It is pleasing to see the response of the Central Government and its multiple agencies to the disaster in Nepal. There can be no better way to convey India’s concern and sensitivity towards its neighbors than these very actions which have drawn national approval and applause. No doubt, the recent experiences gained in the Uttarkhand and Kashmir floods, Orissa cyclone and the mass evacuation from Yemen’s war zone have added richly to our institutional expertise in handling unpredictable situations. However, it is the leadership at the Centre which has obviously made a major difference; officials are learning to function and take decisions in situations of limited but progressively building information.
While electronic news channels have been busy with visuals of the disaster and the relief build up public memory is short and it is best to recount what exactly is involved in such contingencies when disasters strike. We do have ten specialist units for disaster relief manned by personnel of the National Disaster Relief Force. These personnel are crucial to the initial response required at the spot of disaster where in the case of this earthquake they are busy rendering rescue from the collapsed buildings along with specialist locating equipment and sniffer dogs. However, organizationally the relief efforts start from rear to forward in a ‘push’ system with available resources at the point of disaster and those in the vicinity making the first push. It involves, human resources, both specialist and muscle power, machinery, vehicles, earth moving plant and breaking equipment, including drills, generators, communications, water purification plants with dispensers, medical equipment and drugs besides resources for disposal of the dead and control of epidemics. The importance of each individual item in the chain cannot be over emphasized and a single crucial item can render a whole effort void. For example, if there are no stretchers or no water dispensers nowhere can they be obtained from. Hence, necessity to carefully register inventories, on basis of progressive experience. The Army does this as a Standard Operating Procedure and tests its drills and battle procedures (everything in the Army is related to battle) through frequent mobilization exercises, where inventories and personnel are checked along with the loads, and queries are directed at personnel to ascertain they understand their duties and responsibilities.
The first and foremost action at the operational level is to earmark the command and control so that a single commander is responsible and becomes the point of contact. Major General JS Sandhu, in the instant case, an officer from 5 Gorkha Rifles is a good choice for being the overall in charge at the Nepal end along with Brig Gamlin also of the Gurkhas. Both are fluent Nepali speaking, which explains it. All commanders have adequate staff and they swing into action to gather maximum information even as basic drills are put into gear. Up and down the chain initial short coordination meetings are held but before that it is necessary to send out Warning Orders on the basis of available information. The result of these coordination meetings is the issue of directions to subordinates and earmarking of resources. Taking the disaster in Nepal as an example, it can be seen that the NDRF was ready with its emergency loads and recce teams which flew out within a few hours. Along with the initial flight it is essential to earmark space for communication personnel of the Air Force and Corps of Signals along with basic equipment without compromising excessively on the life saving equipment of the NDRF. A communication hub will then build up progressively at the airfield and inwards towards the city. Without communications nothing can move. It may be essential in some cases to send technicians of the lead civil communication service provider to ascertain the state of mobile communications. In modern times this is essential so that civil mobile communications are established early to overcome the trauma of relatives. It also helps in tracing missing personnel. As of now the Internet seems to have been restored in Kathmandu and this is a major achievement. As an add on from personal experience it is prudent to also cater for small charging sets with multiple charging facilities as the availability of mobile communications in the hands of people will help in coordination of relief efforts.
The IAF remains a key player because it has to earmark and move adequate transport aircraft to the mounting bases which are spread out. Its personnel have to be involved with technical aspects of loading and that too very quickly. Progressively the rotary aircraft join in when the relief moves out into the countryside, away from the urban centres in this case. The Army’s aviation arm joins in. On 27th itself an aviation hub is being established at Pokhra.
The principle which has to be followed is that of ‘simultaneity’ and not of ‘sequencing’. Almost everything is of importance and in the case of the IAF this becomes the biggest challenge, ascertaining priority. Human survivability requirements have necessarily to be at very high priority. In this medical equipment, doctors and para-medics, plus medicines take precedence. A composite packet of medical needs has to move early, for which emergency supplies have to be in state of readiness. The Army’s medical system has this well taped up and usually needs no directions for emergency release. Many more such packets will continue to move as the level of casualties is ascertained. In the instant case six field hospitals has been moved replete with power generation equipment and surgical teams; functioning with 18 medical teams. Six ambulance vehicles have also been inducted by road. The location of Army cantonments in North India is a boon because many of the formations having medical resources are located close to airfields. Medical teams from these cantonments are the first to move. As far as food, water and shelter is concerned, initial dependence is on food packets which are made up of ready to eat dry items hurriedly put together by the Army Service Corps (ASC) and volunteers. An important element here is the existing supply chain facilitated by the stocks which are held by the Army at different levels; these are mostly dry items and cannot be converted to ready to eat in the desirable timeframe. This is where the Army’s logisticians depend very largely on the contractors who supply fresh items and can be mustered to provide readily consumable items on deferred payment systems. The system works on trust, the best mantra for disaster management. Civil agencies subsequently step in and the local administration has an uncanny knack of ensuring supplies as the demand increases. It is important to remember that initially all affected people will need immediately consumable food and not dry rations; baby food being one of the highest priorities. During the Kashmir Flood, need for Insulin was high and the agencies were busy procuring that for the first few days. One of the heaviest loads and fast consumed is fuel. It is needed for the power generation equipment for the medical facilities and for the vehicles plying at the airfield of the disaster area. This necessitates early dispatch of engineer teams by road so that road communications are opened.
The Army’s Corps of Engineers has a man sized job to perform. Units function as composite engineer task forces (ETFs) with technical manpower, plant equipment, water supply and purification facilities, explosives to blast buildings and collapsed hillsides, power generation equipment and many other items required to restore mobility, power and water; their expertise in handling boats, building bridges and pumping water proves invaluable in flood based disasters. Lifting their equipment is the most difficult as it is bulky and if being airlifted will take up much of the air effort. Hence always good to send recce elements and a few initial equipment based teams by air with bulk following by road; they can be relied upon to open the road for themselves if blocked. The arrival of ETFs lends great weight to the disaster relief efforts because of the innate expertise that Army engineers carry with them. This is already happening with six plant equipment, generators, electricity survey team etc having reached and established themselves outside Kathmandu. They are in communication with the Nepal Army personnel with whom operations are being coordinated.
It is important to mention that no disaster relief efforts belong to any one organization. Besides, the Army, Air Force and NDRF, Police organizations play a most important role. Local police provides the liaison for all missions as others are unfamiliar with ground layout. The police too have tremendous manpower but there could be contingencies where many of them being locals cannot immediately function. Social organizations are known to provide much backup to the armed forces. The Gurdwara Committees and in particular the efforts of the Golden Temple towards providing meal packets made by volunteers is one of the finest examples of cooperation and support. Disaster relief may be calibrated to lower levels over a period of time but societal support is needed exactly when this happens. Medicines, blankets, clothing, tents etc will remain in short supply. NGOs take over this effort and carry out yeoman service in setting up collection and distribution centres. Certain airlines have played a stellar role in providing free lift of logistic loads for various organizations and their efforts need to be lauded. The essential aspect is the distribution and not the collection; mismanagement is this can lead to much misery.
The survey of damage in the countryside has only just begun in Nepal, both on foot and by helicopter. This is a task by itself and casualty management, communications, food and medicine supply, shelter are all problems which will progressively face the relief providers. Human endurance too has limits and stamina starts sapping after some time as the logistics for the relief workers themselves cause a challenge. Many other countries are pitching in with efforts. It is essential to have a central information hub for the embassies at New Delhi to remain in touch with.
The lesson which must be clear is that no one can predict a disaster but institutional knowledge can overcome much of the effects with readiness and cooperation. Disaster management is a subject by itself and needs continuous buildup of expertise through training and exchange of experience. However, as said in the beginning, if the direction from the top leadership is effective, as seen in this case, there is increased professionalism at all levels to give that extra something in the face of such human suffering.