In the 2013 Uttarakhand deluge, when the Army was single-handedly tackling relief work, some
one on Facebook said he was irritated by the constant praise being heaped on the Army’s heroic efforts. Enough, he said, the Army is just doing a job it is supposed to do.
And that is exactly what most people assume — that it’s a first-line duty of the armed forces to swim into any disaster and rescue everybody. Whether it was Uttarakhand, the fire in Kolkata’s Burrabazar, or the Chennai floods, each time it’s been the armed forces that have stepped in. Whether an explosion in a bazaar or a child falling into a well, the armed forces are called in.
What, in principle, was laid down as a “last in, first out” policy has been turned on its head. Instead, the forces are the first to be called in and they are the last to leave, reinforcing the impression that they are only “doing their duty”.
The reality is rather different. Not only does the Disaster Management (DM) Act, 2005 not indicate any primacy for the role of the armed forces, it does not even formalise their role; merely stating 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”.
It is not that the forces grudge it; in fact, they think it their duty to pitch in. Unfortunately, however, 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.
Men for the job
To prevent just this, the 2005 Act established the NDMA or National Disaster Management Authority, and the NDRF or National Disaster Response Force. While the NDMA is the planning and coordinating body, the NDRF has the manpower, equipment and 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.
So, where are they when we need them? Actually, they are very much there and, in fact, 11 teams (45 men per team) from the NDRF’s Arakkonam unit in Tamil Nadu were mobilised for the Chennai floods, followed by seven more teams from Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Karnataka. We also saw those orange life jackets in Nepal, where India sent relief teams within five hours of the quake.
Hobbled by the system
If, despite this, the armed forces end up being the most visible force at hand, there are a few reasons. First is the sheer shortfall of personnel. As Indian Police Service officer O.P. Singh, Director-General, NDRF, points out, “We have just around 13,000 men compared to 13 lakh in the Army.” For India’s size and population, these numbers are too few, but the NDRF is expanding slowly; it started with eight battalions and now has 12.
Second, who holds the NDMA and, in turn, the NDRF accountable when they fall short? With an annual budget of over Rs.350 crore, why is it so difficult to produce quicker responses, better trained staff and high-end equipment on the ground? Nobody is asking.
Finally, the bigger reason why NDRF is not as effective as it could be is because of, as always in India, bureaucratic failure. The mandarins in Delhi have not empowered NDMA, made it functionally independent or accountable. Talking to me after Uttarakhand, J.K. Sinha, who was then serving his second term at NDMA, spoke of how 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.
States need to step up
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. Such plans are not made and if made, nobody hears of them.
More important, do bureaucracies have the will and intelligence to use available resources optimally? For instance, shutting down Chennai airport freed up hundreds of CISF personnel, but they were not rushed into relief work. In fact, even much of the State’s police was kept idle.
On paper, States are expected to train personnel from the fire, police, and home guards departments and keep them disaster-ready. In reality, said Mr. Sinha, “we have to cajole them to attend training.” According to him, 90 per cent of State governments do not even use the disaster management funds released to them.
A few States like Bihar, Gujarat, Assam and Odisha now have impressive response units. But Tamil Nadu does not figure on this list. Despite the tsunami, only around 90 personnel have received relief training so far.
Rules of engagement
One solution could be to lay out a clear process under which the armed forces will be deployed. First, the Home Ministry must be asked to define just what its arms can deliver. For instance, trained personnel from the police, fire services, civil defence, and home guards must be available on call along with equipment. If such local teams had been available from Day 1, Chennai would not have had to depend on ill-equipped citizens to bail each other out.
Second, 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. Even the 13th Finance Commission report says: “Although the DM Act uses terms like ‘substantial loss of life, or human suffering’, ‘damage to and destruction of property’… it does not quantify these terms.”
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.