Home Managing Disaster Response - Role of the Armed Forces

Managing Disaster Response - Role of the Armed Forces

The role of the armed forces in disaster management has been in debate for quite some time now. There are two divergent views on this -- one recommends dampening our response and discourages over-enthusiasm; the other recommends a larger, proactive and more participative role. However, while the former is not really convincing, the latter view too is not persuasive enough. But, is this debate really justified?

As far as the basic role of the armed forces is concerned, there is no ambiguity. It is secondary, mainly by way of providing assistance to civil administration. What perhaps is required is to mutually decipher, interpret and define the nature of tasks that would have to be undertaken during contingencies and crisis situations. A legitimate response has to be efficient and effective, executed in a professional manner. But, the role has to be essentially limited to immediate response after the disaster and would not involve active participation in other stages or phases of disaster management, which primarily fall in the realm of governance.

Therefore, the debate on the role per se is perhaps unwarranted. What is more critical is in-house deliberation on the implications of the role, in terms of well defined and explicit tasking without which organizing, training and equipping a force or establishment would be a difficult proposition. A kind of reorientation is thus certainly justified to facilitate the forces to be in step and in sync with the changes. Clarity in tasking would significantly contribute to better preparedness and help in responding effectively and efficiently.

Traditionally, the armed forces have been forming the core of government response and the government’s viewpoint on their role has been very positive. This was most evident in the statement of the Indian Prime Minister during a seminar on the subject in Dec 05. Made in the backdrop of fresh memories of tsunami, avalanche and snow storm, followed by earthquake in J&K, he said,

“The world over, without exception, all governments have involved the Armed Forces whenever a disaster strikes. They are invariably the first to respond and quickest to reach the affected area. As has been increasingly observed in recent cases across the world, the men in uniform have played a stellar role in mitigating and alleviating the suffering caused by disasters.”

Despite such appreciation, however, the government’s stated viewpoint does not get reflected and rationalized so explicitly in the formal and legal format. Disaster Management Act 2005, an important instrument that rationalizes the role and functions of various establishments and brings in a sense of accountability and responsibility, is surprisingly silent on the aspect of assigning well-defined role and responsibilities to the armed forces. It merely includes a brief and insignificant mention, “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”.  The inference that can be drawn, therefore, is that the government/ bureaucracy, despite lauding the role of the military, is nevertheless not keen to explicitly formalize or legitimize the role.

It is beyond doubt that disaster management is a function of governance. The role of military is secondary.  Again as the Prime Minister rightly pointed out during the First India Disaster Management Congress held in November 2006,
“Our disaster management administration is an integral part of overall administration. We cannot improve the quality of disaster management in isolation. Nor should we create parallel structures at the cost of regular administration. An improvement in disaster management has to be an integral part of the improvement in governance at all levels, especially in district administration.”

Another aspect that needs to be considered is the mid- and long-term perspective of the role that the armed forces the world over may be expected to play in the changing regional and global scenarios. The ever-increasing spectrum of operations is spreading to other fields not only within national boundaries but also beyond. The expertise essentially viewed as ‘combat specific’ could deliver itself effectively in other fields too. A meeting of Army Chiefs of 19 nations in Sydney in August 2007 in the lead-up to an Asia Pacific Summit to discuss counter-terrorism, peace keeping and other areas of joint concern such as disaster relief, is an indicator of this trend.

In view of the above, it may not be entirely incorrect to assume that armed forces, even in the absence of an explicit formal and legal support would continue to remain an important stakeholder in the national endeavor to manage and fight disasters. The military will continue to form part of the “Core Group” for immediate response, despite National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and other organizations.

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O S Dagur

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