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India’s Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Effort in Nepal

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  • May 18, 2015

    The 7.9 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal on 25 April 2015 has caused widespread devastation in 30 districts, with over 7000 deaths and thousands have been rendered homeless. Buildings in parts of the capital, Kathmandu, were reduced to rubble, and there were shortages of food, fuel, electricity and shelter. Conditions were far worse in the countryside, with rescue workers struggling to reach mountain villages days after the earthquake. An estimated eight million people have been affected by the quake. The international community rushed aid and relief effort to help Nepal to face this calamity. Within hours of the earthquake, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to both the President Ram Baran Yadav and Prime Minister Sushil Koirala of Nepal and assured them of India’s commitment to help their country meet the calamity. The first Indian plane with relief workers, medical aid and heavy earth moving equipment landed in Kathmandu within six hours of the earthquake. India has played a major part in the rescue and relief efforts in Nepal.

    India has geared itself up to deal with natural disasters in the last 15 years or so, given its climatic conditions and high incidence of natural disasters like earthquakes, floods and cyclones. The devastating Orissa Super Cyclone (1999) and the Gujarat Earthquake (2001) led to India setting up a National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Over the years, be it during the Asian Tsunami (2004), earthquakes (Andamans 2009; Sikkim 2011), floods (Uttarakhand 2013; Jammu & Kashmir 2014) or the evacuation of citizens from Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, India has proven its ability to carry out the task at hand with professionalism and in an organised manner. The latest demonstration of India’s capabilities in this regard came in the wake of the earthquake that struck Nepal.

    Operation ‘Maitri’

    India’s assistance to earthquake-affected Nepal is the largest relief and rescue mission undertaken by India outside its own borders. The NDRF, the Army, Indian Air Force (IAF) and other agencies were co-opted into the plan ab initio. Being an immediate neighbour, India enjoys a familiarity with the Nepalese system and people that is almost unique, including with Nepal’s armed forces which are leading the rescue and relief efforts. IAF aircraft ferried heavy earth moving equipment, relief material, food, water, and medical teams and equipment. Stranded Indian citizens were brought home on return flights. Helicopters were pressed into service to deploy rescue teams, medical teams and relief material in the interior areas and evacuate casualties. These teams worked round-the-clock and in close co-ordination with the government of Nepal.

    The Indian Army, with its close linkages with the Nepal Army, set up a Task Force led by a Major General at Kathmandu and a Brigadier at Barpak, the epicentre of the earthquake, for close coordination. The communication infrastructure was reinforced with detachments at Kathmandu, Pokhra, Barpak, Lalitpur and Gorkha. A 45-bed hospital and three field hospitals with 18 medical teams, along with six ambulances for casualty evacuation, were functional in different areas to provide medical support to the affected population. More than 2,600 victims have been treated so far by Indian medical teams; and out of these, 1,170 have been treated at Barpak. The orbits of six Indian satellites were adjusted to give coverage of the affected areas. It was heartening to see the coordination between various agencies from India as well as with the international rescue and relief teams.

    Controversies

    Although the Indian response was greatly appreciated for its speed and magnitude, a shadow was cast on this effort by the overzealous coverage of the Indian media. Indian journalists who had showed the world the magnitude of the tragedy ended up being blamed for pursuing sensational news and for being insensitive and arrogant. The extent of the disaffection that the Indian media caused is evident from the #GoHomeIndianMedia hashtag that trended on Twitter. As the Hindustan Times pertinently observed, “While rescue effort has been praised, media’s wall-to-wall coverage of the calamity and that of the relief operation seems to have left a bitter aftertaste among Nepalis.”1 The other controversy surrounding the Indian relief effort was the perception that it was driven by a sense of competition with China, a proxy ‘aid war’ so to speak. There was also some controversy of Indian helicopters flying close to the Nepal-China border.

    Lessons Learnt

    Though the task at hand was dealt with in a professional manner, some issues that can be improved upon are:-

    1. The areas in which Indian teams were deployed were not known to them beforehand. The Nepal Army and ex-servicemen did come in handy in this regard. Nevertheless, there is a need to pre-identify possible areas of deployment in neighbouring countries, develop contingency plans for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and make all the preparations necessary for a successful relief effort.
    2. The NDRF and State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) have Disaster Relief Nodes. Nominating which force will operate in which neighbouring country will improve response time and help in prior familiarisation and coordination.
    3. Since disaster management is a multi-agency task there is a need to evolve protocols at the state and regional levels to smoothen interactions.
    4. Though information centres were set up, agencies doing rescue and relief tend to concentrate information flow within them. Hence, a central coordinating agency would help in prioritising assistance.
    5. Though the NDRF is tasked to deal with disasters, the armed forces willy-nilly become the first responders. Hence it is for consideration whether, like the Rashtriya Rifles, certain formations/units could be assigned a Disaster Management role.

    Rehabilitation

    According to Nepal’s Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat, his country would need at least USD 2 billion to rebuild homes, hospitals, government offices and historic buildings.2 Rajiv Biswas, Asia Pacific chief economist at business research firm IHS, has said that long-term reconstruction costs using proper building standards for an earthquake zone could total more than USD 5 billion, or about 20 per cent of Nepal’s GDP.3 The United Nations has allocated an amount of USD 15 million from the UN Emergency Fund.4 The United States has donated USD 10 million through its Agency for International Development.5 Other countries too have promised monetary aid – the United Kingdom USD 7.6 million, Canada USD 4.1 million, Australia USD 3.9 million, Norway USD 3.9 million, China USD 3.3 million, the European Union USD 3 million and South Korea USD one million.

    India has unambiguously stated its full commitment to assist Nepal. Prime Minister Modi observed that ''India will do its best to wipe the tears of every Nepali, hold their hands and stand with them.' Haryana State has committed a sum of INR 5 crore through the central government.6 India could choose a few aanchals in Nepal with maximum number of ex-servicemen (e.g. Gorkha and Sindhupalchowk) and commit to carry out the reconstruction there. According to a report in the Times of India,7 a number of Indian corporate houses such as the RPG Group, Mahindra Group, Bajaj, Videocon, India Bulls, have expressed their willingness to contribute financially towards rehabilitation in Nepal.

    There is thus widespread commitment within India for Nepal’s reconstruction. There is a need to guard against episodic assistance. India’s provision of reconstruction assistance to Nepal must be worked out as a long term strategy. One particular area of Indian focus could be assistance in restoring damaged heritage buildings and structures. Several historic and celebrated temples in the Valley's durbar squares with tiered pagoda-like roofs, generally dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, have been affected. Their restoration would help heal people’s hearts and minds and enable them regain a sense of their tradition and put the disaster behind them. India must use the expertise of the Archaeological Survey of India to assist in the reconstruction of Nepal’s cultural heritage by restoring these sites to their original glory. It could start with the Pasupatinath Temple in Kathmandu considering its recall and tourism value to Nepal and historical connect with India. India could also help Nepal by sharing meteorological data and assisting with the forecast of natural disasters. India should also help Nepal formulate a disaster response strategy.

    The Way Forward

    With about three million Nepalese living and working in India, the two countries have deep political and economic links. The fact remains however that India and Nepal share an uneasy relationship. India is perceived as a big brother and as interfering in Nepal’s internal politics. Such a perception has contributed to Nepal seeking closer ties with China. China has made increasing inroads into Nepal in the form of investments in the development of infrastructure, increased tourist inflows and monetary assistance. China’s clout seems so strong that Nepal even sends back Tibetan refugees seeking asylum.

    Though China has both the economic might as well as expertise in large scale infrastructure construction, India should use this opportunity to showcase its prowess and play a major role in Nepal’s reconstruction. Its quick response saved precious lives and re-confirmed the functionality of its response mechanism. A majority of the Nepalese appreciate the large-scale Indian aid and the prompt appearance of Indian military rescuers. However, as the social media campaign has highlighted, any assistance has to take into consideration the sensitivities of the recipient as well.

    Brig (Retd.) Ravi Pandalai, SM, having served extensively in the North East, has an abiding interest in the affairs of Nepal and Bangladesh.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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