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Saviours in calamity

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Saviours in calamity

Despite being a relatively new force, the NDRF has responded to 1,121 operations across the country and abroad, rescuing over four lakh people. It has emerged as the go-to authority in case of disasters, big or small, writes Rohit Srivastava

On April 25, at 5.15 pm, the first team of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), under the leadership of Kuleesh Anand, arrived at Kathmandu. While establishing the base camp at Jwala Dal battalion of Nepal Army, the team was informed by the commander of the battalion that a teenage girl was trapped under a collapsed building. They were also told that she was probably still alive.

Anand, Assistant Commandant, along with his four subordinate officers and 34 other ranked officials, reached the site around midnight and learned that under the debris of a four-storey building, a girl was indeed trapped. Her exact position was located through a narrow fox hole dug up by the local authorities. As the debris was unstable and tremors were still coming, the local authorities were not sure of working on an unstable heap. The site was adjoining three badly damaged multi-storey buildings. It took the team four hours to create another fox hole to reach the girl, to stabilise debris and chop out wood which was obstructing the legs of the victim. The survivor was successfully brought out by 4 in the morning.

This is one of the many cases where the NDRF saved lives under the most difficult circumstances and against all odds. In 2015 alone, it rescued more than 50,000 people. Today, in case of any disaster, no matter how small it is, the NDRF is the go-to authority.

In 2005, the Disaster Management Act was passed with the provision for an apex body under the chairmanship of the then Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, that called for creation of a disaster response force. The next year, eight battalions of central forces were brought together to constitute the NDRF; the force strength has increased to 12 battalions since — a 50 per cent increase in manpower within a decade.

It’s one of the newest forces of the Central Government. Earlier, disaster management in India was relief-centric but it follows a more holistic policy today. In a short journey, the NDRF has responded to 1,121 operations across the country and beyond the boundaries, rescued 4,73,594 victims, and retrieved 2,296 bodies.

Some of its major rescue and relief operations include the Koshi floods (2008), chlorine leakage at Shiwadi, Mumbai, (2010), cloudburst in Leh (2010), the Mayapuri radiation (2010), Sikkim earthquake (2011), Japan triple disaster (2011), Assam floods (2012), Uttarakhand floods (2013), Cyclone Phailin (2013), J&K floods (2014), Cyclone Hudhud (2014), Gujarat floods (2014), Nepal earthquake (2015), and Chennai urban floods (2015).

The NDRF was made the dedicated force for disaster response related duties on February 14, 2008. Since then, there has been no looking back as from one disaster to another, the force has been saving precious lives and acquiring new skills. It is also helping the States prepare for impending disasters and is providing much-needed training to local authorities.

The general perception about disaster relief is that it is about saving lives and evacuating people beforehand in case of, say, a cyclone. But in reality it’s an all-the-year-round process of public awareness, risk assessment, risk mapping, simulation, and drills.

OP Singh, DG, NDRF, says: “The NDRF personnel undergo training within the country as well as in premier disaster management training institutes abroad to chisel their skills. The NDRF Academy has come up at Nagpur, Maharashtra, for all specialised and advanced courses for its own personnel as well as those of SDRF and other stakeholders. The National Civil Defense College Nagpur has been merged into it and this will strengthen the Academy. To tackle flood-related disasters and as a part of preparation, NDRF teams are pre-positioned in vulnerable parts of the country well before the monsoon season. These teams are self-contained and able to deal with any emergency. Besides that, NDRF teams are also deployed permanently in 23 Regional Response Centres (RRCs) across the country. All battalion commanders remain in close touch with the State administration in their respective Area of Responsibility (AOR). The NDRF teams are also kept in alert mode in each unit to respond quickly at the time of eventuality.”

India is one of the most geographically complex and diverse nations and disaster-prone as well. Being one of the most densely populated countries and with poor infrastructure, it also lacks life-saving equipment and properly trained staff at the local level, which makes the 12 battalions of NDRF appear inadequate for the whole nation.

Armed forces and paramilitary organisations have always conducted relief and rescue operations, and they still form a major part of any such operation. Yet since the NDRF has been designated as the dedicated force, it is expected that sooner or later the NDRF and State disaster relief forces (NDMA Act requires States to have one) should completely take over.

Singh explains, “Force strength depends on requirement and in our case it depends on the vulnerability profile of the area. I prefer more battalions for faster response. Area mapping is a significant part of our background work and more battalions will maximise our efficiency. The Northeast has two battalions, one in Arunachal Pradesh and another in Assam. I would like to have more units there. There is need for expansion of the force in future.

“The NDMA is the apex body which formulates policies and guidelines for disaster Management. The NDRF is a specialised response force mandated to respond to all kinds of disasters. We are well in coordination with the NDMA.”

Being a purely deputational force, the men in NDRF come with basic training required for rescue and relief. Post induction, they are trained keeping in line the specialised requirements of the force. The force has been collaborating with some of the finest institutions for super specialised training and for training the master trainers for the organisation. Currently, the NDRF has 364 master trainers and 1,940 trainers. At the NDRF Academy, all specialised training will be conducted within the organisation and it will be training the State organisations as well.

Singh says they have 18 specialist teams in each battalion, of which two specialist teams are mandated for Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) emergencies. In addition, some teams are trained and equipped to respond to mountain disasters. There is a professional contingent of specialists that responds to different disasters, such as hydro metrological disaster response, CBRN, rescue from deep trenches, mountain and avalanche rescue, animal disaster management etc.

Not only that, the battalions  conduct recce and resource mapping in non-disaster period in their respective areas. For instance, during Famex and community capacity-building programmes, a detailed analysis of geography, access route to disaster-prone areas, availability of resources and most vulnerable areas are identified. Mock drills are also organised regularly.

Speaking on the rationale for keeping such highly trained people for just five years within the organisation, who subsequently go back to parent cadres, the DG opines that the NDRF being a specialised force, it makes sense to be a deputational force. “All special purpose organisations are like that: the SPG, NSG etc. It keeps the force lean and focussed; one can’t sit idle, there is no loss of capability, and the force remains much organised,” he adds.

But a question remains — when these highly trained personnel go back to their parent organisations, will they ever be properly utilised and won’t they lose the much-desired skills? In most parts of the world, this duty has generally been ascribed to the fire departments. State DRFs in India are mostly drawn from fire services.

On the other hand, an NDRF case study by IIT Delhi states that so far, it has evacuated/rescued 4,22,327 disaster victims, and retrieved 2,116 bodies during various response operations. It has not only been operating in India but also abroad. In 2011 (Japanese nuclear disaster), the NDRF won a lot of appreciation, including from the Japanese Prime Minister. But due to bureaucratic hindrances, the Indian contingent reached Japan in 14 days, when most of the global teams were ready to move.

Singh feels that such delays are in the past. “We have the latest example of the Nepal earthquake where our first team landed within five and a half hours. Yes, there was a delay in Japan, but since 2011 we have come a long way.”

The Koshi flood was its first major operation and the force handled the situation on war footing, lifting 153 high-speed boats with 780 flood rescuers drawn from three battalions to affected districts. As a result, over a lakh people were rescued in the initial phases of the operations. The NDRF is also active in the flood of Purnia in Bihar, rescuing people and livestock.

India has stated an objective of providing humanitarian assistance in disasters to its neighbours and extended neighbourhood. In every major disaster in South Asia, India has always provided assistance. But our NDRF battalions lack the global certification, a desired requirement for international operations, which is based on compliance to the guidelines provided by the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG).

The purpose is to facilitate coordination between various international rescue teams which make themselves available for deployment to countries. How these teams would work together is stated in the guidelines, and since the NDRF is yet to become compliant, it will never be the first to be called for disaster relief by global bodies.

The DG informs that the matter is under process, and a proposal was sent for consideration to the Government a year and a half ago. If the proposal gets accepted, two things would be required: Infrastructure for training and to procure equipment. This will bring enhancement and standardisation in the NDRF’s capabilities. “We are quite capable of handling things in India and this is only required for operations abroad. After INSARAG, our capabilities will be in line with global standards,” Singh says.

The NDRF is in line with the current trends in governance and is also active on social media. It has an effective communication system, which keeps its control room connected with all State Capitals and relief commissioners on a 24x7 basis. The men in grey are active across India, providing relief and rescuing people from manmade and natural disasters every day somewhere or the other. Some make news, some don’t.

On how urban planners can avoid natural disasters, Singh suggests, “Cities need to rework their urban planning; there is an urgent need to think of resilient planning along low-lying areas. The water channels, that can be made encroachment-free, should be restored at war footing. Proper drainage system is required to avoid such disasters.”

In the recent past, Uttarakhand and Kashmir were the two main disasters that the NDRF responded to effectively and saved thousands of lives. Both scenarios were quite different as Uttarakhand is a hilly region, whereas Kashmir witnessed an urban flood, providing the team its first experience in responding to urban flooding at such a huge scale.

About what they learned from the crisis, Singh says, “There were some common issues which affected the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operation in these States. Advance early information, accessibility to disaster-prone area, terrain and communications affect the overall rescue and relief operation, and also create panic and chaos among victims as well as responding agencies. Now, forecasting agencies in India are providing accurate information and the States concerned are acting quickly and utilising all resources to minimise loss of men and material.”

He adds, “Every country has its own challenges. India is a large country with more than 1.25 billion population. We have challenges of poverty, education, and lack of awareness about disaster mitigation, lack of resources to sustain the brunt of disasters etc. Being a responsible and dedicated Government organisation, we are on our mission to make the community disaster resilient by imparting response training to various sections of society. The NDRF is committed to its motto: Aapda Seva Sadaiv.”


The writer is a Delhi-based independent journalist




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