"Everything is impossible till it's done," says Major Vivek Jacob, founder of 'Conquer Land Air and Water' (C.L.A.W), a social impact venture aimed at rehabilitating people with disabilities through adaptive adventure sports.
Jacob, a veteran from the elite 9 Para (Special Forces), has brought together a team of Special Forces veterans. These veterans have multiple specialisations - not just in combat but also in other elite skills such as skydiving, scuba diving, mountaineering, emergency medical response and all-terrain survival amongst others.
C.L.A.W' has trained over 100 people with disabilities in scuba diving as part of its flagship initiative 'Operation Blue Freedom'.
Major General SK Razdan, a Kirti Chakra awardee, was paralysed by a gunshot injury in Kashmir while fighting terrorists. The 65-year-old with a heart that still throbs for adventure got himself trained in adaptive SCUBA Diving at Operation Blue Freedom's Delhi chapter.
"I went down the (ocean) floor, and swam the entire breadth. This is a gem of an initiative that these paratroopers have started with their own finances," he said.
Launched in 2019, Operation Blue Freedom, aims to change society's perception towards people with disabilities, recognise their capabilities, and enable them to productively contribute to the economy through suitable jobs.
The team travelled across four Indian cities and trained more than 100 people paralysed due to spinal cord injuries in scuba diving. These people included war-wounded armed forces veterans.
It all began after Major Vivek Jacob, who has served as a Special Forces operator for 14 long years, suffered a spinal cord injury as a result of a parachute malfunctioning mid-fall during a combat skydive in 2015. At the time of his recovery at the military hospital, he met Flight Lieutenant Bhaduria, who was permanently paralysed in a freak accident.
The IAF officer, who had been hospitalised for four years and left wheelchair-bound, asked Major Jacob if he could scuba dive. This went on to ignite in the Major the spark that has now transformed into CLAW.
The Major took voluntary retirement and embarked on a journey to realise the dream. Soon, others he had worked with and whom he shared his vision with joined him.
A unique facet of CLAW is the background of Jacob and his core team. All are either from Indian Army Para Commandos or the Naval Marine Commandos, also known as the MARCOS. The eight-member team has scuba diving experience of close to 40,000 hours.
On being asked how he looks back at his journey, Major Jacob says, "Freedom is a collective experience. Either we all have it, or none of us really do."
Higher ambitions... and determination
The team is "only three-years young" and doesn't want to stop with scuba diving alone. It is now prepping up for three world records aimed at shattering the stigma attached with being disabled.
CLAW wants to bring people across nationalities, religion, colour, economic status and ability to create a powerful perception of ability and freedom.
The aim is to set Triple World Records. People with disabilities (PwDs) will be trained not just in adaptive scuba diving, but there will also be adaptive skydiving and adaptive mountaineering programmes going ahead.
The scuba diving world record by trained PwDs will be in the open sea at Maldives. The other two record attempts will involve scaling the world's highest battlefield at Siachen Glacier, and through accelerated free fall (Skydiving) in Dubai.
In September this year, 'CLAW Global' also signed an MoU with US-based Handicapped SCUBA Association, which has 39 years of experience training people with disabilities in scuba diving and using these skills to rehabilitate persons with disabilities.
Earlier this year, in March, even as India was just beginning to get used to coronavirus and its challenges, Team CLAW travelled to Lakshadweep for 'Open Sea Scuba diving'. This was a one-of-a-kind event as one person with disability trained another PwD. This apart, a local disabled woman from the minority island community was also trained in rehabilitative scuba diving.
"This journey is an exploration of cutting-edge ideas and actions. This has not just expanded our thought process, but also made us evolve and operate on intuition and passion, rather than mere cold logic and reason. It has been a humbling experience. In the long run, we'd like to diffuse these ideas and hacks for catalysing exponential growth and personal evolution, for the youth not only of India, but across the globe," says Major Arun Prakash Ambathy (Retd), Director of CLAW.
What lies ahead
In October, the team inked an MoU with the Maldives Integrated Tourism Development Corporation, to carry out 'Operation Blue Freedom - Water World Record' in Maldives.
The MoU is aimed at establishing a water world record to be held in February next year. It also covers a long-term collaboration between CLAW Global and the Maldivian Integrated Tourism Development Corporation to create rehabilitation ecosystems for people with disabilities in Maldives. The team has proposed an 'Aqua research, rehabilitation and re-skilling centre' with the noble goal of impacting people with disabilities and helping them become employable in a 'normal' world.
Major Jacob explained that it was the need for clear waters with good marine biodiversity for rehabilitative Scuba Diving and Scuba-based occupational therapy that led to Maldives being chosen for the water world record attempt.
"The only place in India with such conditions is Lakshadweep. However, Lakshadweep is not yet open for people from the mainland. Though pioneered by Indian Armed Forces Veterans, 'Operation Blue Freedom' is a global concept with implications for people with disabilities across the globe. Thus we decided to do it in three different locations across the globe, one of them being India,” he said.
For the water world record, the team will be training 50 people with disabilities. "This will be a highly diverse, inclusive and composite team consisting of people from various nationalities, religion, race, gender, type of disability and economic status."
You can catch this unfolding journey through CLAW Global's social media handles. Common people who would like to catalyse this mission can volunteer through their website that will be launched soon for this purpose.