Sitting in his 8ft by 10ft dingy room in the Kolkata suburb of Sodepur, a junior employee of a dairy firm armed with a small, black, ungainly kit, has emerged as a ray of hope for dozens of families of missing persons in disaster-ravaged Uttarakhand.
Since Sunday, Ambarish Nag Biswas has locked himself up in the room, taking numerous phone calls and sending messages through airwaves to control rooms in Dehradun and Mussoorie.
A senior assistant in Metro Dairy, Biswas has taken a week’s leave from office to operate his HAM radio — an amateur radio set — to send messages to people stuck in Uttarakhand, where no phone lines are working.
Over the past three days he has taken calls from families of at least 60 missing persons. Even district magistrate offices are routing anxious relatives to him.
"Over the past three days, I have left the room only a few times," Biswas says. "Frantic phone calls are coming in from helpless people, whose relatives are still missing. Even district officials are directing to me people, who have no clue about the whereabouts of their loved ones in Uttarakhand."
Biswas has been a licensed amateur radio operator for 18 years and is a member of West Bengal Radio Club (Amateur Club).
Amateur radio, often called HAM radio, is both a hobby and a service in which participants, called "hams", use various types of radio communications equipment to communicate with other radio amateurs through airwaves for public services, recreation and self-training.
"I have relayed messages through high frequency, very high frequency (airwaves) and airmail regarding 60 missing persons from West Bengal," says Biswas.
Biswas' efforts are supported by operators and members of National Institute of Amateur Radio like Ram Mohan Suri, Jose Jacob and Mukesh Kumar Gola, who are stationed in various parts of Uttarakhand. They are relaying messages from West Bengal to rescuers on the ground, who are trying to locate the missing.
"I am relaying the messages with the names of missing persons to our HAM radio operator stationed in Dehradun and Mussoorie," Biswas says. "They are forwarding the messages to the army and authorities in Uttarakhand for search and rescue operations."
"I could not reach my relatives who had gone to Uttarakhand," says Ujjwal Dasgupta. "Phones were not working. I got Biswas' number from one of my friends. He relayed my message to a radio operator on the ground. Ultimately, I got to know the whereabouts of my relatives Asit Ranjan Sengupta, his wife, my sister Lipika and their child Trisha, who are still stranded."
Amateur radio operators enjoy personal and often worldwide wireless communications with each other. They can even send emails in areas where no other communication is active.
An estimated thirty lakh people throughout the world are regularly involved in amateur radio transmissions. HAM radio operators have worked during disasters like the Aila cyclone and the Bhuj earthquake and are present at the Gangasagar Mela every year.