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Role of Ex-Servicemen by Lt Gen O P Kaushik

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Author: Lt Gen (Retd) O P Kaushik

Much of the reason why the armed forces personnel fall quickly and easily into place in a disaster management situation is that they have a wealth of talent and skills in dealing with adverse situations.

That in fact is their metier and this article suggests that they can best be utilised as core groups in planning and executing of rescue, relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction in disaster areas in their natural habitats after retirement from active service. Given the need to keep the military young, most of them are able-bodied and skilled, but have to leave just past middle age. They have a lot of potential in them and this can be gainfully utilised in disaster management of all kinds.

In the aftermath of the recent tsunami in Japan, alarm bells have started ringing in India. Particularly, it is on account of nuclear reactors becoming affected by the combination of the earthquake and the tsunami deluge in Japan which could not be controlled for a long period. In fact, uncertainty still prevails in that country whether the reactors are safe and because of this fear people from likely affected areas have started migrating.

Bhopal gas spectre

India is in the process of buying and installing large number of nuclear reactors costing billions of rupees. Doubts have been raised whether India will be able to manage a nuclear disaster with no experience in this field whereas Japan has had earthquake disasters almost every day and has been managing nuclear reactors for nearly half a century. It is because of this uncertainty that people of Jaitapur in particular and Maharashtra population in general are now demanding cancellation of Jaitapur nuclear reactor. Earlier, we failed as a nation in controlling and managing Bhopal gas tragedy which in itself was a miniature nuclear disaster that resulted in over twenty thousand people suffering in terms of fatal casualties and permanent disabilities.

Bad record

We, in India, also suffer disasters in some shape or the other almost every day. Among the natural ones floods, flash floods, violent thunderstorms, forest fires, landslides, epidemics come to mind instantly. In the man-made category air strikes, both conventional and nuclear, sabotage of infrastructure like dams / power stations / roads / railways / bridges / water systems, poisoning of water supplies etc. are within realms of possibility. Terrorism is also a man-made and dangerous form of disaster as was made evident by 9/11 terrorist air strikes at New York’s World Trade Center and 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attack.

By their very nature, disasters come with suddenness that not only causes human and property loss, but overloads on administrative system that is geared primarily to routine civil operations. Just when help is most needed to save lives and property, the administration becomes handicapped because of the suddenness of the tragedy, damage to communications / infrastructure, unpreparedness to face the calamity and lack of regular training. Gujarat is a clear example of this. But things were no better after the Chamoli and Uttarkashi earthquake and large scale calamity spread by Latur earthquake in Maharashtra. Armed forces had to get involved in a big way to retrieve bodies from debris, start relief work in a planned and prepared manner, establish temporary hospitals and handled thousands of injured people and carried out last rites of thousands of dead bodies. It was shocking to know that civil administration refused to take on the task of disposing the dead bodies.

Contingency planning

Good contingency planning to meet the disasters is, therefore, an inescapable necessity. Whereas civil administration is keen to distribute relief grants after the disasters, it has no desire to plan and prepare to prevent a disaster or to fight it out on occurring which could avoid damages to human beings and the property.

Contingency planning for disaster management requires detailed plans to cover all eventualities, necessary communication plans, necessary equipment / supplies / machinery, leadership chain and trained human resources. Most important of all, this entire system should regularly and sometimes with surprise, be exercised such that their reaction times are consistent with the demands of a calamity. I had been involved in managing floods in Sultanpur Lodhi Sub-division of Kapurthala district in Punjab, flash floods of Kupwara district in the Jammu and Kashmir and as chief of staff of our Eastern Army in controlling yearly floods in Assam and other seven states of our north eastern region. My experience is that in our present system of administration such contingency planning is unlikely. The civil administrator has found an easy recourse to hand over the crisis situation to the armed forces and only come in when the relief material and grants are to be distributed. I have also experienced that on armed forces arrival in affected areas precious time is lost establishing necessary interfaces between the civil and military. Unfortunately, the civil administrator was found invariably busy in taking care of visiting political leaders. Because of this delay, substantial avoidable damage takes place. In managing disasters, it is absolutely essential that local experts get immediately involved in managing the crisis without becoming victims of formalities.

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