Helping to Connect

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Knowing well what it means to stay in touch with your loved ones during disaster, a number of Airtel employees worked tirelessly to restore the connectivity.

To help flood victims Airtel has setup free charging points at key locations across Srinagar.

To help flood victims Airtel has setup free charging points at key locations across Srinagar.

September floods turned out to be nightmare for thousands of Kashmiris, but for Faisal Baldave, the absence from his father’s funeral is a tragedy everlasting. Even when the waters have receded and life is inching towards normalcy, Faisal is still flooded with the emotions of his father’s death.

On the evening of September 3 Faisal left office for his home in south Kashmir’s Islamabad, where the floods had already devastated crops and roads. After finding the highway closed he returned to his rented apartment at Hyderpora. With communication lines down, Faisal was continuously worried about his ailing father, suffering from cardiac problems.

At around 5 PM on September 5, through a snappy landline call Faisal came to know the worst. “My father had expired,” says Faisal, who works as Zonal M-commerce manager in Airtel. His family back home had managed to arrange a truck and carry the body of his father to graveyard.

He tried to take an alternate road to south but the floods had washed off Chadoora Bridge. For four days, Faisal, marooned in shock and helplessness, couldn’t do anything and remained trapped in Srinagar. On September 9, Faisal along with his cousin, arranged for a pickup truck and after cutting across through a river with the help of a tractor, reached home.

“It was awful. I couldn’t see my father’s face. Even our relatives hadn’t been able to reach our home,” he says. After remaining at his home for four days, Faisal left for Srinagar for office.

After working for long tiring hours and days, Faisal, manages Airtel Money, was able to restore the facility.

“I could feel the suffering of not being in contact with our loved ones at the time of grief. That is why I left for office to ensure the phone connectivity is restored,” Faisal says.

Faisal’s colleague, Shahzad Saleem, a resident of Jammu, was having a good time with his family members and friends at his rented apartment in Kursoo Rajbagh, when Jhelum swelled over to the residential areas. “We were 22 people in total and on the morning of September 8, a boat ferried us to safety,” says Shahzad, who along with his family stayed at a bridge till midnight.

Suhail Bakshi, Operations Head, Airtel, J&K wading through waist high waters to resume MSC operations in Kashmir.

Suhail Bakshi, Operations Head, Airtel, J&K wading through waist high waters to resume MSC operations in Kashmir.

The next day, Shahzad reached a safer place near Sonwar and kept his family there. “I arranged a boat and managed to reach Rajbagh hotel to rescue trapped civilians,” he says. Shahzad, a service manager at Airtel, rescued 28 people from the hotel.

“I wanted to help people in whatever way I could,” he says.

One of the major concerns for Suhail Bakshi and Muneer Yusuf during floods was of electrocution in case of illegal shutdown of cellular connectivity locations. But at the last minute, before water submerged the city, all the locations were properly shutdown.

“This helped us to save equipment from getting damaged but more than that; we were able to prevent any chance of electrocution,” says Suhail Bakshi, Operations Head, Airtel, Ericsson J&K.

When the cellular connectivity went down on September 7, the mission to restore the connectivity through more than 15 feet water was near to impossible. With no chain of command to follow, the executives of the company from different parts of the city tried to reach the Mobile Switching Centre (MSC) of the network near Lal Chowk. But all in vain!

“We knew that if we are able to lighten up the MSC, the connectivity to some extent could be restored,” says Muneer Yusuf, Manager Operations, Bharti Airtel. For Muneer, the major concern was to put to rest the haunting rumours of death count circulating in the city.

“I was perturbed by the amount of rumours. It was due to the non-availability of the communication,” Muneer says.

Finally on September 10, the team of several technical experts and executives swam through six feet water to reach the Airtel’s MSC.

“It was all mud. Our first job was to clear off the mud and then arrange for the power supply to start up the system,” says Showkat Gundroo, Infra-Operations, Eriksson J&K, Bharti Airtel. “We arranged generators and kept them on the trucks. Hard work bore fruit and the first site up in Kashmir was at 2.30 AM on 8th from Jammu MSC. On 11th of September we were able to make the first call from the rooftop of the MSC building. With that call downtown lightened up,” he says. “It was a relief.”

According to Showkat, around 300-350 employees of the company worked 24×7 for a week to restore the connectivity. “Some of the executives working on the restoration had their homes submerged in water but they didn’t go home. It was a humanitarian cause,” he says.

Showkat was accompanied by another senior executive Mohammad Rafiq Wani and Nasir Mir during the emergency work. Calling it a joint effort from all the departments during the hard times, the executives say they got the voluntary help from locals throughout the restoration phase. While the executives were working at their individual level to ensure connectivity, the experts’ teams in Jammu & Gurgaon were there for all technical expertise besides teams from Punjab, Chandigarh, Chennai and Andhra Pradesh had already started working at different locations.

“People trust our network and precisely for this reason; we put our lives in danger to make them hear the voice of their loved ones,” Muneer says.

When most of the relief camps were busy in distributing food and clothing to flood victims, Salman Magrey and Gowhar Jan of Airtel were busy in their own way. Both, keeping their private concerns aside, were instrumental in distributing approximately 5000 SIMS with inbuilt talktime at various relief camps in the submerged valley, helping people to connect with their loved ones. They along with other team mates were also helping in installation of the VSAT at various locations for connectivity.

About Author

A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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