Sikkim’s Tryst with Ham Radio

While strolling on MG Marg about a month ago, I bumped into Mr. Dorjee Thinley Additional Director, Department of Science and Technology – an encounter that proved to be a fortunate stroke of serendipity.   I was rather pleasantly surprised to gather that his Department was organizing a one week training programme on Ham Radio in association with Vigyan Prasar, Government of India. Upon learning that I had also been a ham and that I had  written a best selling book on the subject he invited me to be a part of the pogramme which I  readily accepted not withstanding the fact that I was no longer active on the air. The last time I had operated a ham set was fifteen years ago.

What is ham radio in the first place? The Indian Wireless Telegraphs (Amateur Service) Rules 1978 describes Amateur Radio as:  A service of self training, intercommunication and technical investigations carried on by amateurs, that is persons duly authorised under these rules interested in radio technique solely with personal aim and without pecuniary interest.
Amateur Radio also known as Ham radio began as a hobby in 1920s in the USA and has now evolved to Slow scan TV, Radio Teletype, Satellite, bouncing signals from the moon and now also using computers.

Amateur Radio is something akin to penfriendship. Only in this hobby you do more talking than writing. Amateur Radio channels are open. This means that anyone tuned in to frequency can hear radio amateurs talking to each other. Just like with a broadcast receiver it is possible to hear any broadcast station like the BBC. Radio amateurs are allotted frequencies e.g. 7 MHz, 14 Mhz: their transmissions cannot interfere with other agencies like police, military, mobiles etc. And what does a ham talk about with other hams? Almost any topic: the weather, family background and technical points. However ham radio cannot  be used for transmitting messages which would deprive the Government of revenue. Also it is advisable to treat controversial subjects like politics as taboo. Radio amateurs come from different walks of life. Kings, Prime Minister, Doctors, Engineers, Actors, Business forming a well knit international fraternity.

What type of wireless set you would like to go in for depends much on factors like type of communication desired and also the amount of money you would like to spend. If you want very long distance communication thousands of kilometers away then you must go in for HF transreceiver. and Voice. Short distance communication use VHF equipment which is relatively cheap.

Radio amateurs are allotted call signs  where the first 3 characters designate the country which in this case was Sikkim and the other characters identify the individual.  In India, the Wireless Planning and Coordination(WPC) Wing  of the Ministry of Communication allots callsigns after conducting an examination which can be taken at one its various Monitoring Stations, the nearest one being at Siliguri.

But it is not always talking for pleasure that hams indulge in. There are many examples in which Hams have provided efficient communication during emergencies such as floods, earthquakes etc.

In Andhra Pradesh as a result of the destruction by the cyclone in 1984 many emergency ham stations were installed .During the Bhopal gas tragedy, radio amateurs set up a VHF communication network. During the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq it was a lone South Indian Ham who conveyed messages on  ham radio to relatives back home. Recently during the earthquake in Nepal, Radio amateurs provided telecommunication service to remote areas.

Ham radio was introduced in Sikkim by the technology savvy Late Chogyal of Sikkim. Palden Thondup Namgyal procured a ham radio wireless set in 1970 and went on the air. Palden Thondup Namgyal’s call sign was AC3PT where the first 3 characters designate the country which in this case was Sikkim and the other characters identify the individual. Since he was the only ham in Sikkim and also a king, hams all across the world considered it a privilege to talk to him and looked forward to receiving a QSL card which is nothing but postcard as a proof that contact was made. However  sadly the equipment was confiscated by the Indian army during the political upheavel in 1975.

An excerpt from the the book by Horst H Geerken

On April 9th, 1975, I sat in front of my amateur radio rig in Jakarta, in the early evening hours, when I picked up an international emergency call from the airwaves shortly after 6 PM: “Mayday! Mayday! Alpha Charly Three Papa Tango calling Yankee Bravo Zero Alpha Alpha Golf!” That’s me, YBØAAG, being  called by AC3PT from Sikkim! Electrified, I pricked up my ears, while telecommanding my rotary beam to point in the direction of Sikkim. I knew that there was just one radio amateur in Sikkim and who was only very rarely audible – and that was the King. I confirmed the call and that I could hear the little Himalayan kingdom loud and clear. And then followed the message……….. “
Andrew Duff in his book “ Requiem to a Kingdom”   also makes a mention about this Mayday call by the Chogyal

Post merger I was the first radio ham in Sikkim with a call sign VU2RVM from 1980 to 2001 and was training budding radio hams. The internet has certainly made a dent in the popularity of Ham Radio.  The number of Radio Hams have reduced exponentially since 2000 when internet started making inroads as a means of communication.

The trainer from  Vigyan Prasar was Sandeep Baurah  a keen radio ham himself with a call sign VU2MUY and he had come from Delhi with tons of equipment , antenna etc to demonstrate. The one week long training was held in the auditorium of the sprawling Science Centre at Ranipool. Trainees were Quick response team from the Land Revenue Department, teachers, NGOs, press and volunteers. Following this training the participants would be required to appear for an examination after passing which they would be allotted a callsign and permitted to operate a wireless set.

I feel that this training should be a prelude to setting up of an emergency disaster management network on Ham Radio in the state. Under normal circumstances, mobiles are the most convenient and efficient way of communicating. However during disasters especially earthquakes, mobile networks can become immobilised. Optical Fibres get snapped and the antenna on the mobile towers get misaligned. Even if the mobile network is functional, it gets jammed because everyone is making calls to ascertain safety of their near and dear ones.  Mobiles are used to make calls individual to individual and therefore is restricted if you want to communicate a  voice message instantaneously to hundreds of people.  Ham Radio can provide an alternate means of communication. Amateur Radio is not as prone to getting disrupted because they use a simple wireless set with an antenna strung aross two trees.

Establishing a Ham Radio club with club under the aegis of Science and Technology could popularise amateur radio in Sikkim. Training can be imparted to prospective Radio Ham volunteers  who can like the Civil Defence personnel be mobilsed for providing communication. As a proof of concept, a disaster telecommunication network can be established in the district headquarters with a static High Frequency set for long distance communication and a few VHF sets for local communication. This can be scaled up later to the to the Block level.

Ham Radio requires to be restored to its past glory in Sikkim: it could provide yeoman service during disasters.

(Rajesh Verma is a retired Secretary Information Technology and was a radio Ham with a callsign VU2RVM )