Pivoting Armed Forces in India’s Evolving Disaster Management Landscape

Sub Title : Indian Armed Forces have been the first responders due to their reach; with NDRF developing good capabilities, together they team up rather well

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 4 Sep – Oct 2023

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain

Page No. : 36

Category : Military Affairs

: September 22, 2023

The title encapsulates the central theme of the article which highlights the transition in India’s disaster management system and the evolving role of the armed forces. It emphasizes the shift from a reactive to a more proactive and planned approach, and the indispensable role that the armed forces play in the nation’s disaster preparedness and response mechanisms. The Disaster Management Act was passed in 2005, establishing the National Disaster Management Authority. The National Disaster Response Force was formed for specialized disaster response, and a structural shift placed DM under the Home Ministry. While the NDRF is specialized, the Armed Forces also play a crucial role in DM.

I can recall the time, some 30 years ago, when one of the hallowed files in the cupboard of the Adjutant of any Army unit used to be a thin two page folder with the title ‘Flood Relief Scheme’. We were expected to do some liaison with the local civil authorities who invariably asked us ‘how many boats we could provide’ and we invariably said ‘none’ but promised to recommend to the higher authority that these were required by the district administration. That was disaster management in India and also within the Army. No formal training, no preparedness, no technical awareness, limited means of communication but a ton of challenges. The broad expectation about disaster management in Government was that if a disaster occurred, we had to respond to it in the quickest time frame with whatever means we had and rescue the affected people wherever possible. The concept was based upon an unprepared and hurriedly coordinated response to make the best of the situation with a fatalist outlook. The system was simply ‘Response Based’ and no one trained for that contingency let alone for any other hazard which could hit us unexpectedly. Disaster management (DM) in India was not about saving lives and livelihood, it was mostly about disposal of the dead and creating displaced persons camps.

Things changed drastically after the humongous casualties we suffered in the Odisha super cyclone of 1999 and the Bhuj earthquake in 2001. A full review of capability and concept accrued. Among the major decisions were, first, that DM was placed under the Ministry of Home Affairs with a specially created division. The Disaster Management Act was passed by Parliament in Dec 2005, a year after the Indian Ocean Tsunami.  The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was founded under the leadership of former Army Chief General NC Vij. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) were also founded. NDRF became the dedicated and specialized force for DM response, its 16 units today being located all over India in certain disaster prone zones much like the NSG was deployed in hubs after 26/11.  The Home Ministry assumed charge of the DM domain as against the earlier responsibility held by the Agriculture Ministry. The NDMA with the Prime Minister as its Chairman became the apex authority on policy formulation, budgeting, training and everything else to bring transformation in the highly neglected field, in which till that juncture the nation simply awaited the next disaster. Today NDMA issues guidelines for the management of different hazards and sponsors the development of various technologies through mitigation projects. It also develops national campaigns such as the National School Safety Program for earthquake prone districts and the National Hospital Safety Program. It approves plans prepared by the Ministries or Departments of the Government of India and guides the State Authorities in drawing up the State Plans. The DM structure goes down to the States and districts with State DM Authority (SDMA) and District DM Authority (DDMA). All States/UTs are also mandated to have SDRF for a State level response. NDMA also conducts annual mock drills and Table Top Exercises (TTex).

When academically looking at DM it’s important also to define a disaster. Among the many definitions I found this one most appropriate – “Any massive and serious disruption to the functioning of a community, either natural or man-made, occurring in a short or long period can be termed a disaster. It causes suffering, deprivation, hardship, injury and even death”. The post script to that is the fact that the community may initially respond to the hazard but would eventually require external support to overcome the challenge.

Effective first responders in most disasters come from the community itself. Their location gives them the scope to respond immediately. If they can be trained in basics of medical treatment and casualty evacuation, and can handle some communication equipment and rudimentary search and rescue equipment they will always be virtual force multipliers. Recognizing this potential, the Government of India has instituted a scheme called – Aapda Mitra (Friends in Disaster) under which three lakh volunteers will be trained as first responders in 350 disaster prone districts of India. The scheme is under successful implementation.

Role of the Armed Forces in DM

The purpose of outlining the generic aspects above of the major turnaround in DM in India is to describe how far the Nation has come in professionalizing DM. However, an impression appears to have been created that the Armed Forces who thus far were major players in the response domain, now have a limited role. In this regard there are a few issues which need to be highlighted: –

  • The NDRF’s 16 units bring to the DM domain a high degree of specialization. They are equipped with state-of-the-art equipment used in search and rescue operations and are trained in multiple skills of rescue.
  • The 16 units are deployed all over India and must not be treated as first responders. Their footprint particularly in the Himalayan region is sparse.
  • The Army on the other hand is organized to respond to emergency security situations. Frontline units may not have the required equipment necessary for disaster response but their inherent organization and training brings a sense of discipline to the reaction in conjunction with the local community. Engineer units and task forces of the Border Roads Organization (BRO) hold some crucial heavy equipment not held by NDRF or other response organizations. This includes earth moving equipment and the like. It comes in great use in any disaster, big or small.
  • Particularly in the mountains specialist ‘Search and Rescue’ can only commence with arrival of NDRF personnel who will in most cases be transported by helicopter. NDRF’s equipment cannot always be flown with the troops in helicopters. It would make eminent sense for some disaster related equipment identified by NDRF to be held as a pool for the sector reserve in highly vulnerable disaster zones, just like so many equipment items the Army units hold as sector stores.
  • At present Army and NDRF units have very little interaction and no occasion for joint mock drills. The Army’s presence in TTex conducted by NDMA is only notional with only Staff Officers attending these events and no reports on this being generated for the larger learning of officers and other personnel.  A deliberate effort towards more interaction is necessary.
  • Recently a Corps HQ took the initiative of approaching the NDMA to conduct a Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief (HADR) exercise for its officers as a TTex. The local State Government was also requested to join in. NDMA sent its experienced Consultant (a veteran senior Army officer) to conduct the exercise in the mold that the Army is familiar with. It was a runaway success with immense interest taken by all participants. A repetition of such an exercise at different subordinate headquarters of all three Services and the Coast Guard and taking this to the regional headquarters of the CAPF will upgrade the knowledge threshold of officers and all other personnel.
  • It should be known that the NDRF is already bearing the weight of all mock exercises at the DDMA level with intent of conducting at least one round of training in three years.
  • Over a period of time all organizations who have stakes in DM would have created a pool of trainers and could then conduct such training on their own with rudimentary updating from time to time.
  • The Indian Air Force is already deeply involved in HADR and DM internationally and all over the country. Yet, it too needs to have a good idea of the larger picture of DM with knowledge of structures, responsibilities and updates on technical aspects of DM, all of which change quite frequently.
  • The Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard play a crucial role in coastal areas and also in contingencies of floods of all types in the hinterland too. They require similar familiarization which will only upgrade their awareness and get them in sync with many other agencies involved in DM.

Why the Necessity for Training/Familiarization of the Armed Forces ?

The heading is a very basic question. However, we have to accept that with progress of the Indian economy, higher levels of industrialization and increase in the size of population centres, the scope for greater negative effect of potential disasters has also increased. Climate change is of course one of the prime factors responsible for natural disasters or induced disasters which are becoming larger in size with each passing year. With the Disaster Management Cycle now fully adopted in India it means Preparedness, Mitigation, Response, Recovery and Build Back Better is the mantra. All along the LAC and the LoC in the mountains there are potential disaster threats existing at most times.

In 2016 Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the DM fraternity an iconic message through his Ten Point Agenda for Disaster Risk Reduction; an agenda which has been adopted  by many countries. The ten points are :-

  • All development sectors must imbibe the principles of disaster risk management
  • Risk coverage must include all, starting from poor households to SMEs to multi-national corporations to nation states
  • Women’s leadership and greater involvement should be central to disaster risk management
  • Invest in risk mapping globally to improve global understanding of Nature and disaster risks
  • Leverage technology to enhance the efficiency of disaster risk management efforts
  • Develop a network of universities to work on disaster-related issues
  • Utilise the opportunities provided by social media and mobile technologies for disaster risk reduction
  • Build on local capacity and initiative to enhance disaster risk reduction
  • Make use of every opportunity to learn from disasters and, to achieve that, there must be studies on the lessons after every disaster
  • Bring about greater cohesion in international response to disasters

Even a cursory glance at the agenda will trigger the thought process that the Armed Forces are tailor made to execute this. The broad categories into which most of these points fall are – Technology, Knowledge Management, Gender Sensitivity, Leadership and Communication of all kinds. All these are exactly what the Armed Forces are proficient at. Their utility and usefulness due to their vast and wide presence, their organizational skills and motivation, and their ability to mobilize quickly and independently are assets which they bring to the domain of DM. A deeper and more professional role by the Armed Forces with full understanding, will ensure a force multiplication effect at the DM end. Initiatives by the NDMA are underway to make this happen and that too very quickly.