Gopal Madhavan a pioneer in the field of Ham radio talks about the hobby and the challenges of recasting it in the context of modern technology.

Gopal Madhavan is seldom bamboozled by new technology. At a poky little room that serves as his personal ham radio station, he displays admirable mastery of Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD), a Windows software that allows a slew of radio operations to be performed on the computer. Let the tech-savvy 30-somethings out there, who curl their mouths and mutter “Big deal!” know that Madhavan is 76 years old!

While most hams of his generation struggle to come to grips with the constantly evolving software-defined ham radio system, Madhavan is on top of it. As a qualified engineer, Madhavan has a clear advantage. But it is a deep-rooted passion for the hobby that has provided the impetus to embrace and master new technologies.

To illustrate the point — more than a decade ago, when he had cut his Achilles tendon and a surgery seemed inevitable, he transported all the radio equipment from his one-room workshop on the terrace to the living room before going under the surgeon’s scalpel. “Because I knew I would not be able to climb the stairs for a while.” Little wonder he is the president of the Amateur Radio Society of India (ARSI), the topmost organisation for the hobby in the country. He also serves as a director at Region Three of International Amateur Radio Union (IARU-R3), since 2006.

Madhavan, known as VU2GMN on the radio waves, is respected by seasoned and tech-savvy young hams around the country because he has won fierce battles for them. “There is a scramble for radio frequencies and we have to fight for ours,” he explains. IARU is divided into three regions, each comprising a group of countries. Member countries in each region want radio frequencies and they prepare a case for them, working with experts in telecommunications. They present their cases at the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), organised every three or four years by the International Telecommunication Union at Geneva. Madhavan has figured in efforts that have won frequency allocations 7.1MHz to 7.2 MHz, 50 MHz and 10 MHz. However, victory at WRC often not proving final, he and his team have had to take the battle to the camp of the Wireless Coordination and Planning (WPC) wing, which functions under the Department of Telecommunications (DoT).

“An embarrassingly long list of broadcasters was using the frequencies 7.1 MHz to 7.2 MHz, even after they had been allotted to amateur radio operators. We slowly chucked them out one by one. But 7.19 MHz is still being used by Radio Ceylon,” says Madhavan and adds that the overall scenario is positive. “With the ARSI functioning as a battering ram, certain attitudes have been mowed down. For one, renewal of licences is done with greater promptness.”

But, anyone acquainted with the hobby, would tell you that the major hurdle to its growth is the cumbersome licensing process. “India has the most outdated rules for ham radio, carried over from the colonial era. During the times of the British, these rules were designed to keep Indians from having access to frequencies through ham radios. In our times, they are glaringly anachronistic. With so many other resources for communication at their disposal, why will saboteurs turn to amateur radios? While people in authority agree that amateur radios function in a climate of transparency and pose no security risk, they don’t want to take the pen and strike down meaningless licensing rules. The lack of will stems from the fact that amateur radio constitutes an insignificant portion of telecommunications and offers little in terms of revenue. A 20-year licence involves the payment of just around Rs. 1,000,” he says.

As ARSI president, Madhavan has observed that the hassle of getting a ham licence has not killed the hobby in the country. It attracts a remarkable number of young patrons, especially from Bangalore and Chennai, partly because it has been recast in the image of modern technology. “In the past, radios consisted of transistors, capacitors, diodes and a load of other components. Today, they are made with a minimum of hardware and are responsive to a plethora of software. As a result, they can be upgraded easily,” says Madhavan, as he takes us through a tour of this evolution, describing each of the instruments. A linear amplifier is among a few he had made himself. “I made it with parts I had picked up at ship- and aircraft-breaking scrapyards. It took me two years to get all of them.”

Ever since he qualified in mechanical engineering from the Battersea College of Engineering, London, his hands have been busy fiddling with nuts and bolts and creating gadgets. He continues to accept work as an engineering consultant. “I don’t believe in retirement,” says Madhavan. The philosophy extends to his hobby — sports, which include motor sports and rowing. Called one of the Panch Pandavas of motor sports in Madras, he was part of the team that designed the Irrungatukottai race track. And he was on the team that carried out the preliminary inspection at the Buddh International Circuit, Greater Noida. Madhavan has the distinction of being India’s first international umpire in rowing and officiating as regatta controller at the 1982 Asian Games. “Motor sports and rowing are as important to me as ham radio,” he says, but admits to having cut down on his commitment to these activities.

In contrast, he is as active a ham as ever — because this hobby goes beyond being a pastime. “In the Eighties, I suffered a downturn in business. Being tuned in to friends on the radio waves prevented me from going off the deep end.”

Around the world, ham radio has mitigated disaster during calamities and saved lives. Madhavan can say it has saved his. Not only that, it has also enriched his life.