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July 8, 1997


N Vittal

S.O.S, getting the message out of the bottle

The International Telecommunication Union was formed in Paris on May 17, 1865. Every year on that foundation day, the Union discusses one aspect of telecommunication. The theme this year was 'Telecommunication and humanitarian assistance'.

Disasters come in all shapes and sizes, small and large, manmade and natural. There are floods, cyclones and earthquakes. Terrorists strikes and civil wars. Yet one thing amongst all the tragedy remains constant. The first step toward relief is always communication. Or more significantly put, telecommunications.

However, because disasters are generally graded by the extent of the damage they cause, from cyclones and earthquakes to a couple of victims in road accidents, we can look at the whole issue of telecommunications in disaster relief from the macro and micro perspective.

Even before humanitarian assistance gets on the move, the relief workers need to know the nature of the accident or disaster. Often times information about the nature of the calamity and the location of the victims needs to be conveyed very quickly and clearly. Now by definition, telecommunication is talking at a distance. And it becomes the obvious first step toward relief.

ITU Secretary-General Pekka Tarjanne, in his message to the world on Telecommunication Day, said: "Perhaps no more graphic example can be found than the events surrounding the sinking of the Titanic on April 14, 1912. Radio communication technology was instrumental in soliciting aid from the nearby vessels in California and Carpathia, which were able to proceed to the rescue. Sadly many more lives could probably have been saved had other vessels in the vicinity been equipped with radio communication systems. As it was, they remained oblivious to the tragedy unfolding around them at night, and some 1,500 people lost their lives."

The impact of the Titanic disaster on maritime communications was enormous. That same year saw the adoption of the first 'International convention for the safety of life at sea'. Later radio regulations were amended to include mandatory operatory requirements and provisions regarding maritime distress communications.

At the same time, the ITU was nominated as the watchdog for the correct application of maritime safety procedures. The importance of radio communications in maritime safety has not diminished and the technology also plays a vital role in emergency relief operations on ground.

Every year, teams of dedicated field workers from a wide range of national and international aid agencies work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of those caught in natural and manmade disasters.

At the mainstay of a great many of these operations continue to be the messages received and transmitted by simple radio systems. This is especially true in areas of poor or unreliable telephone infrastructure, such as in remote regions of the developing world.

The role played by the Amateur Radio Service, in particular, has been invaluable over the years, providing, as it does, a worldwide decentralised radio network manned by highly competent operators.

The planned introduction of an International Amateur Radio Licence by the International Amateur Radio Union should further facilitate international assistance during humanitarian relief operations.

India is a country where the telephone density is very low. Against the world average of 10 telephones per 100 people, we have hardly 1. Large areas in our country are outside the telephone network. Of the nearly 600,000 villages, hardly 200,000 have telephone facilities.

When it comes to disaster relief, whether at the macro or micro level, what is first needed is the existence of the telecom infrastructure and above all, access to it.

It is therefore logical that India's National Telecom Policy, 1994, highlights the need for universal telecom service and universal access to it for the people. One of the objectives of the policy says that 'There must be telephones for all and telephone within the reach of all'. It is this access that becomes significant in times of disaster. The public call office concept is an innovation by which even people who are not subscribers of telecom services can use them.

However, stressing the importance of telecom in tackling disasters is not enough. To accelerate the pace of development in India we need to change the mindset which considers telecom to be a luxury.

Telecommunication is directly linked with being well off in life today. In the last budget, the finance minister declared that to sniff out income-tax evasions, the department could keep tab on the incomes of those owning telephone connections among other things like cars and buildings.

There are 12 million tax payers in the country and, not surprisingly, there are also 12 million telephones. The correlation between telephone density and the gross domestic product of a nation is well known.

The problem before the income-tax department is that while every income-tax payer will have a telephone, not all telephone holders pay income-tax. Incidentally, people who are evading the law seem to have better telecom facilities than those who obey the law.

All of us remember the objections raised by the Intelligence Bureau when paging services were to be introduced in Surat and Amritsar in 1994. The IB said that smugglers in Surat and terrorists in Amritsar would misuse paging facilities. The IB had failed to understand that the terrorists and smugglers were already using other telecom facilities and that paging was only a value-added service.

Oscar Wilde has said that the thief is an artist and the policeman the critic. When it comes to telecommunications, the smugglers and terrorists are perhaps using more advanced systems than the law enforcing authority.

As the quality of life in a country improves what is considered to be luxury becomes a necessity. A couple of decades back, having a radio was considered a luxury; today it is commonplace. Televisions were considered luxury but today most people can aspire to own a television.

The National Council of Applied Economic Research, in a study conducted on buying patterns of the people in India, has come up with interesting results. Even people below the poverty line save money to buy consumer items like a wristwatch, a cycle or a radio because these are no more perceived to be luxury goods.

Traditionally, wireless telecommunication has played the most significant role in disaster relief. During the Latur earthquake, the work of ham radio operators was invaluable. So was the case during the Andhra Pradesh cyclone.

The value of ham operators is realised only in times of disaster. We fail to improve the numbers of ham operators in better times. The attitude is summed up by the Gujarati proverb which says that 'One should not start digging a well after the house is on fire'.

When it comes to the basic issue of encouraging ham radio in the country, we are still lost. Under the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Programme one of the schemes where its funding can be used is for starting of ham clubs in high schools. As chairman of the Public Enterprise Selection Board, I have written to all large public-sector enterprises, especially those who run their own schools, requesting them to start ham clubs. There are a million ham operators in a country as small as Japan. We have only 10,000 across our geographic expanse.

Closely allied to ham technology is the need for a citizen band' radio. CB radio is the poor man's 'cellular phone'. This scheme is also included in the MPLAD Programme. Installation of a CB radio in hospitals and public transport will help immensely in case of an accident when the nearest hospital can be contacted.

If we launch a systematic effort to see that CB radios are installed in public transport and that hospitals have base stations of it, we would have taken another step in ensuring that with minimum of investment, we create a major disaster relief infrastructure.

This calls for a more liberal approach to licensing amateur radio and CB radio. I have taken up the matter with the home ministry and they have relaxed the regulations a bit in some non-border areas.

Here we face what I would call the technology paradox in our administration. Those who are aware of the advantages of technology are nowhere near making policy. Those who make policy are not sensitive to the developments in technology and the advantages they offer.

Occasions like the World Telecommunication Day should be utilised to sensitise people and policy-makers about using technology for improving the quality of life. Especially when it comes to disaster relief, there is no reason why we should not effectively use wireless technology. All legal restrictions in the way of this goal must be removed.

Incidentally, the 'International decade for natural disaster reduction', 1990-2000, provides concepts to improve the disaster resistance of telecommunication infrastructure so as to optimise the use of telecommunications in early warning.

We must take advantage of the IDNDR and push through a policy initiative to improve the rigidity of licences for CB and ham radios.

Though very different from cyclones and earthquakes, prolonged drought and scarcity are natural disasters too. Communication about movement of vehicles and relief to drought-hit areas as well as information on regulation of irrigation become very significant.

Gujarat's irrigation department has been using communication systems very effectively to handle the challenges of drought.

The origins of the Internet is again a standing proof of how in any planning exercise to tackle the problem of manmade disasters, communication comes first. Internet was initiated by the defence authorities of the United States to provide for a communication facility in case of a nuclear holocaust.

However, when we consider telecommunication for humanitarian assistance we have to focus more on wireless telecommunication. Wireline communication depends on the physical integrity of the cable network. In times of natural disasters the physical integrity of the network can be threatened greatly and can be very badly affected. On the other hand, wireless communication does not depend on such a physical medium.

I suggest that we systematically plan to use wireless technology by encouraging wireless communication in the country.

The first problem we face here is the management of the radio frequency spectrum. Now that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has been set up it will be useful to entrust the responsibility to TRAI so that all players and service provides have access to the spectrum quickly, and optimum use is made to encourage a communication infrastructure that will be vital in times of disasters.

Equally important for India is to explore new opportunities in the wireless communication spectrum management. We can all be proud of the achievement of Dr Jhunjhunwala of IIT, Madras, who, in collaboration with Analog Devices of the United States, has come up with a new 'wireless in local loop' technology under DECT technology at less than a third the cost of the prevailing technology.

Such initiatives should be encouraged and put into commercial use as quickly as possible so that ready, reliable and cost-effective telecommunication becomes a part of the infrastructure in India. This will also strengthen us to meet the natural disasters or provide humanitarian assistance more effectively.

We can now look into the micro aspect where a small number of individuals are affected. For example, when it comes to medical treatment, telemedicine is emerging as a significant area. Especially in far-off areas, where experts are not available, excellent telecommunication facilities and two-way communication can help in ensuring that patients get remotely treated by the best professionals. It should be the policy and strategy of the health administration in our country today to systematically build such a telemedicine network so that even with a very large percentage of doctors concentrated in urban areas, medical relief, treatment and quality health care in rural areas can be improved and the expertise of medical professionals reached to them.

Telecommunication has been a civilising technology. It has made the world small. It has helped people come closer and communicate better.

By spelling the death of distance, telecommunication has emerged as the most significant factor in tackling problems of disaster and humanitarian assistance. After all, distance is the first major factor the providers of relief will have to cover in reaching the victims.

We, in India, by using an imaginative and intelligent approach in policy, can use the available technologies in telecommunication to bring a better quality of life to the people.

N Vittal is chairman of the Public Enterprises Selection Board. However, he is best known for his tenure as the secretary of the Telecom Commission and the many revolutionary policies he introduced.

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