A news item published in Deccan Chronicle (Hyderabad Edition).
Sunday, December 5, 1999
When Nothing Worked, HAM Did
When all channels of Communications failed after the cyclone hit Orissa, Ham operators from Hyderabad were the first ones to establish contact with the survivors. K.J. JACOB meet some Hams who have just returned.
October 31, 12 midnight, Orissa Chief Minister's residence, Bhubaneswar. Giridhar Gamang is sitting in the midst of every possible modern communication equipment.... telephones, cellphones, wireless sets. But all dead, like the victims of the supercyclone in the devastated villages. Even that fabled satellite telephone, provided by Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N.Chandrababu Naidu, is of no use as the battery ran out after a few calls and nobody knew how to recharge the battery with the small generator.
For S.B. Ram, leading a contingent of 20 Ham volunteers from the National Institute of Amateur Radio, Hyderabad, there is no time to lose. He has rushed from Visakhapatnam in a jeep braving cyclonic winds, with wireless sets to set up the communication network that will serve as Orissa's only connection with the world.
Ham is an acronym for amateur radio operators who pursue a two way communication as a hobby . Because of the Potency, amateur radio, like all amateur radio services, has to be regulated on an international basis.
The regulating body, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), is based in Geneva, which is an agency of the United Nations Organisation.
After 48 hours of chilling, unbearable silence from Orissa, the first words that the outside world heard was from Gamang, detailing the magnitude of death and destruction on the network set up by the Ham operators.
Within a few hours, the Ham operators set up stations at Kalinga Stadium (Control room for the movement of relief material), Capital Hospital (medical teams) and the airport (airdropping of food materials).
"The Secretariat was in utter chaos. With no means of communication, nobody knew what was happening. Decision-making was the last thing happening at the nerve centre of the State administration when it was needed most. Bureaucrats would rush around trying to meet officials, only to be told that they had left to meet another person," recalls Ram.
Ham Volunteers knew the importance of communication and its vital place in rapid decision making. Their experience during relief operations during calamities like the Diviseema cyclone of 1977, the 1990 Machilipatnam cyclone, the Latur eqrthquake made them act fast.
Senior officers manning crucial departments including the Chief Secretary and the Special Relief Commissioner were given handsets so that they could stay in touch with officials coordinating relief operations in remote districts.
The Ham operators were helping not jus the officials who were grounded without communication; they were setting up a vital link for the thousands of the people rendered homeless by the cyclonic tidal waves and screaming for help without food and even water.
On November 2 morning, teams fanned into districts with senior officials and setup several stations at Jagatsinghpura, Erasma, Badrak, Kendrapara, Jaipore. There was also a mobile station which would move around to cater to the requirements of the other stations.
They would carry a high - frequency station, a very high frequency station, 2 VHF hand-held walkie-talkie sets, antenna wire, a power supply wire and log book to record the communications.
They would set station and collect the details of death and devastation with the help of such local officials who had not fled.
The messages would be passed on either to the district headquarters or the State capital. For relief, they contacted the relief control rooms directly.
The on-site officials would use the Ham network to contact the control room in charge at Kalinga Stadium on the requirements for food, clothing etc. They would in turn relay the details of relief materials despatched. Requirements of doctors, paramedics, medicines, bleaching powder etc., could be communcated to the Capital Hospital. The airport control room would be informed about the locations where food packets needed to be air-dropped by Indian Air Force helicopters and in what quantity.
"We told the villagers to go to high spots and wave red sarees. The helicopter pilots were instructed to spot the signal and drop packets there. This would minimise the loss of food stock," says Ram
Proper and and reliable communication provided in time could optimise the relief operation and avoid waste of manpower, material and time "At first, the helicopters dropped just rice bags. But there was no point in giving the people rice with nothing else - not even clean water we suggested that the packets have atukulu, sweet, biscuits, water sachets.... basically ready - to - eat food," tells S Ram Mohan a soft ware engineer who operated the Ham station in Badrak.
The outbreak of cholera at some places could be checked as medical teams were rushed immediately after being informed in the net work. "The first message of Jagatsinghpura Collector was to 'send 200 doctors who are prepared to work under any conditions. They will have to fend for themselves... they will carry their own food water and tent material. We passed thousands of such messages, "says Sushil Kumar Dhingra who worked in the worst-affected Ersama block , which accounted officially, for over 8,000 deaths.
Amidst such destruction, stood Nandagopal Das' concrete house, untouched by the cyclone. The tank in his house continued to have pure drinking water. Das made no secret of this and distributed the water among the needy. And that too in cupsful.
"For the first six days, there was no rest. We would leave in the morning from Jagatsinghpur for Ersama. We dared not touch anything available locally. We survived only on biscuits. On return, we would sleep in the Collector's office, the only place with a generator. We also needed electricity to recharge our battries."
The whole of Orissa, including the Chief Minister, the Chief Secretary, Collectors, Officials and the Common People were all praise for the work the Andhra Pradesh team had done.
NIAR has sent another team of six volunteers to Orissa on November 30. While saying that they are satisfied with what they did, they pointed out that much more could have been done had the authorities paid a little more attention to the simple means of communication.
" In the entire State of Orissa, there are just two Ham operators. If they had at least one in every village, help would have been instant and more effective, "says P Anil Kumar, Ham volunteer and photographer.
Things may change for the better. Talks are on with the Grid Corporation of Orissa, which evinced keen interest in supporting the network, to train at least one operator in every division.