The role of the Army in disaster management is as essential today as it was earlier, i.e. before the formation of the National Disaster Management Authority. It continues to be amongst the first responders in a disaster situation even before the civilian resources have been deployed mostly by virtue of its location in the entire country, especially in the far-flung border areas or even remote areas where district administration is weak or non-existent.
The unique geo-climatic conditions of India make it highly vulnerable to natural hazards. About 58 per cent of India’s geographical area is earthquake prone. Sixty-eight per cent of the area is drought prone, 12 per cent is flood prone and eight per cent is prone to cyclones. About one million houses are damaged annually with irreparable losses. Thus there is a need to adopt a proactive approach for prevention, mitigation and preparedness.
The Government of India took a very visionary step in December 2005 by making a permanent arrangement to take care of the multifarious aspects of disaster management and to move away from a response-centric approach, which was the norm till 2005, and partially is even now, to a holistic preparedness, management and mitigation-centric approach. At the national level, the government has set up an authority under the Prime Minister, viz, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and similarly, in the states under the Chief Minister. These organisations at all levels, whether at the national, state or district level, are supported by the existing government machinery. The National Executive Committee (NEC) comprising 13 Secretaries of the Government of India assists NDMA in implementing various projects and issues. Similarly, in the states, all the Secretaries assist the Chief Secretary. At the district level, the District Collector leads the organisation with the elected representative of the people being the Co-Chairperson to bring about a public-private interface at the functional level.
Disaster management is a multi-disciplinary process. All the Central ministries and departments have a key role in assisting the apex body, the NDMA, in the discharge of its functions. The nodal ministries and departments of the Government of India include the Ministries of Home Affairs (MHA), Agriculture, Civil Aviation, Environment and Forests, Health, Atomic Energy, Space, Earth Sciences, Water Resources, Mines, Railways and so on. These agencies will continue to address specific disasters as assigned to them. Further, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) acts as the administrative ministry for the subject of disaster management.
NDMA Act 2005
The NDMA Act lays down institutional, legal, financial and coordination mechanisms at the Central, state, district and local levels. These institutions are not parallel structures and will work in close harmony. The new institutional framework is meant to ensure implementation of the national desire for a paradigm shift in disaster management from a post-event and relief-centric syndrome to a regime that lays greater emphasis on preparedness, prevention and mitigation, leading to a more prompt and effective response to disasters.
The NDMA is mandated as the apex body to coordinate the Central Government efforts in prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction for adoption of a holistic and proactive approach to the disaster management. It will lay down policies and guidelines for disaster management to assist Central ministries, departments and states for drawing up their respective plans. In order to translate the policy objectives into plans, the NDMA has adopted a mission-mode approach involving a number of initiatives with the help of various institutions (administrative, academic, scientific and technical) operating at national, state and local levels. As a policy, the Central Ministries and departments and states, have been involved in developing the guidelines, besides all other stakeholders. These guidelines are based on an exhaustive review of previous disasters and actions taken by various agencies including the Central Ministries and departments, states, academic, scientific and technical institutions and non-government organisations (NGOs) in the past and identifying the felt needs in relation to operational, administrative, financial and legal gaps. The aforementioned data of disasters in the past and themes (such as capacity development and public awareness) provide the basis of preparation of future plans.
Financial Mechanism and Activities
The entire Disaster Management Organisation has a financial mechanism in the Centre, known as Disaster Response Fund, which was earlier called Calamity Relief Fund. Now there is a permanent mechanism to make sure that even small things, which have to be done on ground, can be executed quickly.
As far as the various activities of NDMA are concerned, the most important is preparedness for disasters and for which the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the most vibrant face of the NDMA, has been raised. There are eight battalions in all, drawn from various Central police forces. These battalions, with various skills are located in different parts of the country based on the kind of disaster threats they are confronted with. One battalion is located in Odisha, in the area of Cuttack. As a matter of fact, during the Kosi floods in Bihar, this battalion rescued over 1,00,000 people, out of the total of about 2,50,000, who were evacuated.
Role of Armed Forces
The Disaster Management Act 2005 is a vital instrument which explains the role and functions of various establishments. It is also a tool to bring in a sense of accountability and responsibility. However, this act mentions the “deployment of naval, military and air forces, other armed forces of the Union or any other civilian personnel as may be required for the purposes of this Act” under the heading “Measures by the Government for Disaster Management”. There is no amplification or mention of the role of the armed forces with a view to offer legal support and backup. The Act is surprisingly silent on the aspect of assigning well-defined role and responsibilities to the armed forces.
The former Vice Chairman of NDMA, General (Retd) N.C. Vij, when asked specifically regarding the role of the armed forces said, “Conceptually, the Indian armed forces are expected to be called upon to intervene and take on specific tasks, only when the situation is beyond the coping capability of the civil administration. In practice, however, the armed forces form the core of the government’s response capacity and have become the crucial immediate responders in all serious disaster situations. Due to their vast potential to meet any adverse challenge, speed of operational response and the resources and capabilities at their disposal, the armed forces have historically played a major role in emergency support functions. These include communications, search and rescue operations, health and medical facilities and transportation, especially in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. The air and helicopter lift and movement and assistance to neighbouring countries primarily fall within the expertise and domain of the armed forces. The armed forces will also participate in imparting training to trainers and disaster management managers, especially in NBC aspects, helicopter insertion, high altitude rescue, watermanship and training of paramedics. At the national level, the Chief of the Integrated Defence Staff to the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CISC) has already been included in the National Executive Committee (NEC). Similarly, at the state and district levels, the local representatives of the armed forces will be included in their executive committees to ensure closer coordination and cohesion.”