The Indian media’s insensitivity towards the tragedy and its management might have displeased the Nepalese, resulting in the decision to free the territory from foreign forces.
Operation Maitri is progressing well and the rescue and relief efforts by India’s disaster management agencies has been much appreciated over the last ten days. The sheer magnitude of the disaster in Kathmandu and the other areas of Nepal required an international effort and not just a regional one. As a result many nations joined in, bringing relevant modern technology to the disaster zone.
However, things suddenly started to get sour when Nepal very politely announced that the rescue phase was over and only relief efforts were required hereafter, necessitating that rescue teams (mostly uniformed) should withdraw from the scene. Obviously, this meant that various teams mainly involved in search, and many of them uniformed, were given directions to depart leaving behind those involved in aspects such as medical care, setting up of camps and community kitchens, reconstruction etc., all of which required more sustained long term efforts.
For a poor nation like Nepal it is not possible to execute disaster related operations on its own, especially when the effects of such disaster are not restricted but cover a very large part of the nation including remote areas. Yet, certain sensitivities have come in the way of the seamless operations after the initial efforts led by India and joined in by as many as 34 nations, including China and Pakistan.
Some reports indicate that it was the insensitive and intrusive Indian media whose efforts were perceived as being jingoistic which resulted in Nepal being irked. Till now, the entire decision is shrouded in mystery.
The only reported statement was by the Nepal Army Chief, General Gaurav Rana, who profusely praised the Indian effort as well as that of other countries and agencies while also announcing the government’s decision to ask the rescue personnel to leave. Much had to be read between the lines because the Army Chief kept it diplomatically ambiguous, not defining whether it was only uniformed rescue teams or even others who were asked to leave and whether medical efforts led by those in uniform were to be curtailed. An element of geopolitics was suspected in the entire decision and the timing, which was just nine days after disaster struck on an unprecedented scale.
This is not the last time that India will be involved in aiding and disaster management in neighbouring countries. The region is prone to disasters. In the wake of climatic change as well as the uncontrollable seismic related threats to the fault line areas there will be more occasions and perhaps more frequent.
The Nepal experience could come in handy in preparing for future physical rescue and relief efforts on regional basis, as well as handling the inevitable diplomatic fallout. The issues likely to be thrown up in any such disaster would revolve around the speed and quality of initial rescue, build-up of relief resources, execution of the efforts commencing from the visible disaster zone and moving towards the less visible areas as the information build-up progresses, and handling of information about the state of rescue and relief (including human interest stories).
In addition, information about the commitment of the international community’s efforts will need to be brought out to the public. There will be rescue and relief aspects to dwell upon as well as the diplomatic and media/information related issues which may become sensitive.
Developing nations suffering from disasters are usually sensitive about two things; one, the fact that it is ego bruising to ask for international efforts and extremely humiliating to be questioned and criticised by the home population about operations which will never be in a state to meet all the demands of such turbulent situations; two, that given permission, there is virtually uncontrolled access that foreigners have to sensitive areas. Add to this the fact that there are geo-political sensitivities involved and the period of deployment of foreign uniformed personnel, although temporarily, welcome cannot be extended unendingly.
In the case of Nepal, India is well known to have a special relationship including the linkages between Gorkha troops and the Indian Army. Public opinion in India has tremendously been in favour of extending all assistance to Nepal. The efforts of the armed forces, NDRF and NGOs have been lauded by the public but with surprising maturity, the public has also supported Nepal’s right to sovereignty and dignity.
The people, as evident from social media, are also livid with India’s visual electronic media for apparent insensitivity and attempts to oversell the performance and contribution of the Indian agencies. The accusation is that the attitude has amounted to being condescending. In one of the TV panel discussions it was Shobha De who pointed out how inexperienced correspondents are sent into field assignments without any sensitisation and training, treating tragedy as just another event. Where mature anchors were present and reported from the spot the difference could be felt.
There is no doubt that the national leadership provided proactive lead and took the initiative very early, just as it should. All agencies involved with disaster management, to include National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), Army, Air Force and all others responded most professionally and in time. However, for many years these very organisations were accused of being extremely poor at information management. Now that there is proactivity in this field, there is further accusation of oversell. Such accusations were also made during the Kashmir flood.
What then are the final lessons for regional response in disasters of the future?
Firstly, it is time that, under SAARC or an independent regional initiative, the lead disaster management authorities of respective countries must be networked. There must be mutual consultation on resource availability and the absence of particular resources must be identified so that there is clarity about the need from third parties.
Secondly, it will not be difficult to conduct dry training exercises and discussions between the players of different countries, exchange concept papers and expertise in order to identify core relief agencies such as medical organisations and engineer task forces. It may be time to look beyond just uniformed personnel and civilianise most of these fields to overcome the sensitivity of deploying military personnel on the soil of other countries. It will be difficult to overcome geopolitical sensitivities but more engagement between civilian agencies will be of assistance, to a great extent. The role of external agencies whose core role is relief, such as ICRC and Medicine Sans Frontiers, needs to be formalised to avoid ambiguity which delays their expertise and resources. Even if formal roles are not envisaged for the initial stages, the inability to forecast the extent and magnitude of disasters does demand that stand-by roles be earmarked so that extreme contingencies are catered to.
The time has come to formalise the role of media and all aspects of information management. Training of media persons, in particular their sensitisation to handling of human tragedy is a dire necessity. India, with its large media footprint should take the lead. It is time that a lead government agency be tasked to act as the point of contact for formal government release of information and respond to queries. The freedom given to every individual agency to issue its own media releases is proving to be counterproductive. It may also be necessary to formalise communication arrangements.
Perhaps the NDMA’s expertise has yet to be fully exploited in the field of concept, resource allocation and training. As the foremost body there is it has everything it needs to be treated with the respect it deserves. For regional contingencies as much as national ones its leadership role is crucial. While the Nepal contingency has proven invaluable in terms of the experience gained, the lessons from it must be identified early and the geopolitical aspects of disaster relief must be accorded as much importance as the technical lessons which have emerged in plenty.