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#294, 30 November 1999
National Disaster Management and the Armed Forces
N. K. Pant

The immense human tragedy caused by the super cyclone which hit the coastal and adjoining districts of Orissa in October 1999 caught the local administrative machinery unawares despite the fact that  timely warning of its movement over the Bay of Bengal was available in advance. An alert and devoted administrative machinery should have immediately evacuated the population to safer places in the interior. But what has touched the nation’s conscience is that even after a week of this unprecedented natural calamity, the major portion of unfortunate survivors, were still without food, water and medicines.



In this scenario the onus, as usual, fell on the war weary units of the Indian armed forces, who were pressed into the onerous task of reaching the remotest corners of the vast affected area with urgently needed humanitarian aid. But the natural and man made conditions had deteriorated to such an extent that even the usually fast moving and highly efficient forces could not get their act together during the initial agonising week.



It is surprising that in a natural calamity prone country like ours,  there are no disaster management policy guidelines existing at the national level. While floods and cyclones are a routine affair, there are occasional earthquakes, extreme drought conditions, forest fires and landslides taking place at regular intervals. Invariably, the standard operating procedure(SOP) for the civilian administration is to call the armed forces for assistance. In fact, India ’s proud army happens to be the biggest rescue and succour providing organisation capable of moving swiftly to any part of the country at a very short notice.



The nation’s armed forces should in all fairness form an integral part of the national disaster management policy which needs to be deliberated and formulated on top priority. The need of the hour is to analyse every possible preventive measure to minimise the damage to life and property. The defence formations have always swung into action as they do in war; hence they must be placed in the driver’s seat in the national disaster management body. It is provided for that the military organisation can be called upon by the civil administration to help in dealing with natural calamities as part of its “aid to civil” duties.



The regions vulnerable to floods and cyclones are known . But are the army units stationed in the cantonment towns in the vicinity of these disaster prone areas during their peace area tenure trained and equipped to take up relief work on a massive scale? A  professional army is supposed to train during peacetime for an eventual war and is equipped accordingly.  The driving force which propels soldiers, sailors and airmen into instant action is compassion for their suffering civilian brethren. Once drafted, they go to any extent in improvising ways and means to reach the affected people. The disaster victims are not only consoled, they are evacuated, fed and given medical treatment. Food and water packets are air dropped from helicopters over safer places where flood or cyclone affected persons are forced to take shelter in the marooned countryside. 



Lack of a unified command system between the services impedes the smoothness of co-ordination in the conduct of relief operations. For example, the army units performing disaster management duties in Orissa were accountable to eastern and central command headquarters located at Calcutta and Lucknow . Though the former is in close proximity,  the affected area comes under the operational jurisdiction of the latter. Similarly, naval, air force and coast guard units act under the instructions of their respective formation headquarters widely separated from each other and lacking cohesion. 



In this context, creation of unified command headquarters in the field together with the chief of defence staff controlling the three services headquarters at the apex as an integral part of the government machinery will go a long way in dealing with such human catastrophes but also in fighting the enemy. It will also be worthwhile to incorporate the essential aspects of disaster management in the forces’ training syllabi, and provide them some with ‘dual use’ equipment to deal with the vagaries of nature.






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