Disaster management and internal security (Column: Spy’s Eye)

India is among the five most vulnerable countries as far as natural disasters are concerned. Such a disaster comes unannounced — there cannot be any Intelligence on earthquakes — but a lot has been done in India following the Disaster Management Act passed by Parliament in 2005 to identify geographical segments that were prone to different kinds of natural disasters and fix a framework for handling them.

Under the Act, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and its counterparts in states and districts were created to evolve a national disaster management plan and build the machinery for implementing it. The authority is headed at the national level by the Prime Minister himself — Chief Ministers and the District Magistrates chair it at the state and district levels. NDMA has been able to determine areas that were vulnerable to seismic events, tsunami, floods, avalanche and cyclones and define measures to be taken to mitigate their impact in terms of loss of life and physical assets as also rehabilitation of the affected people. This is a huge challenge and it is a matter of great national achievement that India has under the DM Act established an extremely well-developed National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) that has 12 Battalions specially trained and equipped, located across the country. This is the largest specialized disaster response force in the world.

The NDRF has proved its worth in different kinds of disasters by rescuing people, protecting precious property and helping out with the shifting and rehabilitation of those rendered destitute because of a natural calamity. Its commendable work in Japan where an unprecedented earthquake hit Tohoku region in March 2011, was acknowledged by the Japanese Prime Minister. NDRF serves the cause of national security by protecting national wealth against natural disasters and minimizing the loss of human lives — economic security, it may be mentioned, is now considered inseparable from national security. Also, it is carrying the awareness and education on disaster management — including instructions on what could be done by a citizen at his or her level to mitigate the impact of a natural disaster — right to the student community. NDRF personnel are basically drawn from para-military organizations and are familiar with the internal security turf.

The function of disaster management is with the Ministry of Home Affairs that is basically responsible for all aspects of internal security of India. Security has two segments — advance information called Intelligence that helps to take preventive measures and arrangements for making an effective response in case the adversary was able to inflict an attack. NDRF has a built-in security orientation because its mission is not only to handle disaster response but also work for disaster risk reduction on the basis of vulnerability of an area to a known disaster. Considering the fact that NDRF deals with the impact of natural disasters, it is basically a force without firearms since its capabilities lie in the realm of rescue, protection and medical aid of the injured. The Covid pandemic tested our disaster management in the area of health crisis and that too in an unprecedented situation where the challenge existed across the length and breadth of the country affecting millions of people simultaneously. The decision-making ability of the political leadership of the government and the policy implementation capabilities of the administrative machinery showed up well — taking into account the fact that new paradigms were being revealed by the experts in an ongoing fashion and nationwide communication of the guidelines for the people in both urban and rural segments was itself becoming a formidable task.

It is understood that NDRF has in its mandate the responsibility of responding to Chemical, Biological, Radioactive and Nuclear (CBRN) emergencies as well, though its primary function that keeps it occupied is the work thrown up by natural disasters like earthquakes, floods and cyclones that involved large rescue and relief operations. A point of attention in regard to NDRF’s charter for the future would be an enlargement of its role as a responder to large manmade disasters falling in the CBRN sphere. The world is moving from the times of open warfare to an era of ‘proxy wars’ or covert offensives and terrorism — that heavily banked on high grade explosives — had become a prime instrument of the new ‘asymmetric’ war. Terrorists can attack strategic and sensitive establishments, markets and public transport and resort to chemical and gas attacks.

The corona pandemic has set off a debate on whether it was a natural health disaster or something with a manmade origin somewhere. Biological warfare is a term that is now well understood by all countries and security experts. A radioactive or nuclear mishap is also within the realm of possibility and that is why a large effort is made by all concerned nations to secure establishments where research in these spheres was done or where nuclear arsenal was housed. Cyber attacks are a major present-day threat and they can be used by the enemy to cause a disaster by disrupting strategic communication and information systems.

In a welcome move, NDRF has offered the state police training programmes for capacity building and also help in the raising of State DRF. It will be good to enlarge the orbit of first responders to threats to internal security — who normally are the state police and special task forces — and use the resources and skills of NDRF and SDRF to strengthen the hands of the state police in this regard. NDRF and SDRF are normally headed by officers with experience of paramilitary forces and as part of the preparation for inducting them also for responding to terror attacks or any other large-scale damage to life and property caused by an adversary, the senior officers of the disaster response forces at the levels of Contingent Commanders and above, may be equipped with arms on a need basis. Apart from the armed personnel who would be required to confront or apprehend any suspects at the scene of occurrence, the responding force should be able to deploy its members trained in the skills of reaching out to individual victims of attack in a large area of operation, for rescuing them and arranging medical and other help to them.

A scenario of this kind, for which the nation has to remain prepared, requires a combination of police action and disaster response. The corona pandemic was a health crisis of national scale and its handling must have proved to be an orientation exercise for NDRF for working in consonance with the state police machinery. A manmade threat that affected a large section of population in varying degrees would throw up enough tasks for both police and the disaster management personnel. The Ministry of Home Affairs also has under it the NSG, which is a specialized force trained for handling hostage operations. All crisis situations, ranging from a natural disaster to a major attack on internal security, need coordinated responses that are best directed by the MHA.

NDRF lays a lot of emphasis on training as newer situations arise in the management of disasters. The training programmes should be enlarged to include joint operations of disaster management and state police personnel and mock drills can be framed to cover different situations. Coastal security is a good illustration of how marine police stations and disaster management organization could train together for handling a crisis like tsunami or cyclone. Railway Protection Force (RPF) can also be included in joint training drills with state police and SDRF for handling a train disaster. This must be happening already and has to be taken further to cover all likely scenarios. In the sphere of CBRN threats, in particular, there will be a role for Intelligence agencies of alerting all responders through the system of nodal officers. There is a well-established practice of Intelligence coordination at the Centre and in the states through Multi Agency Centers (MACs) run by the Intelligence Bureau — the mother agency responsible for internal security. Functional integration of state police and Disaster Response Force for handling both natural and manmade disasters is a futuristic requirement of national security.

(The writer is a former Director of Intelligence Bureau)