The group of 10 people stranded for days in Aceh, a remote corner of Indonesia, included highly- paid executives with some of the world’s biggest companies. Hungry, tired, down with diarrhea, they had survived the deadly tsunami in December 2004, but had just a day’s rations left.
One man prevented them from joining the watery graveyard that beckoned: former Indian Army captain Kanwar Ajay Singh.
Singh serves as a security specialist for International SOS,?a?firm?specializing?in?evacuations and rescue operations. Within hours of receiving a call from the employers of the group lost in Aceh, Singh ran the successful mission to send each of them home.
At 33, Singh looks like an athlete nearing retirement—but is far from it. His war stories unfold from Nepal to Sri Lanka, from natural disasters to war zones.
It’s because of such people that some companies—from oil, gas and mining firms in Assam to hotels and factories in Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Kashmir—can conduct their business in relative peace.
Globally, International SOS performs risk assessments for firms operating in vulnerable areas across the world. On the Indian subcontinent and nearby Southeast Asia, Singh oversees a team of former military officers like him, coordinating with local police on behalf of their clients.
Calling themselves “security consultants,” the crew find themselves dispatched to troubled areas across the country, often to protect firms from the extortion demands of Naxalites, rebels and militants.
“We appoint only former army men who are natives of the area they supervise,” Singh said. “So they are able to communicate with such people. It’s important to keep?the?communication channels running when you deal with Naxalites... If they find you opaque, one day they might plan an attack, catching the company by surprise.”
International SOS charges around $35,000 (Rs14.35 lakh) a year from companies to provide coverage and advisories to expatriate and travelling employees of clients, while air evacuation and other major rescue operations cost extra.
The Delhi office of the firm is in South Delhi and looks like a cross between a chartered accountant’s firm and a call centre. On one half of the second floor, medical and security experts key in reports and advisories from their cubicles. A huge glass-panelled cabin housing the 24x7 alarm centre is situated on the other half.
True to its look, the alarm centre operates much like a call centre with about a dozen staffers fielding queries from around the globe. A woman takes a call and tells a US-based company executive: “Yes, sir, we have contacted the hospital and have sent them a guarantee of payment. The patient has been admitted.”
Founded in 1985 under the name AEA International, the firm initially offered medical assistance to the overseas employees of multinationals. For instance, if an American firm sent employees to a remote part of Vietnam, SOS provided information on the types of communicable diseases prevalent in the area and its partner hospitals in the country.
Even before the attacks on the World Trade Center sent American firms scrambling to develop?security?policies,?SOS’s mission began to broaden.
“Companies realized that apart from the fear of malaria or an accident at a remote site, they also had to worry about suicide bombers,” says SOS country general manager and Singh’s boss Vikas Kuthiala.
The firm decided to open a security division spanning the globe, staffed with former military officers assessing security threats to their client’s projects, tapping Singh to head it.
A second-generation army man, Singh’s roots might explain his gravitation toward conflict; he hails from Gurdaspur (Punjab), a hotbed of terrorism during the days of Khalistani militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Singh was 14 when militants claimed his ancestral house.
Married and father to a five-year-old girl, Singh was a short-service commission officer in the army, who turned to security consulting at the end of the stint. He says his family has accepted the long tours and risks of his new job.
The 26 December 2004 tsunami, which killed more than two lakh people, brought down the walls that separated the doctors from the security experts at SOS International.
Hours after initial reports, Capt. Ajay Singh and Dr George Noel Fernandes were dispatched: one to Aceh and the other to Colombo, but with similar tasks. Both carried pictures of clients’ employees working or visiting the affected regions. “Our job was to move from hospital to mortuary to hotels and track down the missing executives,” Fernandes said. “Find out whether they were alive or dead.”
After?a?harrowing?10-day stay in Sri Lanka, Fernandes counted 27 of his 70 targets dead. Singh was luckier and returned with around 100 people alive.
(Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org)