It was an eight-word message that triggered off an
intensive search and rescue mission in one of the remotest places on the planet
that kept the news cycle in a state of furious churn for the next 72 hours. On
September 21, around 5.39 pm IST, India's most decorated long-distance ocean
sailor, Abhilash Tomy, pinged the race control of the Golden Globe Race in
Australia: "Rolled. Dismasted. Severe back injury. Cannot get up." The
coordinate stamp on the message indicated it originated from 39'38.20S,
77'22.565E. In other words, Tomy was stuck within a degree of the turbulent 'roaring forties' after his boat, Thuriya, was knocked down by gale force
The Southern Indian Ocean is one of the loneliest
stretches of water on the planet. Tomy was trapped inside his damaged boat
almost 3,200 km off the coast of Western Australia. After receiving the SOS,
the Australian Rescue Coordination Centre based in Canberra activated search
and rescue protocols and issued the Red Code.
It meant all ships in the area - naval, merchant and
fishing vessels - were obligated to pitch in to rescue the Indian Navy
commander as per established maritime norms. It was at this stage that the
Indian Navy voluntarily offered to deploy its assets to rescue Tomy and
requested its Australian counterparts to help as well. Over the next three
days, Indian Navy's P-8I maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft,
which, according to the Pentagon, costs $ 2,100 per flying hour, remained aloft
for 50 hours, keeping watch on Tomy before the French fishing vessel, Osiris,
As expected, the extensive nature of Tomy's rescue
operation turned the focus on the occupational hazards extreme sports athletes
face when they set out to challenge the vast and wide unknown. It would be
churlish to take the high moral ground and ask whether the Indian Navy should
have undertaken such an expensive mission at a time when India's defence
spending, as a percentage of GDP, has dropped alarmingly to 1.52 percent, on
par with what it was in 1962.
Armed forces around the world encourage their men and
women to take part in extreme sports because it's in sync with their ethos of
acting with valour in the face of adversity. And, when these men and women get
caught up in adverse situations, they move their men and machines to rescue
their colleagues with a sense of esprit de corps. That's the reason people from
the armed forces in India have been at the forefront of adventure sports. They
have the necessary support system in place that's needed to pursue high-cost
and high-risk adventure sports.
The first successful Indian expedition to the Everest in
1965 was led by Lt. Cmd. MS Kohli, and comprised mostly of members drawn from
the armed forces and paramilitary units. It put nine men on the summit - a
world record at the time. If today, India enjoys an upper hand in Siachin, it's
because of Col. N. Kumar's pioneering army expedition to the world's highest
battlefield that planted the tri-colour on the hostile glacier, dominating the
Pakistani army in the Eastern Karakoram.
Tomy's rescue operation, in fact, should serve as an
opportunity to dissect the anomalies and the lack of support systems that act
as a serious impediment for civilians who pursue extreme sports in India. In
every instance, they are left to their own ingenuity and resources to weave a
safety net around themselves.
India's top cross-country motorcycle racer, CS Santosh's
professional life is defined by racing across some of the most hostile terrain
on the planet in excess of 150 kmph on two wheels. The first Indian to break
the glass ceiling by taking part in the iconic Dakar Rally (2015) competes with
a Spanish racing licence that costs â‚¬1,000 (Rs. 84,000), because, unlike an
Indian racing licence, it comes with an insurance cover of â‚¬30,000 ( Rs
25 lakh), including air evacuation from any part of the world to any country of
Though, there is slow change in the air, top extreme
sports athletes point to very basic issues that plague safety and rescue
operations in extreme sports in India. It starts with communication.
Mohit Oberoi, one of India's pioneering rock climbers
and founder of the Outdoor School, points out that the unavailability of
satellite phones for civilian use as the first big hurdle.
"If you are stuck
in a remote place with no cellphone coverage there is no way one can
communicate with the outside world. A remote place need not necessarily be a
high Himalayan mountain top, it could be the cliffs of Dhauj (Haryana) or
Susunia (West Bengal)," says Oberoi.
The Delhi-based climber recalls how he once had to carry
his climbing partner (who fractured his leg after a nasty fall) on his back to
the roadhead because there was no way he could communicate to outside world.
It's not that they were scaling the rock faces in some boondocks. It happened
in Dhauj, which is in the border area of Faridabad and Gurgaon in the NCR
NO AIR SUPPORT
This communication blackhole gets further exacerbated
for activities such as mountaineering and paragliding. Love Raj Dharmshaktu,
India's best contemporary mountaineer who holds the record of seven Everest
summits - highest number by an Indian - besides more than 40 successful climbs,
including Kanchenjunga (8,586 metres), takes the point even further.
"Due to the lack of communication in remote regions, the
only option in case of a mishap is to come down the mountain to the base camp,
gather more people, before going up again to rescue the affected people. It's
the loss of the critical time window which is the main difference between life
and death," he says.
issue, unlike in Nepal, is the lack of proper airborne rescue operations in
India for civilians, because in most of the places where mountaineering
happens, private choppers are not allowed to fly or they don't have the right
choppers that can fly above 6,500 metres," adds Dharmshaktu. "Also, in Nepal,
for instance, you can buy a satellite phone off the shelf or rent it without
However, things are progressing in India. In some places
like Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, the government has allowed limited use
of satellite phone through state-owned telecom operator BSNL.
Another critical shortcoming Dharmshaktu points out is
the lack of professionally trained rescuers in India. Most of the people,
including from the armed forces, who are pressed to carry out rescue operations
in hostile conditions are not equipped with the wherewithals in terms of
training or equipment.
In many cases in the past, those with the right
contacts, and money, have managed to press Army or Air Force choppers for
civilian rescue operations. But the time it takes to activate them, due to the
long-winding chain of command, has often proved to be a fatal delay.
Then comes the issue of insurance. Until 2016, none of
the Indian insurance companies, including the multinational ones, offered
high-risk cover. The maximum they provided was the standard Rs. 2 lakh cover
for risky activities. It left athletes like Dhramshaktu with no option other
than to rely on international companies such as Global Rescue for evacuation
and medical insurance.
It is this wide chasm between the growing trend for
adventure activities and the lack of safety infrastructure that a start-up such
as Adventure Sports Cover 360 (ASC 360) aims to bridge. Based on the nature of
the sport, ASC 360 offers five categories of insurance and rescue cover that
include more than 200 activities ranging from simple treks to 8,000 metre plus
expeditions and BASE jumping.
To make their Insurance Regulatory and Development
Authority of India (IRDAI) approved policies easily accessible, the packages
start with premiums as low as Rs 99 for simple treks to customised cover for
"It has taken us close to eight years to put the
necessary infrastructure in place. Today, we have tie-ups with most of the air
ambulances and operators of medical choppers, hospitals and rescue operators.
We can now provide both land-based and airborne rescue support anywhere in
India," says Pratik Gupta, founder of ASC 360.
This year, they set up a permanent medical and rescue
camp for 45 days and a helipad at the base of Stok Kangri - a popular
6,153-metre trekking peak in Ladakh.
"Anybody going to Stok Kangri could buy a 10-day rescue
and medical insurance package for just Rs 1,500. Also, we carried out three
successful helicopter evacuations. During those 45 days of our operation, there
were no casualties on Stok Kangri. This is apart from 31 evacuations that we
carried out in Nepal during the 2018 climbing season, including from the
Everest," adds Gupta.
Given that this market is growing in India; other
insurance companies like Bajaj Allianz have started shedding their moribund
mindsets. Since last year, they began offering customised medical insurance
cover for extreme activities such as Everest expeditions; though for
evacuation, top Indian mountaineers still prefer to go with international
operators such as Global Rescue or World Nomads.
It's a no-brainer that the Indian Himalaya, which
stretches from Jammu and Kashmir in the north to Arunachal Pradesh in the east,
and a coastline that's more than 7,000 km long, extreme sports is here to stay
and grow with the ever increasing awareness about outdoor lifestyle. Therefore,
it's imperative that India develops its indigenous rescue, insurance and