How jawans disabled in the line of duty won freedom from their wheelchairs, and hoisted the tricolour underwater

16th Aug 2017
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The startup that organised this grand tribute is Pune-based FinKick, a six-year-old scuba diving outfit founded by two 29-year-olds.

Every 15 August, we mark the day we gained our independence from the British and remind ourselves that sustaining this freedom is equally important .

Army jawans risk their life and often revoke their mobility and freedom to lead an independent, self-sufficient life in order to protect yours. Thus, this Independence Day, two Pune-based entrepreneurs decided to pay a beautiful tribute to the jawans who had been injured and disabled in the line of duty by training them to take on the world under water.

An early gathering of participants of the Freedom Dive

They believed they could…

The startup that organised this grand tribute is FinKick, a six-year-old scuba diving outfit founded by two 29-year-olds — electronics and nanotech engineer Kshitij Mittal and computer engineer Ankit Saboo. Kshitij has been a true-blue water baby, having been thrown into everything from the pool to the ocean at as young as four months by his father. He subsequently procured a scuba instructor licence from Bali, while Ankit got initiated into the torrents a little later on a trip to Havelock.

Experiencing the humbling yet empowering effect the underwater world had on the duo, they created Finkick, and furthermore, believing that the ocean is a universal equaliser, they even began scuba diving training for persons with physical disabilities. “Underwater, everyone is weightless and the slightest movement of hand or leg is enough to move you forward. After just a few sessions with some individuals and we realised that scuba diving was a great way to bring able-bodied people and persons with disabilities together. We now aim to help bring light to the marginalised communities of persons with disability, and do our bit towards reintegration,” says Kshitij.

The work with the differently abled community is not a revenue stream for Finkick. Their revenue model stems from organising diving events for groups of people, scuba certification courses in different cities, conducting diving holidays and expeditions to the ocean, and scuba diving events, like The Underwater Festival.

Till date, adopting a nuanced approach, they have held 50-odd dive sessions with the differently abled community. A dive with a blind candidate would be very different than the one with a quadriplegic. “A major chunk of the time at the beginning goes into bonding with them before the dive, in getting to know them, and understanding why they want to dive," explains Kshitij.

Owing to their vast expertise and success in dealing with persons with disabilities, this Independence Day, they decided to pay homage to jawans who had been injured during combat, through the ‘Freedom Dive'. Thus, five wheelchair-bound paraplegic army veterans experienced freedom from their wheelchair underwater, through their first-ever underwater scuba dive.

(L) Moments from the Freedom Dive, and (R) shots from Their Underwater Festival

So they did!

These jawans had lost mobility due to spinal cord injuries sustained in the line of duty, and are residing at the Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre in Khirkee, Pune. The team of five — Suresh Kumar Karki, Min Bahadur Thapa, Tapas Kumar Roy, Naina Singh Thapa and Amol Boriwale — is also a part of the Indian Para-basketball team and have recently bagged the bronze in the 4th Bali Cup Wheelchair Basketball Tournament held in Bali, Indonesia.

Sepoy Min Bahadur Thapa had his accident in 2004, while on his way to the India-China border, when a bunch of goons got into his bus to rob passengers. He stepped up to stop them but was shot in the neck, thus severing his spinal cord at the D3/D4 vertebrae, leaving him paralysed below the chest. But he got his life back together and taught himself how to swim freestyle and backstroke. He has now turned to scuba diving as a sport.

Sepoy Tapas Kumar Roy was paralysed below the chest while on duty in Siliguri due to a road traffic accident. Sepoy Naina Singh Thapa sustained an injury to the D2 vertebrae of the spinal cord, leaving him paralysed below the waist; and ex-PTR Amol Boriwale was caught in a claymore mine blast in Rajori, Jammu & Kashmir, in 2006, and left with C9-C10 vertebrae damage that restricted him to a wheelchair.

Finally, Suresh Kumar Karki, Naik, 2/9 Gorkha Rifles, who spoke to YourStory about the incident that left him wheelchair-bound, says he can never forget the day it happened. It was 2004, and he was on a rescue mission for his friend, who was shot by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). “During the ride back in the ambulance, we were hit by a civilian bus that killed two immediately and left me with a D6/D7 spinal cord injury," he recalls.

On the opportunity to work with Finkick, Suresh says, “I consider myself very lucky to have been given this opportunity. We’re from the army, so there was no question of finding this not possible! I’d heard about scuba diving, and was always eager to try it.”

The tricolour in full glory underwater

A watershed moment

Held at Mumbai’s Prabodhankar Thackeray Krida Sankul, following a gear check and buddy check, the teams of divers and instructors got into the water with a depth of 17 feet. They were trained in three stages. While the first stage entailed introduction to equipment, and the sport of scuba, through a short-check dive as well as scuba theory, the next stage involved advanced dive practices, wherein each participant had to acquire a specific set of skills and even undergo an advanced safety drill in shallow water. At the final stage, they finally got the deep water experience, and they had to exhibit comfort and control in water as deep as 15 feet, and in various situations presented underwater, in order to be able to participate in the Freedom Dive.

The jawans were accompanied and guided by Kshitij, and a trained disability diving instructor. After they were prepped, the five simultaneously took the plunge, and spent nearly 45 minutes underwater, playing underwater games, and even carried out an underwater hoisting of the Indian flag.

“As someone who has served in the army, it was even more special to do this on Independence Day. This is one of my most memorable experiences,” says Suresh.

"To see these brave jawans taking the dive and breaking free from their supposed limitations was the biggest reward for us. They experienced a different world for themselves,” says Ankit.

Because they choose not to monetise their work with the differently-abled, budgetary constraints always play out at these events. “It’s an expensive sport, especially executing it with experienced instructors, quality gear and a variety of assistive aids. The transport and logistics also can be a challenge in an event of this sort. We are very happy and excited that the Indian defence community and citizens have shown us support to make our dream a reality through crowdfunding,” says Amit, signing off.

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