Indian Army’s active involvement in relief and rescue operations during the recent Chennai floods is praiseworthy. The Army’s heroic efforts were appreciated by many in the country. When it comes to rescue operations, Indian Army has always been at the forefront, no matter what kind of disaster it is.
- This has given rise to a general feeling that it’s a first-line duty of the armed forces to swim into any disaster and rescue everybody.
However, this is not true. The reality is rather different:
- The Disaster Management (DM) Act, 2005 does not indicate any primacy for the role of the armed forces and it does not even formalise their role.
- The Act merely states that the management of disasters could include the “deployment of naval, military and air forces, other armed forces of the Union or any other civilian personnel as may be required for the purposes of this Act”.
- But, quite often, it has been these forces that are called in during any disaster. This has reinforced the impression that they are only “doing their duty”.
Why should we be worried about this?
- Being called out so frequently has a negative impact. Each time it happens, their cutting edge is reduced. They pay a heavy price by way of training time, deployment and equipment losses.
Then, whose responsibility is this?
For this purpose, the 2005 Act established the NDMA or National Disaster Management Authority, and theNDRF or National Disaster Response Force.
- Two national calamities in quick succession in the form of Orissa Super Cyclone (1999) and Gujarat Earthquake (2001) brought about the realization of the need of having a specialist response mechanism at National Level to effectively respond to disasters. This realization led to the enactment of the DM Act on 26 Dec 2005.
- While the NDMA is the planning and coordinating body, the NDRF has the manpower, equipmentand training to handle relief work.
- The NDRF, launched in 2006, today has 12 battalions stationed across the country, with men drawn on five-year deputations from the Border Security Force, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), etc.
- The men undergo specialised training in relief work for quakes, landslides, biochemical mishaps, mountain rescue, and more.
But, where are they when we need them?
In reality, NDRF forces too, just like armed forces, are actively engaged in relief and rescue operations. But, there low strength often makes them invisible. During the recent Chennai floods, 11 teams (45 men per team) from the NDRF’s Arakkonam unit in Tamil Nadu were mobilised, followed by seven more teams from Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Karnataka.
Why then the armed forces end up being the most visible force at hand?
- It is due to the sheer shortfall of personnel in NDRF. NDRF has got just around 13,000 men compared to 13 lakh in the Army. For India’s size and population, these numbers are too few.
- Lack of accountability is another reason. Even with an annual budget of over Rs.350 crore, it has been difficult for NDRF to produce quicker responses, better trained staff and high-end equipment on the ground.
- According to few experts, bureaucratic failure is equally responsible for such bad state of NDRF. The organisation is plagued by politics and apathy. For instance, in theory the NDMA must ensure that States have response units across districts and blocks. In practice, it can shout itself hoarse but State governments are not obliged to respond.
How can the Disaster Response be made effective?
- To be truly effective, one national force is not enough; each State must build and maintain its own State- and district-level response units. NDMA guidelines say that States must have a contingency plan that ranges from making vulnerability studies to preparing lists of sources that can be tapped for trucks, food or blankets; lists of doctors who can be called for trauma duty or post-mortems; and even firewood suppliers for mass cremations.
- Bureaucracies should have the will and intelligence to use available resources optimally.
- States should be mandated to train personnel from the fire, police, and home guards departments and keep them disaster-ready.
- The size of the NDRF should be expanded.
- The National Disaster Management Authority must be empowered, made functionally independent and accountable.
How can the armed forces be used effectively?
- A clear process under which the armed forces will be deployed should be laid out.
- Threshold levels must be set for when the armed forces will be called in and pulled out.
- And last, we must define what a national calamity is, and reserve the armed forces only for those occasions.
When such a process is laid out, the magnitude of a disaster will determine when the armed forces are called in rather than their being used as a default solution. And this process will also ensure that the NDRF functions the way it was designed to.