Friday, June 05, 2020

The Land of the White Tiger: The Radio Scene in the Indian State of West Bengal

            The Indian state of West Bengal is located against the eastern edge of the Indian sub-continent.  This state is long and generally narrow, and it stretches 500 miles from the mangrove swamps in the sundarbans.  The rare White Tiger is occasionally glimpsed in the sundarban swamps, though several are in captivity in the zoo at New Delhi.
            At the time of partition in 1947, the Hindu areas of west Bengal were absorbed into the newly independent Indian empire, and the Moslem areas of east Bengal became the eastern wing of the new Pakistan.  In a subsequent war between India and Pakistan (1971), East Pakistan became the independent and mostly densely populated nation of Bangladesh.
            The Indian state of West Bengal as it is today is made up of three almost separate sections with as it were a narrow isthmus joining the separate sections.  The main southern section is 150 miles wide and 200 miles long, with the huge city of Calcutta/Kolkata as its center of population.
            The middle section of West Bengal is just a hundred miles wide at the most and two hundred miles long, and it is joined near Pakur to the middle section by a corridor just a couple of miles wide.  The northern section is maybe fifty miles long and a hundred miles wide and it is joined near Bidhan Nagar to the middle section by the Siliguri Corridor just ten miles wide.
            It is stated that during the Middle Ages in Europe, Bengal was a major world trading nation and it was often referred to by the Europeans as the richest country in the world.  That was the reason why William Carey, who is honored as the world’s most successful Christian missionary, chose to begin his ministry in Bengal.
            A major tourist attraction in West Bengal is the quaint railway train that runs on a narrow gauge line from near Siliguri, through Kurseong, up to Darjeeling at the foot of the Himalayas.  This tortuous 55 mile long railway line was constructed during the late 1800s, and together with all of the tourist stops, it is a half a day journey through rugged mountain scenery.
            Radio broadcasting was introduced into West Bengal just on one hundred years ago when a 500 watt Marconi transmitter was imported from England and used for a public demonstration in Calcutta on 375 kHz under the callsign 2BZ.  The first shortwave transmitter in West Bengal was a 700 watt unit that was installed with the AIR station VUC at Cossipore, an old suburban area of north Calcutta in 1932. 

All India Radio Kurseong
            However, in our program today we are taking a look at  the shortwave and mediumwave radio scene in the country areas of West Bengal, beyond the regions associated with the capital city Calcutta/Kolkata.  Traditional shortwave/mediumwave stations have been installed in only two cities in the country areas of this Indian state, both right up in the very north.
            The city of Kurseong is located in the northern section of West Bengal, just half a dozen miles from the border with Nepal, and less than a dozen miles from the border with Sikkim.  Kurseong was in earlier times a part of the separate kingdom of Sikkim and it was taken over by the British as a summer hill station during the colonial era.  This mountainous area enjoys a pleasant climate throughout the year.
            The city name Kurseong in the regional language refers to the locally grown Little White Orchid Flower, though more prolific these days are the tea garden estates, all 78 of them in the Kurseong area.  The city population is listed at around 42,000.
            The first radio broadcasting station in Kurseong was a shortwave facility, due to the fact that shortwave coverage in the high hills and huge valleys provides better propagation than mediumwave or FM.  The studios were installed in the Mehta Club Building which is located a little down hill from the towers and transmitters at the top of the tourist venue Eagle’s Craig. 
            The first shortwave transmitter was a temporary 2 kW unit that was taken into service on June 2, 1962.  Programming was from Delhi and Calcutta as relayed off air from AIR Calcutta on shortwave, three hundred miles distant.  Among the languages heard from AIR Kurseong were English, Hindi and Nepali, as well as the national languages in Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet. 
            Six months later a new 20 kW shortwave transmitter was installed and this replaced the original smaller unit.  The larger transmitter, an American made Gates Model HF20BX, was activated in January 1963. 
            The original intent for this transmitter was for installation at Trivandrum in Kerala, South India, but due to rising international tension in the northern border areas at the time, it was quickly diverted for installation at Kurseong.  Back then, there was no AIR radio station in Kurseong.
            Thirty two years later, the 20 kW transmitter was now old and it needed replacing.  A 50 kW Indian made BEL transmitter Model HHB144 from Bangalore was thus installed and it was taken into service in 1995.
            However a score of years later, this transmitter also was getting old and there were times when it malfunctioned and it was on the air at reduced power, or even off the air altogether.  In fact just a year ago (July 30, 2019) AIR Kurseong shortwave was officially decommissioned.
            However since then, AIR headquarters in Delhi has reversed that decision and instead, a new 50 kW analog transmitter will be installed in the transmitter building at Kurseong in the northern areas of this Indian state of West Bengal.  This is a most welcome move that is the reverse of what is happening in some other parts of the world.  Perhaps this new shortwave unit will be activated some time next year.
            Not so well known though is that there was also a mediumwave transmitter located in Kurseong, a 1 kW unit on 1440 kHz with programming intended for the local area, much of which was on relay from AIR Kolkata.  AIR Kurseong mediumwave was on the air for about 17 years, all within this 21st century. 

All India Radio Siliguri
            The northern regional city of Siliguri with its ¾ million population is also located in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas in the northernmost section of the Indian state of West Bengal.  Siliguri lies just a dozen miles south of Kurseong and just half a dozen miles from the northernmost border with Bangladesh.  The area is noted for its abundance of wild life, including 243 different bird species.
            The first radio station in Siliguri was activated late in the year 1963, with 20 kW on 1560 kHz.  This AIR transmitter was installed two miles out of town on Sevoke Road, State Highway 10, which runs northward towards Sikkim.
            The operating frequency for AIR Siliguri was subsequently changed to 700 kHz, and later again, to 711 kHz.  Then some 30 years ago, two transmitters at 100 kW each were installed, and these days  this station can run in the analog mode or the digital mode.
(AWR-Wavescan/NWS 589)