After returning home from Training Class, made arrangements for journey to Kottayam. Parents and elders gave their blessings. Mother consoled herself that though I will be away, it was for a better future.
Joined Trunk Telephone Exchange, Kottayam on 2nd August 1958. I was 20 years old. Other three training mates had already joined. We were gladly welcomed. New appointments were a relief to existing staff, burdened with heavy work.
Telephones were discovered and services started first in European countries. Started in India by British rulers during last decades of 19th century. Initially, most of the telephone exchanges in India were based either on Magneto or Central Battery system.
Automatic Exchanges have been installed in metropolitan cities like Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and a few other metropolitan cities only. However Maharaja of Travancore took initiative, got installed automatic exchanges in four important towns of his kingdom viz. Trivandrum, Quilon, Kottayam and Alleppey. Many official telephones like Collectorate, Police Station, Transport Station etc. in all these four exchanges were same. Interestingly, during Raja’s rule, Electricity and Telephones used to be under same department. Even now, electricity equipment can be seen in some old exchange buildings.
Magneto exchanges were introduced first. The system runs by magnetic power, as its name denotes. Then Central Battery system was introduced. Later, automatic and electronic exchanges. Technology was advancing fast. Small exchanges were run either on magneto or CB system.
In magneto system, subscriber has to rotate the handle fixed on right side of the telephone instrument to call telephone exchange. The cover plate on the hole of the subscriber’s number on the switch board in the exchange will fall and operator will answer “Number Please” by putting a cord in the hole, asking which local number the subscriber wants. When he tells number, other end of cord will be put in the hole of demanded number, give a ring by rotating handle on board. Ring will go to called subscriber and when answers, call is connected and both can speak. After conversation, connected cords will be disconnected.
In CB system, two types of switch boards are available viz. single and multiple. Instead of cover plates falling, bulbs above particular number will light when subscriber lifts telephone. Single board is used for small exchanges with less than 100 numbers. In multiple board system, more switch boards are available with multiple holes for each subscriber, so that connections can be made from any switch-board.
In automatic exchanges subscriber need not depend upon telephone operator for local call. One can dial required number and get connected.
In all these systems, booking for trunk calls, subscriber will have to ask for / dial trunk booking number, then book call. Operator will note down number of calling subscriber, station and number of required party and if necessary, required particular person. Priority calls like urgent, important etc. will be charged higher. After getting required number from distant station on line, operator will connect calling subscriber and call starts. Usually, the charging unit for a call is 3 minutes, which will be extended to 6 minutes on request.
(After many years, facility for operator to dial distant exchange number was introduced. Later facility for subscriber to directly dial required number in distant exchange was provided. Now any subscriber can dial and speak with any other subscriber in the world. Technology moves fast).
Even for Ministers and top officers, assistance of telephone operators was necessary to get telephone connections at that time.
Telegram services were used to send urgent messages. Telegraphists in the Telegraph Offices or Signallers in the Post Offices, sent these messages in related equipment using Morse Code. Later Teleprinters were introduced. Telegraph Messengers / Post Men will take these messages to addressees. Marriage Greetings, Birth Day Greetings, Result of examinations, as also news of death, accidents etc. were conveyed through telegrams. Military, Banks and Business concerns used telegram services on a large scale. (Telegram services were closed in 2013 despite strong protest from the Unions).
Telephone Exchanges have to function 24 hours / 365 days without break. Operators, Mechanics and similar cadres will work on shift system. Duty time for operators was 7.30 hours a day, while for the mechanics it was 8 hours, 7 hours, 6 hours according whether day, day and night or night shift. Night shifts will have less number of staff.
Punctuality was most important since you are expected to relieve your predecessor on time. No operator was expected to vacate switch board without substitute. Hence T.O.s used to attend duty before 5-10 minutes earlier than exact time to adjust the makeover /take over. Half hour for meals relief and 15 minutes for tea break. If one is late for duty three times, one casual leave is cut.
Such were the conditions during the period when I joined department as a telephone operator. However, we used to get more rest time at Kottayam, as staff was sanctioned on the basis number of calls disposed and required numbers of boards were absent. One operator will stand behind and help the operator on switch board to arrange tickets on basis of priority, write enquiry particulars on ticket etc. During heavy traffic, only most efficient operators were put on board. One hour work and the operator will be completely exhausted. (to be continued).
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V.A.N.Nambodiri is the founder General Secretary and later President and Patron of BSNL Employees Union, the recognised union in BSNL, the government owned Telecom Public Sector Company. He is the President of BSNL Casual and Contract Workers Federation as also the founder Convener of Joint Action Committee of BSNL Unions /Associations of Non-Executives and Executives which is fighting against disinvestment and for protecting the rights of the workers and also to save and improve BSNL. Now he is staying at Kozhikode, Kerala, and is the President of the Senior Citizens Friendship Welfare Association, which looks after and fights for the rights of the senior citizens in the state.

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