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Tsunami Reveals Indian Military’s Humanitarian Response Capability

Cmde C. Uday Bhaskar (Retd) is former officiating Director of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 08, 2005

    The tsunami tragedy that struck large parts of Southern Asia abutting the Bay of Bengal and the South Eastern Indian Ocean littoral has been a tragic start for the New Year. It is feared that the total death toll in the affected areas may well cross the 200,000 mark. In many ways this is a multi-national disaster with the affected countries including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar amongst others and stretching all the away across the ocean to the East coast of Africa.

    The initial estimates of the scale of the disaster were perhaps inaccurate and it was only with the passage of a few days that the actual contours of what had happened became clear to the region and the global community. The word tsunami itself was new to the lexicon and considering that the last such occurrence in this part of the world was in 1883, it was to be expected that the entire event had a macabre tinge of novelty to it and even the professionals such as meteorologists and disaster experts across the region were caught unawares.

    However what merits note is the manner in which India was able to respond to this tragedy and the kind of assistance that was provided by the Indian military within the first 24 hours. Currently there is an intense debate about why India is not seeking help from foreign sources on one hand, and the response of the global community led by the USA on the other. Various views have been expressed about Indian prickliness at one level, and the parsimony of the major powers and the kind of duties and obligations that devolve upon the global community – states and civil society – in the event of such natural disasters that warrant huge amounts of humanitarian assistance.

    To examine the facts about the first determinant – the Indian response. Parts of the Indian east coast and the Andaman and Nicobar islands were devastated and the first duty was to mount necessary relief and rescue operations. This was done with alacrity and the civil administration was supported by the military wherever they were located. It is the speed with which similar succour was made available to the neighbouring states that is noteworthy. Within 12 hours of the tsunami tragedy - by sunset of December 26 - the first Indian naval helicopters were in Sri Lanka with immediate relief material. And this of course has to do with the proximate nature of the island republic to the Indian peninsula. To complement this, by Tsunami Day 2 (Dec 27) two Indian Naval ships, INS Sharada and INS Sandhayak, dropped anchor in Galle and Trincomalee respectively. The relief support to Sri Lanka began in earnest with the third ship INS Sutlej also reaching Galle by Dec 28.

    Simultaneously ships were diverted to Male in the island of Maldives in the southern Indian Ocean. INS Mysore, a destroyer, arrived at Male by first light on Dec 28 while two other ships INS Udaygiri and INS Aditya arrived the following day on T Day 3, Dec 29. Many of these ships had integral helicopter capability and were able to provide support from the air as well and this immediate response was invaluable in assuring the affected people that help was on the way. Their gratitude was expressed in abundant measure on the worldwide web, which played a vital role in the dissemination of information apart from the audio-visual media.

    In addition to the assistance to Sri Lanka and Maldives, the Indian military was able to reach out to Indonesia as well. INS Nirupak was converted into a hospital ship and dispatched to the worst affected country on T Day 4, Dec 30, with 40 troops embarked. At the time of writing this comment, the Indian military – which includes the Coast Guard – has deployed at peak a total of 32 ships and 5,500 army troops have been pressed into tsunami related relief effort while the air effort has seen more than 10,000 tonnes of relief supplies being air lifted to locales in and around India including the A&N islands. There is no denying that the Indian assistance to these nations is modest given the scale of the relief that is required but the spontaneity with which it was extended and the alacrity with which the Indian military was able to arrive are indicative of the credibility of the Indian humanitarian response machinery that spans the political, diplomatic and military determinant and this has some pertinent pointers for the regional security grid that the professionals will be monitoring.

    As regards why India refused assistance from foreign NGOs and countries – particularly in the A&N islands. The initial and later estimates about the tsunami death toll and destruction suggested that India was in a position to deal with the tragedy. It was also felt that the other countries in the region needed this help more than India. In addition, the response from Indians across the national spectrum was immediate and generous and the challenge was to disaggregate the tasks that had to be undertaken and assign their priority. The first tenet of responding to a humanitarian disaster of this scale – whether natural or manmade – is to disaggregate the tasks. Reconnaissance and rescue of the survivors and providing immediate medical/food relief is the primary task. Invariably damaged communication and transport links always make this task formidable. Then follows the later task of rehabilitation and re-construction of shattered lives and infrastructure – which is always a long term and lonely task. More often than not the collective consciousness has a short memory and who in India now remembers the earthquake that struck Gujarat in January 2001 on Republic Day – or similar disasters over the years – except those directly affected?

    The Indian estimate from informed sources is that rescue and relief is a task that India is better equipped to undertake on its own – give its economic and technological profile – and that appropriate assistance would be welcomed from all quarters for the later phase – that is rehabilitation and re-construction. For instance it is possible that India may well need aid from the global and regional monetary agencies for this latter task in the years ahead.

    The final aspect is about how much aid would be deemed appropriate in such circumstances. The USA and some other nations including Germany have been castigated for being tight-fisted in their first responses and commitments. However in recent days the global response has been generous and it is estimated that the total commitments will exceed US $ 2 billion – or about Rs. 9,000 crores. My own position on aid is that the needy and impoverished cannot demand aid as a right. Yes, it is an ethical responsibility that devolves upon those more fortunate not to be so blighted but then the long cycle of history that goes back by a few thousand years tells us that man is not naturally altruistic and generous. And this abiding rhythm of human nature, like the deep ocean currents, is not likely to undergo any radical change. So the lesson is – be better prepared for the next humanitarian disaster and be more cognizant about our collective ethical responsibility to each other – whether one is an affluent foreign tourist or an impoverished native citizen - in an increasingly inter-dependent world.

    (Published in Dainik Jagran, New Delhi, on 06 January 2004. The views expressed are personal.)