SMOOTH OPERATORS Even though the internet and cell phones have diminshed the charm of ham radio, youngsters are falling in love with it
In this series, we look at unusual groups formed by a common passion. This week, Ketan Tanna finds out how an ancient technology is attracting the youth
In the time of internet and cell phones, ham radio is closer to heritage than technology. But this ancient means of radio communication is, against all expectations, fascinating the young. They are joining ham groups in impressive numbers. Like this group of 12 fans who have gathered in a flat on a lazy Sunday. These are the members of The Mumbai Amateur Radio Society (MARS). There is visible excitement on their faces. They have just made their first contact of the day with a person who has an Italian call sign (identification code), but is currently in Saudi Arabia. The contactâ€™s call sign is IT9ESW, a language these people understand.
Eighteen-year-old Bhoumik Shah, a science undergraduate, is trying to listen into the conversation between IT9ESW and MARS, which has 220 members of whom 40 are in the age group of 15 to 21. A ham radio operator is an amateur who uses advanced equipment to communicate with other enthusiasts around the world. Ham radio is recreational and educative. It is also, inevitably, a public service. Historically, ham operators have played an active role in almost all natural calamities because when everything else is destroyed, it is the radio signals alone that work. In India, ham radio aspirants have to procure a licence issued by the Department of Telecommunications for which they have to clear a written exam. Also, they have to be Indian nationals over the age of 12. Various ham groups like MARS conduct coaching classes for the aspirants.
Shah took the test recently and is eagerly awaiting the day when he will get his licence. Inspired by his decision to appear for the test and with his PowerPoint presentation given on ham radio, about 15 of his college mates have decided to join MARS. Shah was familiar with ham radio long before he joined MARS, but the Mumbai floods of 2005 impelled him to join the community of radio enthusiasts. During the deluge, Shah and his father were trapped for almost a whole day on the Bandra bridge. Mobile batteries had run out and there was no way that either of them could communicate with his mother. â€œI realised the importance of ham communication then. When no other means of communication
is available, it is ham radio that helps out,â€ says Shah.
Twenty-one-year-old Prashant Gore who is preparing for a course in aircraft maintenance is among the many young boys who are looking forward to jabber away on ham radio. For him, the fascination for ham began when he saw local policemen talking on their walkie-talkies. When he wanted to know more about ham radio classes and what it took to acquire a licence, most of his teachers had no clue about it. Finally, his physics teacher explained the concept of ham radio communication.
Last year, when he was doing research on the net, he came to know more about MARS and how one could join the group. For Gore, ham radio is about making contact with real people. â€œIn ham, each call sign can be identified and we know with whom we are chatting. Compared to chatting on the internet, ham radio is communicating with real people in the real world,â€ says Gore, explaining why he thinks ham is better than internet chatting.
For 18-year-old Zuzar Kudrati, who has recently appeared for his twelfth standard exam, ham radio was something that he saw on TV regularly. â€œI used to be fascinated by films and serials where I saw people communicating with their handy amateur radio. Fortunately, I had time and also guidance from a relative who is a ham radio operator,â€ says Kudrati.
According to Kudrati, what really thrills him about ham radio is that dozens of people can communicate simultaneously on one medium. â€œIn Yahoo or MSN, web cam chatting is often one-onone. On ham radio, the response one gets is far more interesting because one can speak to a number of people from different geographical areas.â€ Kudrati recently cleared his ham radio exam and is awaiting a licence pending police verification. Kudrati has not formally entered the world of ham, but he has a sense of the community because all MARS students and members are part of Yahoo and Orkut groups.
For 16-year-old Shruti Sathe, it was big disappointment that she could not take the ham radio tests as they clashed with her eleventh standard exams. But she is more than determined to take the exams and believes that it is just a matter of time before she becomes an amateur radio operator. â€œHam operators are a cut above the rest. The quality of people who are ham radio operators is amazing,â€ she says. Members of MARS go on occasional outstation trips. Sathe talks wide-eyed of such trips. The team was split into two groups. One went to Khandala and the other to a farmhouse near the Gujarat border. The two groups then communicated with each other.
Ham or amateur radio is a hobby for about six million people in the world, according to Wikipedia. Japan alone has 1.4 million of them. Indiaâ€™s numbers are modest â€” just over 15,000, but the number is growing. The new adolescent entrants have company in the form of seasoned professionals like 37-year-old Dr Rita Savla, a homeopath, and Khozema Siawala, a 31-year-old businessman dealing in essences and food flavours.
Needless to say, it is not always the young who are eager and enthusiastic. Fifty-seven-year-old Ashok Kulkarni, a consultant in the soft drink industry says that when MARS classes were announced, â€œI was the first one to pay the fees and run to their office.â€ The course fee is Rs 3,500 which covers the tuition, course materials, licence fees and two outstation trips.
Following the exams (which includes passing a Morse code test), police verification is done by local police stations. Licences take as long as one year to be granted and the wait can be frustrating. After getting the licence, one needs to buy radio equipment which is also called a base station. To have a conversation in a limited area, a ham licence holder can also use a hand-held walkie-talkie. It is against the law to use a ham radio for commercial purposes, as in a cheap mode of business communication. Conversations are monitored by government officials and those violating the terms and conditions of the licence can have their licences revoked.
There are hundreds of ham groups across India, even in small towns. They organise various contests that bring the amateur radio enthusiasts together. The main events in the life of a ham operator are Foxhunt (where a transistor is hidden in a secluded spot and the task is to find it) and Island on the Air (ham enthusiasts visit secluded islands and report on the conditions there). Then there are car rallies where ham operators use their equipment to
coordinate the rally. TNN