The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Lost on pandal grounds, found on airwaves

The little girl had never ventured out of her village before. She was overwhelmed at the sight of Calcutta during the Pujas — bright lights, teeming crowds, giant pandals… And then, in one careless moment, she slipped from the grasp of her parents and lost her way. Found by the rescuers with radios, she was taken to the Amateur Emergency Radio Service booth, manned by volunteers locating lost people, at the Ekdalia Evergreen puja. Then, announcements were made on loudspeakers to find her parents.

But, there was one more hurdle to cross before a happy ending — a false claim. A man approached, claiming to be the seven-year-old’s father. Suspicious, the ham radio volunteers contacted the police at the missing person’s booth. The ‘father’ immediately vanished.

Similar false claims were reported in other areas too, from Singhi Park to College Square. While septuagenarian Deepak Mitra and secretary of the Calcutta VHF Amateur Radio Society Arya Ghosh had to deal with it at Ekdalia Evergreen, Surojit Dey experienced it at close quarters in a north Calcutta puja. “It doesn’t happen very often, but it’s not uncommon,” says Ghosh.

The girl at Ekdalia was finally handed over to her family and all was well, as in the case of the other lost children found by the volunteers. At the eight big Durga puja pandals where the volunteers were stationed, 400 people were reported missing, about 60 of them children and teenagers. The actual number was far larger, they believe.

In their second year of helping to reunite lost individuals with their families and friends during the Pujas, the radio enthusiasts set up stalls at Sealdah Athletic Club, on Kaiser Street, Santosh Mitra Square, Mohammad Ali Park, College Square, Ekdalia Evergreen, Singhi Park, Bagbazar Sarbojanin and Ahiritola Sarbojanin.

In the tie-up with Calcutta Police, Jodhpur Park and Kumartuli Park had to be left out because of a scarcity of helping hands. Thirty ham radio operators worked in shifts from evening to dawn, Saptami to Navami.

“Of the 400 people reported missing to our booths, over 50 per cent was found through crosslink ham radio communications between volunteers, with police help. The headquarters was at a member’s residence, in a highrise, to minimise frequency interference,” says Ghosh.

While he feels that parents are often careless with their children, Mitra says the pandal-hoppers from districts and villages, particularly youngsters, get confused and, even when found, sometimes can’t recall their names, where they are from or who the members of their groups are. “In such cases, we counsel them. When their families are not found, we hand them over to the police,” adds Mitra.

Organisation is the key, the volunteers point out. Like in the Ekdalia-Singhi Park area, where around 270 people were reported missing over the three days. “After seeing both pujas, people generally proceed to Phalguni Sangha, and then on to Bosepukur. They usually get scattered at the chaotic crossing between the two areas, where parents are extra careful about their kids. That is why mainly middle-aged people get lost there,” sums up Ghosh.

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