Saved! The Indian Military is here

Navy has tremendous sea-lift capability, and India has a winner in the NDRF

India and its impressive airlift, sealift and trained human resource are contributing their mite to a large number of disaster relief missions. In quick succession we have had the Uttarakhand cloudburst, the Srinagar floods, the war in Yemen, and now the earthquake in Nepal. And the way mother nature is wreaking havoc, and humankind is contributing to that with violence and environmental degradation, India’s formidable Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) capability is sure to be frequently tested to its limits. It is only right that we respond to the unofficial mantle that we have acquired of being the regional provider of such assistance and relief with alacrity every time we are called upon to do so.

‘War is a continuation of policy by other means’, was 19th century Prussian General Carl Von Clausewitz’s oft-cited dictum. But in the 21st century, great nations are seeking influence not just through arms but increasingly through the exercise of ‘soft power’. And increasingly, even the hardest element of traditional ‘hard power’ – the military – is also a big instrument in the pursuit of ‘soft power’.

India’s HADR record is already pretty impressive. Think back to the 2004 tsunami relief and the 2001 Bhuj earthquake response — aid was delivered to millions in both instances. With Operation Raahat following the Uttarakhand cloudburst in 2013 and Megh Raahat following the Srinagar floods last year, and especially with the Yemen evacuation (Raahat, again) and now Nepal, India has come of age as the region’s Big Brother, one with a big heart and capability!

The first responder to a crisis has always been air power, due to its inherent attributes of speed, reach, mobility and flexibility. Thus, while the Il-78 aerial flight refueling tankers were modified to cargo carriers to augment airlift capacity during the tsunami, in the Uttarakhand relief operation, Mi-26 helicopters flew in fuel trucks and C-130 transport planes emptied their fuel into these trucks so that they could tank up rescue choppers for their missions – such is the flexibility of air power.

Since then, the Indian capability has increased further – unlike during the tsunami, for the Nepal relief operations, the IAF has spare C-17 and Il-76 transport aircraft that it can deploy if the need arises. Similarly, the helicopter fleet has been strengthened with the addition of 159 Mi-17 medium-lift helicopters. These new transport planes and helicopters have modern avionics that help them to operate in adverse weather conditions which are generally prevalent in disaster areas. When the American Chinook helicopters arrive, they will fill the heavy-lift capability gap.

The civil airline fleet is a major element of the air power of a nation, and here too the Indian commercial fleet has robust capability. Just Air India, whose aircraft were deployed to airlift Indians out of Iraq in the first Gulf War in 1990, brought 1,76,000 Indians back home in a 45-day period! Similarly, the national carrier earned kudos in the Yemen airlift and Nepal. Imagine if the full force of private airlines in India is put to a task!

The Navy has tremendous sea-lift capability, and India has a winner in the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) which has specialist personnel and rescue equipment and has earned plaudits from all quarters for its work in the Fukushima tragedy and in Nepal. And, of course, the ever dependable Indian Army has never let the country down when called upon to help neighbours in India’s quest to assist them.

However, the National Disaster Management Authority, which is the nodal agency to coordinate HADR activity, was conspicuous by its absence during the Uttarakhand relief operations for which it was roundly berated. In the event, the situation was retrieved by the armed forces, which provided immediate relief and rescue. In Srinagar, too, while the armed forces were everywhere, the civil administration was nowhere to be seen. A similar absence of civil authority has been noticed in Nepal.

Why does the civil authority seem to come up short every time? The answer lies in the fact that the civil administration is itself affected by the tragedy and its personnel abdicate their larger duty of tending to the masses in favour of attending to their personal losses. This is a problem that needs to be addressed.
Perhaps the solution can be found in the way the Indian Air Force handled the 2001 Bhuj earthquake and the 2004 tsunami. In Bhuj, the IAF air base itself had 95 dead and around 100 injured, while in the tsunami, Car Nicobar island air force station had 116 dead and scores wounded.

In both events, the survivors were severely traumatized but held on to their posts to direct initial efforts. Both airbases were the nodal points at which aid poured in and was to be delivered. The IAF’s solution was to bring in fresh personnel; in Car Nicobar, the full complement was replaced to generate momentum in the rescue and rebuilding effort. Can this be done in civilian administrations, where military-like discipline is not the norm?

To an extent this is possible, if each state government builds a core group of personnel trained to take over administrative activities in a disaster area from traumatised employees – because, while the armed forces bring in relief materials quickly during disasters, the equally important task of quick and judicious distribution is what has been a casualty – as in Nepal now. Once we have such trained civilian workforce, they could even be deployed to help out a neighbour’s bureaucracy when calamity strikes.

In international relations, time is of the essence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi lived up to his image of being a man of action by personally directing the rescue efforts in Nepal. Political directions from the very top would no doubt have removed bottlenecks, but one must wonder if such close monitoring is indicative of a system functioning, as it should, on its own. During the Yemen evacuation, too, a Union minister was physically present in the area to ensure smooth functioning of the evacuation machinery. In the next crisis, would the Prime Minister or a minister be again required to marshal the show or should institutionalised procedures govern and modulate the response through trained manpower? It behoves a wannabe regional power to have a well-oiled machinery to address calls for help from its neighbours – India can do that with ease.

(The author, a retired Air Vice Marshal, is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi)

( Source : dc )
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