalists in Odisha protested vehemently and demanded that at least a skeletal service be maintained for its heritage value. The State government stopped the service in March 2008, but about 150 pigeons continue to be maintained for ceremonial purposes in Cuttack and at the Police Training College in Angul. The service costs the exchequer about ₹1 lakh each year, and the sub-inspector and two constables employed in the service draw salaries from the government like any other police personnel.

The pigeon messengers have proved to be a charming anachronism. Intach has taken an interest in the service: the demo flight on New Year’s Day was an Intach initiative. “The survival of this service has been ensured by the dedicated men who run the police pigeon service,” says Amiya Bhusan Tripathy, former Director General of Police and the State Convener of Intach.


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