OM.Dayanidhi Maran (VU2DMK) and OM.Suri (VU2MY) at Ministry of Communications, New Delhi

A news item published in Express India (Online Edition).

October 15, 2005

Hamming! Bachchan, Gandhi style!

Rajiv Gandhi was drawn by its magic, Amitabh Bachchan has witnessed its 'ionospheric high', Union Minister Dayanidhi Maran is a practitioner of the science and Sonia Gandhi is a registered licence holder.

Hamming, which involves a two-way communication system using the medium of radio waves, continues to be an addiction for 18,000 amateur radio operators or hams as they are popularly known in India, and for over a million of people across the globe despite the overwhelming presence of the internet and the chat room regime.

"We are addicts for life. The thrill and excitement of hearing a voice out there when you tune into the radio frequency and having a 'chat-on-air' is an experience that is incomparable to any," says Adolf Shepherd, a ham enthusiast who was in the city to participate in Seanet, The South East Asian Network, one of the largest conventions of ham operators.

Echoing his sentiment are Vidi and Chitra, a couple who are avid fans of one of the oldest forms of communication since Marconi's discovery. "Ham is different from the net, it gives you a sense of personal deja vu, which is different from the impersonal format of the net," says Chitra.

"Moreover, the assembling of your own ham equipment and the complete control over the equipment instills a personal sense of achievement," says Vidi, his eyes gleaming with pride.

Interestingly, the late Rajiv Gandhi, a ham operator, took great interest in assembling his own equipment during his days as a pilot. As a Prime Minister, he extensively used the ham, says a ham operator recounting a speech made by his wife Sonia Gandhi at the Seanet 1996.

The former Prime Minister once picked up a call of the Red Cross from Bangladesh, which was hit by a storm, and requested the National Institute Of Amateur Radio Operators for use of their network for relief operations.

He was also 'on-the-air' a few hours before his assassination making a last call from Visakhapatnam, said a ham operator.

"As a ham operator, the surprises in store are many. My most memorable experience is when the King of Jordan Hussein came on air and joined our conversation," says Chitra, more known by her 'call sign' (an identification code) VU2CVP.

Though ham was more well known for rendering service during emergencies, natural disasters and accidents, for Ron, a farmer from New Zealand, it helped learn German. "We actually used our chat-in-the-air sessions to conduct language teaching classes and in a few months I had picked up German thanks to my ham friend," he said.

But the most wonderful experience for a ham operator from Australia was during the sunspot period (a time that was considered best for transmission of radio waves) when he had sent out signals only to find that his receptor had picked up his own voice back again. "It was awesome when I realised that my voice had travelled across the globe and reached back all in a matter of a few seconds," he said.

"You can talk to hams in different ways, you can bounce off your radio signals off a layer of the atmosphere called ionosphere, use one of the multiple Oscar satellites in earth's orbit or use the moon itself to bounce the signals. There are different methods of communication, though voice is most common, one can now also use the computer or the ancient method of Morse code," explains Shepherd.

India also has Hamsat, a satellite put into orbit by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for the benefit of amateur radio operators.

Hams are a strongly knit family, opines R Ramchandra, President of the International Amateur Radio Region-Three. "A ham travelling to any part of the globe has little worry when it comes to accommodation. A ham in that country would never hesitate in playing a perfect host to a travelling ham."

Recalling an interesting anecdote, a ham operator from Japan said he had once travelled to another country, hoping to meet his ham friend. However, on arrival he could not find his friend at his workplace. "Disappointed, I began walking down the road when I suddenly spotted a ham antennae."

"I walked into the house without any hesitation and introduced myself. Within seconds the ham had not only traced my friend but got me introduced to all hams there," he said.

But 'meeting in the air' does not always end cordially, there are times when intruders or illegal hams 'break in' and have to be shooed away. "I once came across Naxalites talking on air. Bhag jao (run away) I said and jammed the signals," laughs Shepherd. Yet another time, it was signals from some smugglers from Kutch that he picked up.

The services of hams are sometimes sought by intelligence agencies who wish to monitor some illegal signals and talk.

The growing concern among ham operators is the new trend of 'rag chewing' where ham operators use the low frequency band to discuss trivia. "We need to encourage use of high frequency band which allows us to speak to hams across the world and build the international community," opines Chitra.

Another worrying trend is that the number of new entrants were not as high as expected. "Though in Japan, the number was close to 0.7 million, may be because Japanese love technical things, elsewhere the numbers need to be encouraged," says a Korean based ham operator.

In India, the delay in issuing licence, the archaic law drawn by the British that governs ham operations and the numerous restrictions were hampering growth of the hobby. "In India a ham needs a police verification even though a mobile user in this country can get away without it," says Shepherd.

The import duty on hams also need to be lowered to make them affordable.

Rajiv Gandhi had provided a great fillip to ham by lowering the duties, says Shepherd. "Today we have nearly seven MPs who are hams and we need them to aggressively pursue our case in Parliament," he says.

The role of ham in Latur, Gujarat earthquakes, last year's tsunami and the Mumbai rains has established its critical role when everything else fails, but due recognition to this practice was yet awaited.

The hurdles notwithstanding for ham operators around the country, the hamming mania could never end. "The internet does not hold the charm of the ham. Ham is a fruit of your labour and renders a high that is completely lost on the net" sums a ham operator as he screams in delight at having made an eye-ball contact with an old ham friend.

Thirukkural - 517

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