Amateur radio turns vital link when gadgets fail in flood-hit Chennai

  • Ravik Bhattacharya, Hindustan Times, Kolkata
  • Updated: Dec 05, 2015 15:52 IST
HAM radio operator Ambarish Nag Biswas of Sodepur on the outskirts of Kolkata became a vital lifeline for many people keen to know about family members held incommunicado in Chennai. (HT Photo)

A steady stream of messages and news relayed from a home in suburban Kolkata kept many anxious people posted about relatives stuck in flood-ravaged Chennai, not with 21st-century technology but through its humble forefather — the radio.

HAM radio operator Ambarish Nag Biswas of Sodepur on the outskirts of Kolkata became a vital lifeline for many people keen to know about family members held incommunicado in the southern metropolis after record rain snapped all forms of communication there.

Amateur radio, popular as HAM, crackled to life after smart phones and laptops gave up in the face of power outages and a clogged grid.

Biswas, an employee with a private dairy firm, has been coordinating with fellow HAM operators in Chennai and Bengaluru, working round-the-clock to locate “missing” people despite language barriers.

“Somehow through friends people are getting to know about me. Calls are pouring in to find people in Chennai. After collecting details, I am connecting with HAM operators in Bangalore and Chennai, who in turn are getting me through to operators engaged in relief work on the streets of Chennai. They are trying to find the people and inform us about their condition,” he said.

Biswas has been a licenced amateur radio operator for 18 years and is a member of the amateur West Bengal Radio Club.

He picked the case of Somnath Barman, a native of Baranagar in Kolkata stationed in Manipur, to illustrate his work. Frantically looking for wife Rajarshi and 9-year-old daughter Sampriti, who are in Chennai, since normal communication broke down, Burman rang up Biswas on Thursday and sought his help.

“I contacted HAM operators in Bangalore and they got me through to operators in Chennai, who were distributing relief material. Around midnight, they visited Burman’s wife and daughter in Ramapuram. We were happy to know that both were safe and healthy. They are stranded on the second floor of their rented house. There’s no electricity and cell phones were not working either,” Biswas said.

He has learnt from his contacts the plight of the people. “Shortage of food and drinking water … no electricity. But we heard disaster management teams are doing a good job.”

Apart from Bengalis who have relatives in Chennai, members of the Tamil community in Sodepur have visited him for news. The daunting task was overcoming the language barrier. “I could not understand their language. I recorded their messages and sent them to Chennai HAM operators. They acted accordingly and tried to find the missing people.”

Biswas also used EchoLink, a software that allows licenced amateur radio stations to communicate with one another on the Internet, using audio-streaming technology.

HAM radio is both a hobby and a service in which participants, called hams, use various types of radio communications equipment to get in touch with other amateurs through airwaves for public services, recreation and self-training. An estimated 3million people throughout the world are regularly involved in amateur radio transmissions.

HAM radio operators have done a great job during devastating natural disasters such as the April-May Nepal earthquake, the Aila cyclone in West Bengal and the earthquake in Gujarat’s Bhuj.

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