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Role of the Indian Military in Disasters

P. K. Gautam was a Consultant at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • July 05, 2013

    The 21st century has seen an increasing number of natural disasters with alarming intensity – the 2001 Bhuj earthquake; the 2004 tsunami; the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir; heavy rainfall in Mumbai in 2006; the 2008 Bihar Kosi river flood; the August 2010 cloud burst in Leh; the September 2011 Sikkim earthquake; and, most recently, in June, the unprecedented flash floods and cloudbursts in Garhwal, parts of Kumaon and Nepal, and Kinnaur region of Himachal Pradesh. Each of these disasters has seen the active involvement of the armed forces in the relief operations.

    The military’s primary task is to guard the nation’s borders. In matters domestic, the military is supposed to be a second respondent, except in the case of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidences. Theoretically, the principle is “last to enter and first to leave”. However, when theory is matched with practice, this does not seem to be the case. According to the Administrative Reforms Commissions, the military needs to be taken off from the loop of disaster management gradually. While it may sound sensible on paper, it is not really possible in practice. The civil administration is usually not properly geared up for an effective response. It needs to be noted that discipline and efficiency is the first demand in disaster response and relief tasks, which are often dangerous missions and quite naturally the military brings in order in post-disaster operations. Wherever there is danger, the military has a constitutional duty to undertake tasks and missions. The required wherewithal including the command, control and communication, are available with the field formations. Preparing for military operations other than war (MOOTW), of which disaster is the main component will be a critical part of military training.

    Though the government is aware of the urgent need for better disaster response mechanism, the overall trend has indicated that the level of preparedness at both the centre as well as the states is inadequate. The nodal agency for coordination of relief, response and overall natural disaster management is under the Central Ministry of Home Affairs (see Table 1 below). However, when any disaster breaks, it is the Armed forces under the Ministry of Defence that is called upon to intervene as an ‘aid to civil authority’.

    Table 1 Nodal Ministries for Disaster Management

    Disasters Nodal Ministry
    Earthquake and Tsunami MHA/Ministry of Earth Sciences/IMD
    Floods MHA/Ministry of Water Resources/CWC
    Cyclones MHA/Ministry of Earth Sciences/IMD
    Drought Ministry of Agriculture
    Biological Disasters Ministry of Health and Family Welfare
    Chemical Disasters Ministry of Environment & Forests
    Nuclear Disasters Ministry of Atomic Energy
    Air Accidents Ministry of Civil Aviation
    Railway Accidents Ministry of Railways

    (Source: National Disaster Management Authority, Government of India, June 23, 2011, available at

    The Disaster Management Act of 2005 provides the blue print for the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) at the Centre, the State Disaster Management Authorities and the District Disaster Management Authorities. The state and the district level are the weak links in disaster management efforts. It appears that the civil administration has “got used to military and central help as a norm”.

    A tendency to over-rely on the military has stunted the initiative, responsibility and accountability of the civil government and officials. The case of Operation Sadbhavana in Jammu and Kashmir is a case in point. It is this vacuum in delivery and governance that the armed forces, due to their ‘spirit to deliver’ training, have filled. But we need to ask hard questions. In the case of disasters, why should the relief commissioners and civil administration not be held accountable for flouting norms of construction, ignoring drainage congestion and thereby exacerbating conditions leading to man-made disasters? We are aware of large areas of the country that experience floods regularly. Yet the civil administration is found wanting in its prevention and preparedness, which along with response, relief and recovery, are the constitutional duties and responsibilities of the civil administration. The military has no role in regulating the implementation of these principles. This ‘bad governance’ is the root problem of recurring threats caused by disasters. The Arthasastra of Kautilya in book 4 on the “The Suppression of Criminal”, under chapter three section 78 on remedial measures during calamities such as floods, in sutras 4.3.6-9 says:

    In the rainy season villages situated near water should live away from the level of floods. And they should keep a collection of wooden planks, bamboos and boats. They should rescue a (person) being carried away by floods by means of gourds, skin-bags, canoes, tree- stems and rope braids. For those who do not go to the rescue, the fine is twelve panans, except in the case of those without canoes.

    Response to a disaster is a set of inter-related activities, which requires database, logistics, technological needs, self-reliance, communication infrastructure, emergency preparedness and forecasting. Advance study in the field of disaster management will give a better understanding of responding effectively to disasters. A centre of excellence for disaster management in the military must be set up under the aegis of HQ, IDS and the upcoming Indian National Defence University (INDU).

    The former army chief, General S. Padmanabhan in his book A General Speaks (2005), mentions that during the Bhuj earthquake in 2001, he realised that the army was inadequately equipped to deal with the extensive devastation and damage. He was impressed by the Turkish team who had come to aid in the rescue efforts, which had structured the unit based on the lessons of past experiences. Ironically, the study he ordered on disaster relief was never used.

    It is interesting to recall that the army pavilion during the India International Trade Fair at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi in November 2005 had the banner: “Brave Hearts: Role of Armed Forces in Disaster Management and Aid to Civil Authorities”. The disaster relief Operation Rahat, due to excessive snowfall in Jammu and Kashmir in February 2005 and Operation Imdad of the October 2005 earthquake were exhibited for the public. However, there was no data-base on previous earthquakes in similar terrain, such as one at Uttarkashi in the early 1990s. Military leaders and troops need to be trained and updated on the various aspects of disasters. Not all major disasters are properly recorded. Here, even seminar proceedings are of great value. In 2002, a year after the terror strikes in the US on September 11, 2001, a national-level seminar on “Disaster Management and Armed Forces: A National Effort” was organised by the Army HQ Engineer-in-Chief’s Branch and Institution of Engineers (India). The proceedings of the seminar will make excellent text for general awareness and further detailed research. Seminar reports and proceedings are as important as war diaries and the suggested Centre of Excellence must locate and gather such texts as archival data.

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