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Ham Radio Operators Become Lifeline for Tsunami-Stricken Indian Islands

  • Anjana Pasricha

Ham radio operators all over India are helping to reunite families and assist in relief operations in the wake of the tsunami disaster. The work is especially vital in the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which suffered widespread devastation, and where as many as 5,000 people are still missing.

On December 26 , the world collapsed for Calcutta resident, Sanchita Saha, whose husband runs a tiny cloth shop in India's distant Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The tsunami had struck, and communication links with the islands had snapped.

Mrs. Saha imagined the worst. She says for days her desperate household did not eat, did not sleep, and did not know what to do.

Then her brother-in-law read in the newspaper that ham radio operators had linked up all over India to provide information about missing or separated families. He went to a ham operator in Calcutta and within a day the household was smiling again. Mrs. Saha learned her husband was well and living in a camp, although his shop on Port Blair was destroyed.

In the days after the disaster, for countless families, ham radio operators became a lifeline as they helped locate hundreds of people separated from their families.

There effort was particularly important for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where telephone links are still not working properly. The low-lying islands, 1,500 kilometers from the Indian mainland, were right in the path of the massive waves triggered by an earthquake near Indonesia.

The effort to reunite families on the islands was led by a New Delhi housewife, Bharati Prasad. She was visiting the islands' capital, Port Blair to set up its first ham radio station when the disaster struck, and the chain of 570 islands was cut off from the world.

But within hours, Bharti Prasad put up her radio with the use of a hotel generator, and reached out to other ham operators.

Soon she and six colleagues were conveying thousands of messages to and from the islands.

"We have collected all the messages from the mainland, and we have made a big list with the telephone numbers of the local people and then we have conveyed their messages to the local people, what is their welfare, what are they doing, and is there any help required from the mainland," she said. "When I am giving a call to a local man, they felt so happy."

The army and government have stepped in to help the ham operators with batteries and other gear. They have now established seven radio stations on the islands.

For people scattered on the three dozen inhabited islands, the radio has become the only hope for tracing relatives. Many families were separated after the disaster as rescued people ended up in separate shelters. And many people had friends or relatives living on separate islands.

Taking a cue from the ham operators, the state radio in Port Blair also is using the airwaves to convey messages from a steady stream of people who turn up everyday, desperately trying to reach their loved ones.

The station director at Port Blair's All India Radio, K. Rajan, says they have cancelled all regular programming and are focusing on helping families communicate.

"By broadcasting the SOS we are helping all the people, people are very anxious to know the whereabouts of their relatives, who are either employed or living in far-flung islands," he said.

Hundreds of messages go out everyday - a school boy tells a father he will take the first boat to fetch him, a Catholic priest urges his family to leave a devastated island as soon as possible.

Hams are also helping out in other parts of India stricken by the tsunami. In the hours after the disaster, Sandeep Shah and a group of volunteers in Bangalore packed their radio equipment, pooled some money, and came to the southeastern coast where thousands of families are homeless.

Mr. Shah is helping local authorities streamline relief operations in Cuddalore district in Tamil Nadu state.

Mr. Shah says with telephone landlines down in remote areas and mobile phones often jammed by heavy traffic, it is not always possible to know what is needed where. He and other ham radio operators try to help.

"We see to it that it reaches the required area. We have two thousand food packets required in certain places," he said. "We have messages of missing child found, three new bodies found, number of damaged boats, all types of messages we pass across both ways from many, many locations."

It is not the first time ham operators are putting their hobby to use in an hour of need. Four years ago, when Gujarat state was devastated by an earthquake, they also reached to help - but the scale of the operation is much bigger this time because people are affected in remote regions.

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