A major lesson learnt from the Bhuj Earthquake Disaster of 26 Jan 2001 was the nation’s paradigm shift from a ‘Relief-Centric Approach’ of the past to a ‘Proactive, Holistic & Integrated Approach’ for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), by way of strengthening disaster preparedness, mitigation, and emergency response. Thus was born India’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) in 2005. Since then the NDMA has undertaken numerous initiatives for DRR and Capacity Building for Disaster Management (DM) in conformity with the mandate under DM Act, 2005. This Act lays down an institutional & coordination mechanism for effective DM at the national, state, district and local levels. As mandated by this Act, the Government of India has created a multitier institutional system under the NDMA headed by the Prime Minister. It consists of the State Disaster Management Authorities (SDMA) headed by the respective Chief Ministers and the District Disaster Management Authorities (DDMA) headed by the District Collectors/ District Magistrate & co-chaired by Chairpersons of the local bodies. In each State/ Union Territory (UT), there is one nodal agency, for coordination of disaster management, referred as the ‘Disaster Management Department’ (DMD).
CBRN Incidents & Security Threats
Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) Disasters are caused by materials/agents that might be released due to some ‘Inadvertent Incident’ like an accident or a ‘Deliberate Action’ like a subversive activity by some miscreants. But in both the cases, a CBRN Eventuality has the potential to assume pandemic proportions. In fact amongst all the Disasters, probably only the CBRN ones possess this capacity to affect the entire globe, without respecting national boundaries. Uncontrollable and rapid spread of its adverse effect is what distinguishes it from other Disasters.
A simple Inadvertent CBRN Incident like the Delhi’s Mayapuri Cobalt-60 Radiation Exposure Incidence of Apr 2010 had exposed the faults and weak links of our entire CBRN Response Mechanism. In this incident, it had become apparent that both, the community & the governance, were not fully equipped & prepared for meeting such
situations. A threat to the life or property of Disaster affected population or to the relief providers from petty thieves and local looters always existed. But till very recently, this was never to the integrity of the Nation.
The Police were able to take care of such low level threats. Probably for the first time, in the Disaster Management Operations during Kashmir Floods of 2015, the Security Forces were forced to carry armed weapons while providing relief, to simultaneously address two fronts– of Safe Evacuation, Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Support and of remaining vigilant to the constant threat of a terrorist intervention to their Disaster Support. It is an irony that they had to dedicate a Force to guard against terrorist and Anti National Elements (ANEs) for enabling smooth conduct of Disaster Relief Operations, even while their own families, houses & offices needed to be rescued. This is akin to a wartime situation where the Infantry provides security cover to the Combat Engineers for facilitating smooth execution of Bridging & Mine laying Operations.
So, is a CBRN eventuality a war-like incident? Probably yes. A plausible threat of utilizing the CBRN agents by well organized ANEs & terrorist organizations, are based on immutable ideological principles and have significant financial backing, for pursuing their nefarious aim, does exist. The recent COVID19 Crisis of 2020 has clearly proved that the thin line between an inadvertent CBRN Emergency/Disaster and the deliberate use of a CBRN Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD), has further blurred. In the times to come, these two domains are sure to merge, giving rise to the Concept of the aggressor nation Engineering a CBRN Disaster in invisible battlespaces (wherein the target nation does not even know that it is under a CBRN attack). In this crisis, China is believed to have already waged such an ‘Invisible War’ to assert its economic power over the western developed nations. A more active involvement of Armed Forces in the Management of CBRN Disasters is therefore an urgent need of the hour that the NDMA needs to recognise.
A major lacuna in the way CBRN Disasters are managed is in the way the aspect of ‘Security’ is dwarfed by ‘Safety’. Security means putting in place procedures or measures designed to protect the population against harmful CBRN substances. These preventive measures include a combination of systems and practices put in place at laboratories, by border control, customs agents, agricultural and natural resource managers to prevent the spread of dangerous pathogens, toxins or radiological material.
India has a robust legislative system to combat Safety issues, refined and strengthened over the last four decades. The National biosafety and bio-waste activities are governed by legislations through State Health Ministries and Environment Ministries (Pollution Control Boards). Under the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme, a network of public laboratories with biosafety practices and infrastructure is also being set up. But sadly, ‘Security’ still remains a stepbrother of ‘Safety’.
The Way Ahead
So what should be done? In short, I feel that greater involvement of Armed Forces in the NDMA’s Pre-Disaster Management activities will help formulation of more holistic DM plans and therefore their more efficient execution. In specific, their suggested involvement could be increased in the following ways/areas:- Coordination – A ‘National CBRN Experts Group’ be created under the NDMA, with active involvement of the Armed Forces amongst others. Other experts, scientists and agencies can continue to render advice on specialist issues as hither-to-fore. Need for Training – While today’s CBRN training of NDRF battalions is grossly below the desired standards, most States are yet to even raise their SDRF battalions in required numbers. Their training in management of CBRN Disasters and that of the other State Govt agencies like Police and Civil Administration is almost nonexistent. Even amongst the Armed Forces, while there is a satisfactory awareness about CBRN Protection Measures, in the absence of sufficient equipment to put this to practice, their overall training standards are far from satisfactory. Their Medical fraternity may be the most dedicated and very competent to handle such eventualities, but their formal training in ‘Management of Contaminated Casualties and Contaminated Dead’ in the required numbers, is almost non-existent. So, organised, formal, coordinated and nation-wide CBRN Training of all stakeholders and its continued conduct becomes the most important requirement to be addressed. Conduct of Training – The training of entire National Security Community is required to be conducted in an integrated manner so as to be well prepared to prevent, detect and respond to CBRN emergencies. The Armed Forces already have a world class training institution where training is conducted at its well equipped campus on both the aspects – CBRN Protection and DM. NDMA’s Delhi based National Institute for Disaster Management (NIDM) should consider this Pune based Armed Forces Faculty of CBRN Protection at College of Military Engineering (CME) as its Specialist Training Campus to conduct integrated training there. This Faculty also needs to be designated as a Knowledge-Repository of all CBRN Disasters aspects like Training, Concept Development, Qualitative Requirement (QR) formulation, Equipment Trials and Advisory. Human Resource – Raising, Training & Equipping of CBRN teams of NDRF & SDRF Battalions for optimal initial response be not done by the MHA in isolation but be done taking into consideration the CBRN response capabilities of Armed Forces. CBRN Equipment Resource – There is a dire need for provisioning CBRN Equipment to execute tasks related to Protection, Surveillance, Detection, Decontamination/ Sanitisation and Area Demarcation. It is a matter of concern that in accordance with the MHA’s policy, although the Armed Forces have fulfilled their responsibility of a nation-wide NDMA designated deployment of Quick Reaction Teams (QRTs) and Quick Reaction Medical Teams (QRMTs), for reacting to CBRN Emergencies, the MHA itself is yet to even release funds for their equipping. This shows a lack of seriousness at the highest level that needs to be urgently addressed. Likewise, ‘Management of CBRN Casualties’ looks to be an easy task to attempt. But when seen from the context of their massive numbers in very little time (as in the COVID19 Pandemic of 2020), execution of its various facets like Casualty Evacuation, First Aid, Triage, Decontamination, Detention, Treatment, Disposal and Management of Contaminated Dead, all to be done by the same Medical Staff, becomes a massive challenge that requires resources (funding, equipment and training).
In conclusion, it can be said that a lot of pre-disaster activity that should happen as a matter of routine, is actually not taking place. For example, even today the ‘NDMA’s Guidelines for Management of Biological Disasters’ that were published in July 2008 when NDMA was raised, have not yet been revised. Even in the recently released ‘National Disaster Management Plan of Nov 2019’ not much updation of the initial Guidelines has been done. There is an urgent need for the NDMA to move away from treating the Armed Forces only as their Executive Arm. Even when the mandate is to rightly deploy them as a last resort, experience shows that they invariably get sucked in much earlier, mainly due to their proven reputation of being the most dependable, sincere, honest, efficient and a disciplined force that has never failed the nation. The COVID19 Crisis too has proved this aspect when the medical and other resources of Armed Forces were deployed in the numerous Quarantine Camps all over the country & abroad, much before or alongside the Nation’s so-called First Responders. Mind you, the anti-terrorist activities, handling of deliberate anti-national activities like Tablighi Jamaat & Mass Migrants Movement etc have been going on alongside these Pandemic Relief Operations. Hence, in the times to come, the Armed Forces need to be more actively involved in the NDMA’s pre-Disaster Management Stages like Policy Making, Formulation of DM Plans, Drafting/Updating of SOPs, Developing Strategies, conceiving of training content and for Conduct of Training jointly amongst the Armed Forces, the PMFs, the Government Machinery, the Industry, the Organised Forces (Civil Defence, NCC etc) & the Citizens.
Brig Anand Thakur, Retd
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