Friday, 15 August 2014

Give the military a formal role in disaster management

India's vulnerability to natural disasters can be traced to several geophysical and climactic factors that lead to frequent earthquakes, floods, cyclones and landslides.

Recall the earthquakes at Latur, Bhuj or Kashmir, the Leh mudslide and the Uttrakhand floods. The Kosi floods are the latest tragedy to strike us.

Then there are the man-caused disasters. These include Industrial and biological disasters besides NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) hazards. We will have to prepare increasingly and more robustly to cope with nuclear disasters, even as it becomes an important source of energy for us.

These threats will continue to demand the nation's attention. We need preventive responses so that we can minimize damage to life and property. While the National and state Disaster Response Forces remain designated first respondents and their effective development and specialized equipping should continue at a fast pace, the defence forces, whose organizational resilience, junior leadership, national presence and logistic capabilities are far more developed, need to be given a formal mandate in dealing with these crises.

The defence forces, by and large, have been second responders — unless they are in geographical proximity of the disaster area, in the eye of the storm itself or when the impact area is large or remote. They de facto become first responders when the area in question requires acclimatization — Leh and upper reaches of Uttarakhand are examples of this terrain. Defence services personnel who themselves become victims of these disasters when serving in affected areas have shown immense resilience. They set aside their own troubles to reach out to the affected population. There are glorious examples of armed forces heroes who chose to attend to victims who were perfect strangers instead of first ensuring the safety of their near and dear ones. These stories have been heard time and again - during the tsunami relief operations in 2004, the Kosi floods in 2008, Cyclone Aila relief work in 2009, the Leh cloud burst in 2010, the Sikkim earthquake in 2011, the Uttarakhand disaster and Cyclone Phalin last year.

The threats a nation faces don't necessarily have to relate to the infringement of its land or coastal borders or its air space. Any factor that affects the security and survivability of its people are a national threat. The harm caused by natural, or potential manmade disasters are as terrible as those caused by an adversary's armoury. As a national asset with the role of protecting the nation and its people, combating the challenge of disasters should also fall within the charter of the defence forces.

India's defence forces have often come to the assistance of other nations reeling under natural disasters. Not many may know this but the assistance given by Indian military to foreign nations coping with various natural and manmade crises has been received with a lot of appreciation - Cyclone Nargis in Mayanmar, the Chinese earthquake in 2008, the medical emergency in Sri Lanka in 2009 and 2011, the recent MH 370 disaster in Indian Ocean last March and Typhoon Haiyan in Phillipines in November last year are only a few of these examples.

It is not a question of grabbing credit. The aim is to strengthen the purpose of the military -- to serve the people. All national assets and resources should face the emergent challenge as "we", not 'I' or 'you' as agencies are generally prone to. Using the defence services to deal with disasters will help us harness the 'total assets' of the nation. It has a pan-national presence, and its logistics and leadership are tried and tested. It will also help us provide maximum relief.

(The writer is a former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. As GOC-in-C, Central Command, he led the relief operations in Uttarakhand in 2013)

India Salutes is an initiative by The Times of India, in association with Interaction One, to acknowledge the heroic efforts of the officers and men of India's armed forces, in the form of the first national monument dedicated to them. Be part of the initiative on and floods,natural disasters,Leh mudslide,floods,Earthquakes



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