Sahruddin is sitting inside a cramped room in his East Delhi apartment. His ears are glued to the pair of earphones on his head, his eyes are fixed on the electronic transmitter in front of him as he rotates a knob on it. Sahruddin, a man in his late ‘50s with a boyish twinkle in his eyes, is searching for a specific frequency on the transmitter plus someone who would be tuned in to the same frequency at that time. After a few seconds, abruptly the transmitter crackles to life. So does Sahruddin. Victor Uniform 2 Sierra Delta November, he says, holding the microphone close to his mouth.
Victor Uniform 2 Juliet Papa Oscar, answers the voice from the other side. In the next few minutes, the two exchange personal notes. Before signing off, they Juliet Papa Oscar is from Sikandrabad promise to find each other again soon.
Sahruddin, president of the Amateur Radio Society of India (ARSI), and his new found-friend have just finished a HAM or Amateur radio talk session through a radio link available through a two-way transmitter from their homes. HAM conversation is possible without a telephone or an internet connection, simply by tuning in to radio wave frequencies (see box), says Bharti Prasad, who has been associated with the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Amateur Radio (NIAR).
A hobby with a license
Hamming is one of the few hobbies, that is practised from home but requires a license from the Government. The Union Communication Ministry issues the license after the applicant appears for exams which requires basic knowledge in three fields basic electronics, communication procedure and the Morse code. Once the person passes the test, his antecedents are verified by the Intelligence Bureau and the license issued, says Sahruddin.
After acquiring the license, the Amateur Radio Operator (ARO) also gets a unique ‘call sign’ with which he will identify himself once in air. The call sign cannot be duplicated. For Indians, the call sign begins with VU followed by a numeral and three letters from the phonetic code, usually the shortened name of the person. For example, mine is VU2SDN or, when I speak, Victor Uniform 2 Sierra Delta November (for Sahruddin). The phonetic code is used to ensure that listeners do not confused between alphabets like P and B or D and T, says Sahruddin.
In fact, there are more than 20,000 licensed AROs in the country. The HAM movement started in India before independence but remained confined to groups of people and within families. Now, though we have more than 20,000 operators, not many are active, says Prasad.
Hamming in the Capital
Delhi also has about 400 AROs. Says Ashutosh Singh, who has a HAM license since 1976: Though Delhi has 400, only 20 of them are active and are tuning in to their sets regularly. We had a club which largely comprised students of the Indian Institute of Technology. We had formed a club called the Amateur Radio Association (ASA). But since then HAM has remained a technical hobby to exchange technical information. One of the quaint traits of the ‘hobby’ is that the type of conversation between two operators is clearly defined by the law governing it. Says Sahruddin: The conversation between two hammers have to be purely personal. No commercial angle is allowed to creep into the conversation. Further, discussion on politics is also not allowed. All these rules are in accordance with the norms laid down by International Amateur Radio Union (IARU).
There are monitoring agencies as well, one each from the Defence and Communication Ministries. We have our own monitoring agency as well, based in Bangalore. There is one person always monitoring conversation on the frequencies allotted to amateurs. A violator is repeatedly warned before his license is cancelled. Such cases are, however, rare, says Sahruddin.
What does the future hold?
Does it mean that in the internet age, where information is free if not anything else, it is but time that is keeping this hobby alive? And are many hammers signing off forever, never to tune back again? Even the active hammers clear their throats before answering these questions.
Internet, they agree, has obviously eaten into the hammer's passion for nights in the world of air waves. Many have stopped tuning in for days, only occasionally remembering long lost friends on the radio.
Usually, the spread of HAM radio, say the enthusiasts, is more through word of mouth and passes on from one member of a family to the other. At times from one good friend to another. This anyway makes the hobby prone to be called a cult. Further, if Sahruddin wanted to talk to his new-found friend again, both would have had to fix a time and tune in to the same frequency. Otherwise, the second conversation could be by luck.
But all is not lost. Says Bharti: We should get more children to get interested in the concept. Especially school children with a a basic knowledge of science. In fact, I have already trained about 30 school students from different schools in Delhi. Setting up HAM clubs in these schools is my aim. If set up, these clubs will not only keep hamming alive, it will also help students exchange academic information. It can also be of great help in disaster management, she adds.
Bharti keeps herself busy with school and disaster management programmes that can be carried out through HAM. Sahruddin is also busy, even after retirement, to keep ARSI alive, trying to tune in more people. Is anybody listening?
Even this restricted hobby has had its share of celebrities and famous followers. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's name is the first that is taken by AROs when asked about ‘celebrity’ hammers. He was not only a license holder himself but also spread his enthusiasm among friends and relatives.
Rajiv Gandhi was a very avid hammer and encouraged those around him to also become one. Since he was also pilot license holder, he was attracted to the concept of HAM naturally. Quite a few pilots, who know how to use radio signals, are HAM operators as well, says Sahruddin.
Rajiv Gandhi also convinced wife Sonia to appear for the ARO exam and get the license. Later, it was his daughter Priyanka's turn. Besides, good friends Amitabh Bachchan and Captain Satish Sharma were also converted by him.
Among others, former Power Minister, Kumaramangalam, was also an active ARO. He had also acquired sophisticated equipment from abroad. In fact, till the time of his death, Kumaramangalam regularly tuned in to talk to his friends around the globe.
Internationally, King Hussein of Jordan is a licensed HAM operator. Sahruddin says: King Hussein was a keen HAM operator till the time of his death.
The problem with celebrity HAM operators, according to Sahruddin, is that often their interest is temporary, dying down with time. Many of these well-known HAM operators have not even renewed their licenses after a while. It often depends on the enthusiasm of one person. It rubs off on the rest, but only till the point the person is alive.
One way that amateur radio can survive oblivion is by doing its bit for disaster management. This method of communication can survive the worst disasters when normal telephone connections can be easily disrupted. In fact, former Gujarat chief minister, Keshubahi Patel, was one of the first to acknowledge its contribution in keeping the communication channel alive after the disastrous Bhuj earthquake last year.
At that hour (soon after the earthquake shook parts of the state on January 26, 2001), we could establish communication links with the HAM radio volunteers (from the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Amateur Radio) with the rest of the world. It would not have been possible to communicate with different blocks and remote villages without HAM radio, he wrote in a letter, addressed to the AP chief minister, Chandrababu Naidu.
Even during the super cyclone that occurred in Orissa in 1999, HAM operators were the first to pick up the invisible threads of communication and help stranded villagers. Says Bharti, who is now setting up a HAM disaster management cell for Care, India, an NGO: Disasters can disrupt telephonic lines, but through two-way radio we can fill that gap.
One advantage with this method is that HAM radio operators comprise a pool of trained persons capable of setting up wireless communications after natural disasters. These people get naturally trained during their sessions on radio and can easily set up simple but effective communication means. It become more important as they can do so within the first few days of the disaster which are very crucial, Bharti says.
It is also a low cost alternative, she says. It is only the initial investment which is required. After that, one has to maintain the equipment. The equipment is portable and can easily be carried anywhere. And then the thrill of talking to someone from across the globe, and that too purely by chance, is always there.