When a small dive turned into a giant leap for India’s disabled

Saba Rahman
The Special Forces Adventure or SFA team, whose objective is to make the high-end sports, like scuba diving, sky diving, high-altitude trekking, accessible to one and all.

In early August this year, a group of 34 people decided to try out scuba diving at a swimming pool in Chandigarh s Sector 42. All were first-time divers. They had other similarities. Each of them had various kinds and degrees of disabilities, and they were all filled with nervous energy and anticipation. In their wet suits and fins and armed with air tanks, goggles and masks, some dived strapped to their wheelchairs, others without.

Bahaut mazaa aaya (I had much fun) as I slid into the nice, cool water and floated. I am quadriplegic, and cannot use my hands or legs. The fact is that I cannot walk, but I could dive, It was unbelievable, said Ajeya Raj, 28, of Chandigarh Spinal Rehabilitation Centre.

The event, named Operation Blue Freedom, was part of a recently formed adventure sports initiative called Special Forces Adventure (SFA) that focuses on the disabled, both civilians and soldiers, and the lesser-privileged sections. The objective is to make the high-end sports, like scuba diving, sky diving, high-altitude mountaineering, accessible to one and all.

The man behind SFA is Major Vivek Jacob (retd) who spent 18 years as an elite para commando in the Indian Army’s special forces before seeking voluntary retirement. Jacob is an expert in military forms of scuba diving, sky diving and high-altitude mountaineering,

For Jacob, SFA is the fulfilment of a promise he made to a friend in 2015. "The friend, a Flight Lieutenant, had both his legs amputated after an accident during an IAF training session. Lying in a hospital bed at the Army Hospital in Delhi, the friend said he wished he could dive deep into the sea. Jacob gave his word to him. He looked up the internet only to find there were some avenues for adventure sports for the disabled abroad, but none in India. The discovery also meant that the Army officer had his next calling figured out.

He quit the Army within two years, in 2017, and spent the next two years working on the logistics, as like-minded Army veterans gravitated towards his venture on their own.

One among the participants was Major General S K Razdan, Indian Army s first paraplegic officer, who retired in 2012.

On August 2 this year, the ball was set rolling in Jacob s home city of Chandigarh. The unexpected success of the event and the kind of satisfaction it brought — to use our highly specialised skills to create than to destroy — naturally meant expansion. SFA s next stop was Delhi. On August 21, some 40 disabled people, including soldiers, lined up by the poolside at Talkatora Stadium. Union Minister of Sports Kiren Rijiju and footballer Bhaichung Bhutia were also present.

One among the participants was Major General S K Razdan, Indian Army s first paraplegic officer, who retired in 2012. I am 65, but my heart is for adventure. I went in with one of the SFA trainers, went down the floor, and swam the entire breadth. This is a gem of an initiative that these paratroopers have started with their own finances, said Major General Razdan.

More recently, on the September 7th episode of Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), participant Navin Gulia spoke about his first scuba dive that was made possible by SFA. Gulia ‘sir’ broke his neck and got paralysed at the fag end of his training to become an Army officer at the Indian Military Academy. His chest muscles don t work, his lungs don t expand well either. He has several other ailments. When he said he wanted to scuba dive, we knew we had to do it. It was a unique case and we needed to set an example, said Jacob. KBC had played the video of Gulia scuba diving with SFA men on its show.

There are various studies that have proved scuba diving to be therapeutic for the disabled. Shivjeer Singh Raghav, a counsellor at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre, Delhi, said: There is a sense of achievement. It is like breaching a massive socio-psychological barrier. And then the underwater world provides a unique environment to heal because there is zero gravity. You are weightless.

Gagan Sandhu of Chandigarh, a homemaker in her 40s, who lost the use of both her legs in a car accident three years ago, said: I could indeed move my limbs better. Scuba diving is something I had never thought of doing ever, even before the accident. It has boosted my confidence so much.

So what goes into training and convincing the disabled to take, quite literally, the plunge?

Jacob says: We carry a wrong impression about the disabled community. We expect them to be fearful. When I went to the Chandigarh Spine Rehabilitation Centre to invite them for the scuba diving session, we met some 25-30 people with various degrees of severe disabilities. There was not even one person who did not want to do this. In fact, when I was on the premises, I saw them playing basketball on the wheelchair. It was an eye-opener for me. I realised they are willing to do a lot of things but koi karwane wala hi nahin hai.

Preparations ahead of the New Delhi leg of Operation Blue Freedom on August 21.

What also helps in winning the trust of the participants is the background of the SFA team. Jacob and his core team of eight, all from either Indian Army Para Commandos or the Naval Marine Commandos (MARCOs), have between 20,000 hours and 40,000 hours of scuba diving experience. Impressively, the core team were among the first to respond to the 26/11 Taj Hotel terror strike, and have led numerous combat, and anti-terror operations.

Jacob says it s an expensive sport and rues that it is unnecessarily so. He underlines the crucial role of two private firms in a sport that is otherwise a logistics nightmare . We are working with money from our own pockets and with help from certain firms. Like, The Purple Octopus from Mumbai that sent us scuba diving sets for both Delhi and Chandigarh events for free while Jyotech, Noida, willing gave us air compressors, says Jacob, adding they are working out a sustainable model while hoping that the Sports of Authority (SAI) gets involved.

The word about SFA has begun to spread with the Asian Dive Expo 2019 sending it an invite for its edition being held in Mumbai on October 4-7. Its next stopover will be the Andamans, most likely in December, where they aim to break a world record for the largest number of disabled people diving together in the open sea. The current record is 25, SFA s target is 50. It is also eyeing the international waters, the details of which Jacob said he cannot divulge at the moment.

So, has the friend who inspired the formation of SFA been able to go for scuba diving? Flight Lieutenant J S Bhaduriai is currently in Bangalore doing his MBA. The Bangalore leg is planned early next year where he will be a participant. That will be a special day indeed, says Jacob.