The Southern Naval Command (SNC) announced a disaster management exercise, Chakravath, in April 2018, jointly with the State Government which involved participation from various state agencies and NGOs. This four-day disaster management exercise following cyclone Ockhi was aimed at enabling all stakeholders involved in responding efficiently to natural disasters. The exercise also aimed to equip civil agencies to act and coordinate better in the event of a disaster and to display the operational readiness and efficacy of the Indian Navy in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR).
Only months after this exercise, on August 9, the Indian Navy launched Operation Madad, a 14-day long rescue drive in Kerala after the State Government sought the Navy’s assistance for carrying out search and rescue operations. Kerala was ravaged by severe floods following incessant torrential rains and the release of excess water from dams. Rescue operations of the marooned were conducted by the centre and state agencies including the Indian Army, Navy, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) on a war footing to help the state which was reeling under the weight of one of the worst floods in its recent past.
According to official statistics, the Navy deployed 92 rescue teams with Gemini boats, helicopters, divers and other HADR materials and rescued 16,843 people. In addition to the rescue operations, vessels of the Indian Navy, INS Mysore and INS Mumbai of the Western Naval Command transported provisions and relief materials from various parts of India. INS Deepak carried 800 tonnes of fresh drinking water along with other provisions to address the shortage of potable drinking water. Naval aircraft conducted sorties for airdropping relief supplies including food and medicines.
While the ability of state agencies and the armed forces to act in the face of disasters was put to the test, the Kerala floods saw the active participation of civilians in rescue efforts. This ranged from a huge army of volunteers engaged in disaster management utilising social media and messaging apps to coordinate rescue efforts, to fisherfolk who ventured into flood waters to save thousands trapped and stranded. According to the Minister of Fisheries, Harbour Engineering and Cashew Industry J Mercykutty Amma, Kerala fishermen rescued about 65,000 people from stranded areas using mechanised country boats of single and double engine with no prior training in disaster management or relief operations. The timely intervention of the fisherfolk in rescue operations reveals the necessity of a disaster management system with the active participation of multiple stakeholders. Such resources can act as a force multiplier, especially for the Navy.
Non-traditional security concerns including natural disasters cause severe damage to life and property and are therefore a threat to national security. There has been a marked increase in the role of security forces undertaking non-traditional security tasks including but not limited to HADR. Disaster relief falls under the broad spectrum of operations of the Indian Navy and is classified under the benign/non-military function of the Navy. Besides projecting national soft power and promoting civil safety and security through the distribution of logistical relief materials, the Kerala scenario exemplifies the Navy’s ability to engage domestically in benign tasks.
As disaster relief and rescue operations are removed from the broad ambit of hard security concerns and as they are non-military in nature, a coordinated effort by the security forces and local actors could deliver best results. It is therefore necessary to ensure synergy of operations between state agencies, local communities and civic groups and devise mechanisms for provincial, local and national level coordination to make disaster mitigation a national priority. This will also ensure preparedness which is crucial in mitigating the destructive effects of such disasters, enable a shift from a relief centric approach and maximise operational efficiency.
Notwithstanding the efforts of the armed forces in rescue operations, it is imperative to acknowledge the role of the civilians, especially the fishermen, in disaster management. This is particularly true in the coastal states that witnessed a spate of natural calamities; the fishermen were quick to access the affected areas and manoeuvre with their boats to rescue the stranded. With frequent natural disasters such as cyclones and floods affecting the coastal belt, there is a need to redefine the disaster management framework to introduce a shift to a more inclusive structure with the participation of multiple stakeholders. Adequate policy changes to include local actors as part of the disaster management guidelines by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and loosening the centralised top-down approach could be a welcome step in this regard.
The Fisheries Department of Kerala has come up with a proposal to incorporate the fishermen into a Sea Rescue Squad (SRS) in a phased manner after adequate training to tackle accidents at sea. They will thus be utilised in sea rescue operations and disaster management. In July 2018, the Fisheries Department proposed a certified training programme for select fishermen in National Institute of Watersports, Goa and Marine Training Academy, Mumbai in the aftermath of cyclone Ockhi. Kerala alone has about 10 lakh fisherfolk in its nine coastal districts with about two lakh actively engaged in fishing. Harnessing the skill and capabilities of this population would prove valuable in the face of natural disasters. Similarly, joint HADR exercises, training programmes, seminars and exhibitions along the lines of the recently concluded Chakravath could be continued to further coordinate efforts at rescue and relief, impart knowledge and identify key stakeholders, such as the fishermen.
The role of the fishing community as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the security architecture has been recognised and their services are enlisted in the coastal surveillance and security system. Fisherfolk are part of the Kadalora Jagratha Samithi, a protection group which collects information on suspicious activities at sea and reports them to the authorities. Proposals to strengthen the activities of this group have been floated at the coastal security coordination and review meetings conducted by the Joint Operations Centre (JOC), Kochi. Various state and national agencies could emulate this model of coastal security to promote the skill development of fishermen in disaster management and rescue operations, fine tune their operations and put them to wide use.
The strength, resilience and expertise of such local actors is a potential human force multiplier that augments the capabilities of the armed forces in disaster management.
*Shereen Sherif is a Senior Research Associate (Centre for Strategic Studies)
This article was first published on The Dialogue.