The forces on the frontlines of Mumbai’s monsoon crisis-management have a set of images that define their functions. The fire brigade invariably rescues youngsters stranded out in the sea at Bandra Fort, employees of the BMC clear out fallen trees, guard open manholes and disinfect mosquito breeding spots, hospitals witness queues of patients with water-borne diseases, the police are seen standing in waist-high water diverting traffic and the National Disaster Response Force frantically remove rubble from collapsed buildings, working to save lives.
All the while, there is no such picture to define the importance of a band of ‘invisible’ volunteers who pull the strings from the sidelines and ensure that lines of communications between the agencies never break down. For close to half a decade, Ham or amateur radio operators have worked side by side with the BMC during monsoons. While they are kept on standby by the civic body in case a disaster or torrential rain knocks down electricity and phone services, the amateur radio operators also perform a vital function by relaying information from all corners of the city on days with forecasts of rough weather.
Amateur radio operators are granted licence to operate by the central government after passing an exam, which requires among other things a competency in morse code. Licence holders use a range of handsets and frequencies to communicate domestically and internationally. Acquiring a licence, however, say amateur radio enthusiasts, brings with it a certain moral responsibility.
“This is a technical hobby and our expertise is special, which common people do not have. During a disaster, communications are very important,” says Grant Road resident and Ham operator, Sudhir Shah, a manufacturer of go-karts.
The 71-year-old usually oversees operations from the BMC’s Disaster Management Control Room, which has its own transceiver, directing his colleagues on the field in other parts of the city. While phones and hotlines ring off the hook inside the control room and bring information from all corners of the city, Shah’s messages have a far greater reach. “This is a secondary channel of communication. We are highly mobile and independent. We are a voluntary service and use our own equipment and are always on standby,” he adds.
With communication usually being the first casualty during a disaster, Hams often wade through flooded streets to relay vital information to the BMC. “Last year, power was knocked down in parts of Dadar after the area was flooded. The water was so high that students were trapped inside a school and teachers decided it was safer to remain inside. But phones were not working and when it became dark, the children were scared. One of our volunteers went to the school and updated the BMC about the situation and managed to help pacify the children,” he says.
A BMC spokesperson said that Ham radio operators were added to the civic body’s monsoon preparedness after the 2005 deluge. “We faced a lot of problems as there were no line of communication available. Later in the Disaster Management Act of 2005, responsibilities of all agencies and individuals were defined and Ham radio operators have been placed on standby every year since then,” added Vijay Khabale, BMC spokesperson.
Each monsoon, the Hams are prepared for at least one day when excessive rainfall will bring the city to a standstill. When that happened on August 29, 2017, Darshan Hemani walked all over Mulund trying to find a spot high enough to communicate with other colleagues. “Mulund is a low-lying area and certain spots get flooded all the time. That day, I was looking for a tall building and finally spotted an eight-storey tower. Electricity was down and once I climbed to the terrace, it was locked. It was only when I walked towards Mulund railway station, that I was able to contact the control room,” he says.
Hemani, a 40-year-old entrepreneur, says that Mumbai’s 40 odd Hams who rush out of their homes at the first inkling of trouble, faced their first challenge with monsoon during the deluge in 2005. Like all other responders, the radio operators too found themselves grossly underprepared to cope with the scale of the flooding. Since then, they have been working closely with the BMC and attend the civic body’s monsoon preparation meetings.
Shah, who acquired his licence in 1980, has been working during disasters since a powerful earthquake struck Latur in 1993 and killed nearly 9,500 people. Since then, he has worked in tandem with city authorities each time a terror attack has struck Mumbai. When serial blasts targeted Mumbai’s suburban rail network in 2007, Shah sent Hemani to Andheri railway station and then to VN Desai Hospital where most of the injured passengers had been rushed.
“Darshan was soaked to the bone but did not move until I told him to. At the hospital, he was able to tell us that most passengers had suffered head injuries and that there were not enough neurosurgeons available. The minute he relayed that to me, the BMC contacted Sion Hospital and put neurosurgeons on motorbikes to Santacruz,” Shah says.
With cellular networks overwhelmed with frantic calls, wireless messages on that night ensured that the BMC was able to make arrangements for adequate medicines and the police were informed to hand over bodies of the dead to their families without the need of a coroner certifying them.
For all the service that Hams have been providing to the city over the years, Shah rues that there are too few of them. “There are not enough people and many others are put off from buying equipment due to financial constraints. Time and again we have told the government to do something but nothing has been done. But when a disaster strikes, we become indispensable to them,” says Shah.