Who’s Afraid of Amateur Radio? And why do our babus fear it?

When I was in my early teens (back in the early 1980s), I developed a great interest in radio. Not just in listening to radio broadcasts, which I did regularly while growing up in a country that had no television, but also in building a radio that could both receive and transmit signals.

My school teacher father, who encouraged me in many of my diverse pursuits, bought transistors, condensers and other ‘building blocks’ for a basic radio set. With the help of an amateur radio handbook, and through trial and error, he and I actually built a functional transmitter. It was exhilarating to listen to local and shortwave broadcasts on a home-made radio set, but even more exciting to be able to transmit rudimentary signals.

Even as a kid, I was not contented in being a passive recipient of information; I wanted to give out as much as I received…

That particular fancy didn’t last long: I soon moved on to other challenges, and never persisted with being a serious amateur radio enthusiast (or ‘radio ham’), but it left a lasting impression. A few years later, after leaving high school, I became a regular freelancer at the local radio station. By age 23, I was hosting my own weekly show on national radio, and my association with the radio medium would last for much of my 20s.

The humble low tech that saved the day...

My interest in amateur radio lay dormant — until five years ago, when I read reports about how radio hams helped revive emergency communications in the immediate aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami.

The decades old practice was hailed as the ‘low tech’ miracle that literally helped save lives. Where electricity and telephone services — both fixed and mobile — had been knocked down, radio hams restored the first communication links. They were at the forefront of relief efforts, for example, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India, and in Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka.

This intrigued Sir Arthur C Clarke, inventor of the communications satellite and long time resident of Sri Lanka. Shortly afterwards, he wrote in Wired magazine: “We might never know how many lives they saved and how many minds they put at ease, but we owe a debt to Marconi’s faithful followers.”

If Sir Arthur were alive, he would have been dismayed to find what has happened since. Notwithstanding their celebrated role after the tsunami, radio hams have been sidelined in Sri Lanka. Their very hobby is being frowned upon by the state on the grounds of…national security.

Looking back, it seems like the public-spirited radio hams were given their 15 minutes of fame and then soundly ignored. Worse, the short-lived prominence may have attracted new bureaucratic hurdles.

This is the thrust of my last op ed essay for 2009, published on 31 December 2009 on Groundviews.org under the title: Who’s Afraid of Amateur Radio? Tsunami’s heroic technology has few backers in Sri Lanka

“As the applause died away, everything was forgotten,” I quote Victor Goonetilleke, one time President and current Secretary of the Radio Society of Sri Lanka, which networks amateur radio practitioners in the country.

One reason for this bureaucratic fear and negativity, I argue, may be simple ignorance of what amateur radio really is — reflecting the disturbingly low levels of media literacy in Sri Lanka.

Read the full essay, and join the conversation on Groundviews, or on this blog.

Essay republished on AMIC Alternative Media Portal

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