“When all your blueberries and apples stop working because of a network breakdown, ham radio is the only thing that still keeps people connected,” says Zyros Zend (42), founding member of the Mumbai Amateur Radio Society (MARS).
He’s referring to the basic but extremely handy amateur radio network in Mumbai, made up of a group of enthusiasts who need only a two-way radio to stay connected.
In a city that floods every monsoon and often sees cellphone networks and MTNL lines fail when they are most needed, the hams often come to the rescue.
MARS members helped with rescue efforts during the 2005 deluge and in the aftermath of the 2006 serial train blasts.
For nine years, they have coordinated crowd control and reunited lost children with their parents during the chaotic Ganesha idol immersions at Girgaum Chowpatty.
And this year, for the first time, the municipal corporation has roped in MARS via an informal partnership, to help out in case the city floods in the monsoon.
“In the event of a complete communications breakdown, our group of hams across the city will take positions at various BMC ward offices and at the disaster management cell at the head office and help keep vital communication links working,” says founder member Girish Shukla (52).
Just how effective their assistance can be was borne out immediately after the 2001 earthquake in Bhuj, Gujarat.
Mumbai hams helped the Maharashtra government communicate with officials in Bhuj, where roads had been blocked by debris and communication lines destroyed.
“After establishing a radio link, our government found that there was an urgent need for metal sheets to shelter the hundreds of homeless people,” says Shukla. “The government was able to make arrangements and send the metal sheets across.”
Closer home, ham operators routinely help manage chaotic processions, like the annual Ganesha idol immersions.
“Last year, we were able to reunite more than 190 children with their families during the immersions,” says Jayesh Banatwala (40), a ham for two years.
For Zend, though, the attraction to ham radio began with a story about a beautiful woman ham.
“Each ham operator’s call sign is unique and that is how he or she is addressed by fellow hams,” says Zend. “When I was in school, I read about an Indian lady ham in a magazine, whose call sign was RBI. Her fellow hams called her Rare Beautiful Indian because she had such a beautiful voice. That anecdote that attracted me instantly to ham radio and I decided to learn more.”
For Dilip Bhandari (39), a ham for over a decade, it was the celebrity hams that drew him in.
“[Former Prime Minister] Rajiv Gandhi used to be a ham back in the 1980s and I found it very interesting that being a ham let you communicate so easily with anyone else in your country who was a ham,” says Bhandari.
Even signing up is easy. All you need are a few training classes, a licence from the government and a two-way radio transmitter.
Tune in on your own, though, and you’re likely to think you’re on another planet.
Hams use their own language of letters and numbers to communicate.
“These words are shorter and snappier to aid clear and quick communication,” says Shukla. “For instance, ‘73 VU2LNZ, your QTH please’, would translate as ‘Hi Girish, where are you right now?’”
Interestingly, the code for man, no matter how young he may be, is OM or old man. And the code for woman, no matter how old, is YL or young lady.
Some things never change, do they?