Sub Title : When Disaster Strikes?
Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 2 May – Jun 2021
Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM** (Retd)
Page No. : 62
Category : Regular Features
: July 1, 2021
Disaster Management is now emerging as an ‘all of government’ domain; no one can claim exclusivity over it. It is in our best interests that we prepare adequately for disasters both man made and natural. To this end it is mandated that stake holders from state, ministry, department and institution are required to draft a Disaster Management Plan and have the same vetted by the NDMA
There seems to be a misnomer that with the setting up of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the State Disaster Response Forces (SDRF) the responsibility of the Armed Forces towards disaster response and management has considerably reduced. The Air Force and the Navy probably realize that their tasks remain cut out as before, it’s the Army’s role which seems to have created a perception of having reduced. Yes, media space sees the NDRF at the forefront and that is how it should be because the everyday disasters which may not even get reported are all being very professionally handled by the NDRF. From the 12 battalions originally raised the number has now gone up to 16. The system of deployment is very much akin to the NSG’s hubs at important locations, from where some NDRF teams are permanently deployed in traditional disaster hot spots and each such unit and sub unit has an orientation towards the expected hazard that may hit that region or area. The Home Ministry seems to have taken a leaf out of the example of the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) while raising the NDRF. Just like the RR has its units based upon an Infantry Regiment and another Arm (such as Armoured Corps, Artillery or Engineers), the NDRF units are based upon one distinct CAPF such as BSF, CRPF or even the SSB; a newly raised one is also based upon the Assam Rifles. It keeps continuity in place with assignments of seven years deputation and a higher degree of espirite de corps. The NDRF has been managing big ticket disaster related events with high efficiency. The recent cyclones saw a record number of teams being deployed. Chemical disasters too have been handled by it with CBRN training being extended to its personnel. However, there are a few domains where the NDRF’s role cannot be as extensive and as responsive; this primarily extends to the mountainous region where glacial outburst floods are becoming more frequent along with avalanches and snow storms.
Disasters in the mountains many times take place in valleys along river alignments. These are numerous and having a dedicated NDRF team as first or even second responder for a disaster related situation in a valley may be difficult. Deployment in penny packets in many valleys is not helpful. The Army is deployed in these areas in good numbers and border management also includes disaster management (DM). It is the only organization which has all the requisite heavy equipment to undertake immediate relief work. In the recent glacial debris flow in the Chamoli region, an over 10-15 meter surge of water and debris destroyed a 13 MW hydel project and badly affected the NTPC 520 MW run of the river hydel power project at Tapovan near Joshimath. The NTPC workforce suffered many casualties and its equipment was rendered unusable for some time. There was an immediate need for earth moving plant to make access to the tunnel and the approaches to the project area. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) and the Army’s Field Company from the Corps of Engineers unit deployed there responded with their heavy equipment which proved to be force multipliers. The media was unaware that such an arrangement could exist. It was good that the Army’s resources were available and made use of but this may not always happen. The Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff is the nodal organization which acts as the controller of resources and directs training and deployment. Unless local disaster plans effectively integrate the Army and its resources there will always be delay in response. Having an effective and sizeable SDRF is the key but it must be adequately equipped. Most states have not yet gone in for the raising of SDRFs because it is an expensive affair to raise such units which have to be paid, equipped, trained and housed. It is far cheaper to leave it to the central elements but that will invariably lead to delay in response since these forces may not always be deployed in the vicinity of the disaster area. That is where the inclusion of the local Army units in all disaster risk reduction and response plans is essential. It was a practice followed to the core in the past but in recent years it’s only on ‘aid to civil authority’ of the law and order kind that most civil military cooperation and liaison takes place. The states in the Himalayan region and the North East are the prime examples where cooperation for DM must be done by the civil administration with the Army, Air Force, NDRF, SDRFs, CAPFs. The State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) must be fully conversant with the deployment and the availability of resources and the timeframe in which such availability will be effective. Mock exercises involving all the above elements along with the other local resources such as Fire Fighting Services, Civil Defence volunteers and in the near future the Aapda Mitra volunteers, must be regularly held even if they have to be of the table top variety because understanding each other’s role and avoiding duplication is important.
Covid and the Armed Forces
There is a lot of chatter on social media about the role of the Army in the ongoing Covid crisis. The setting up of hospitals (some ironically called DRDO Hospitals because of financing and infrastructure provisioning under DRDO) and running them for a near all civilian clientele left the Army’s Military Hospitals understaffed and undermanned with services extended to the serving and the veterans quite inefficient. At the same time there was high praise for the dedication of the Army Medical Corps towards the crisis. The truth obviously lay somewhere in the middle. I received many suggestions from very senior veterans that the services of the Armed Forces be utilized for undertaking the national vaccination drive. The debate on the utilization of the Army veered on a few issues; the known efficiency of management of logistics could definitely be a boon at least to the rural sector. However, deploying medical officers and staff would further dilute the availability in Military Hospitals (MHs), to extremely dangerous levels. Yes, experimentation with Battlefield Nursing Assistants and employing paramedics could always be done but I do think we were looking at the vaccination procedure rather casually from the view of technical proficiency required. If a third wave were to hit the nation suddenly the Army would be stuck in between with half the vaccination effort completed (subject of course to the vaccine availability) on one hand and understaffed MHs on the other. Then there was the issue of the threat at the borders and the need of a minimum threshold medical staff and facility being available at all times. In the process the decision of not employing the Army for the vaccination drive was perhaps correct. There was also a lot of talk about the necessity of the Army to assist the Delhi Government when things were going quite out of hand in Apr 2021 but I do think that in such things bringing in the Army is counterproductive because domain knowledge is restricted and getting the Army to do basic administrative duties is not going to be a magic wand.
There is one area for which I strongly recommended the employment of the Army; this was in vaccinating the populations of the border belts; say up to a distance of 50 Km from the LoC/LAC or international border. Operation Sadbhavana is already in progress for the last 24 years in many of the border areas, so it is a question of just enhancing its scope. We could have harnessed the services of the CAPFs for this in Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat; even extended it to other states not necessarily bordering China or Pakistan. The Army’s relationship with border populations is always special. We need them as much as they need us and such procedures do not affect operational efficiency, in fact they enhance it.
With increasing employment of technology, what is becoming evident is that in the case of some hazards such as cyclones and even severe flooding due to intense rainfall, it is always possible to predict and provide early warning. The recent cyclones on the west and east coasts (Tauktae and Yaas) saw sufficient warning of at least six days. The casualties on the west coast occurred due to insufficient professional seriousness being given to the warnings which clearly indicated the severity. DM is now emerging as an ‘all of government’ domain; no one can claim exclusivity over it. People involved with shipping or oil exploration and production had better be fully conversant with practices necessary to be followed in DM. Callousness involving saving of some finances while not taking the necessary precautions will always prove much more costly.
As per the requirements of DM, every state, ministry, department and institution is required to draft a Disaster Management Plan and have the same vetted by the NDMA. The latter has a pool of experts available who can help draft these plans where required. This aspect is slowly picking up 16 years after the passing of the DM Act in Dec 2005. The Armed Forces involvement in all disaster related situations is inevitable. However, food for thought is whether it is also time for the Army’s formations and units to evolve their own DM Plans for the safety of their personnel, families and wherewithal. If nothing else it will lead to a higher level of consciousness about DM in general which will come in handy somewhere, sometime.