A news item published in The Hindu (Weekly Edition -2).

Sunday, November 14, 1999

Ham To The Rescue

Its a medium that becomes a lifeline at the time of disasters and Orissa, circa 1999, has been no different.

Out of a smallish black box called a trans-receiver has come salvation for an entire state suddenly rendered innocent of all communications links. You sit at this box. In an innocuous corner of a faceless, file-lined office in Delhi's Orissa Niwas, and marvel at the miracles it can achieve.

From midnight of October 31 when they set set up a station at the Cheif Minster's residence is Bhubaneshwar, India's Ham radio operators have been pegging away at keeping the lines of communication going. Between a desperate Chief Minister and the Central government, between district magistrates and the Secretariat at Bhubaneshwar, between anxious families in the rest of the country and their loved ones in the affected districts. The box crackles away all day with updates. "What is the present situation of Jaipur?" asks the volunteer operator in Delhi. "Much better," replies a volunteer at the other end. "Shops are open, electricity has been restored, but not much of telephone lines, drinking water is limited, but it is on."

At the time of writing, telephone lines were still down pretty much all over the State, except in the capital. A sweet shop owner from Kalkaji hovered anxiously around, enquiring on behalf of the Oriya labour he employs as to what the fate of their families might be. A message goes across to the appropriate district. Soon a volunteer is able to report that there has been no human casualty in those localities. That is the best the shop owner can hope for right now. He greatfully goes home.

All the operation takes is a couple of black boxes on a table: one is the trans-receiver, the other the power supply unit (If you are running it on batteries you do not need this). A wire connects the boxes to a horizontal antenna on the roof. Next to the table a notice board has some neatly printed sheets detailing the number of stations in operation, their code, the names of their volunteers. There are 13 high frequency stations operating: at the CM's residence and at the Secretariat at Bhubaneshwar, at the Srikakulam collectorate in Andhra Pradesh, at jagatsinghpur, Jaipur, Paradip, Calcutta, at Erasma, which is the worst affected according to the volunteers, at Delhi and Hyderabad and a few other places. There is also a neatly typed sheet listing the worst affected localities in Cuttack, Bhadrak, Jaipur, Kendrapara and Balasore.

There is a log book filled with entries and scraps of paper that Oriyas in Delhi have left here, with addresses and telephone numbers of those they want information about. The phone numbers are useless but sheer compassion comes to their rescue. In Cuttack a volunteer boards an auto rickshaw clutching a sheaf of requests from other parts of the country, goes from locality to locality checking out the position and comes back with details. In the cities he reports to, other volunteers jot it all down and call up phone numbers of families that have made the requests.

The district administration's dependence on the ham operators is total: they have no other means of communicating with Bhubaneshwar. Particularly their dependence on those who operate the Very High Frequency (VHF) stations which covers arears spread across the affected districts, Deepak, who is conveying information from Jaipur, says that he is a volunteer from the Orissa Disaster Mitigation Mission. Many of the volunteers are from Hyderabad and Calcutta. What do you do, you ask shared from Andhra Pradesh whose voice comes through loud and clear from Gridhar Gamang's residence. "I am the director of a software company," he replies. he has left home and work to put his hobbyist skills to human use.

The nucleus of the ham radio fraternity is the National Institute of Amateur Radio (NIAR) at somajiguda, Hyderabad. They came into existence in 1975 and were able to do their bit for the Andhra cyclone in 1977. It is a scientific hobby, says Bharathi Prasad, Additional Director of NIAR, who is now in Delhi promoting its activities in North India. There are 20,000 radio hams all over India, that they have been given training by organisations like hers, and operating licences by the Ministry of Communications. It is a medium you do not hear too much about, but one you cannot do without when the worst calamities occur.

Author - Sevanti Ninan

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