Share this Article

Part 1 of this article highlighted the threat due to Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) disasters. In this part 2, the author focus on the role of National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) towards mitigation of such threats.

Preparing the Population

The most difficult thing in India is making the general population aware of various dangers, training them to contribute to mitigation and making them understand that they themselves are the solution until specialist help arrives. This is best done through civilian structures and hence is one area where the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) can concentrate on. The Indian population, in general, is hugely deficient of a culture of safety. While it is possible to get some success through educating adults, the main effort should be among children, through school and community programmes. Training should therefore become a core area for the NDMA.

USA – A Fine Model

Govt organisations around the world tend to solve problems gone by and fail to adequately look ahead. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under the Department of Homeland Security in the USA is one such. This agency set up in 1978 – 79 was celebrated, till Hurricane Katrina happened in August 2005, causing $100 billion in damage and over 1,800 deaths. In the severe criticism that followed, FEMA underwent a major transition. However, it being a Govt organisation, some problems still remain. Some things that changed since Katrina and some which didn’t even after the experience of Katrina, are excellent indicators for us in our approach to disaster relief.


One was leadership. The Director of FEMA at the time of Katrina was a political appointee with no background of disaster relief activities, who had to retire in disgrace soon after the event. From then on, the leadership of FEMA is always with an experienced vertical specialist in disaster relief. Next was the change of disaster relief doctrine into a primarily ‘whole community’ approach that involved the private sector, community groups and common citizens in disaster preparedness. Here, care was taken to see that the private sector involvement was seen by FEMA as partners and not as subordinates. Another was the increased use of social media for information exchange between government agencies and civil society. The next was adopting a doctrine of prevention and preparation, going beyond mere re-building, which manifested in fine-tuning urban housing regulations, improvement to canal networks, roads and other infrastructure. Probably the most important was the great enhancement in authority for FEMA, which allowed them to move resources to disaster zones before the disaster rather than wait for formal requests from governors after the event. From then on, truckloads of food, water and tents would be positioned outside flood zones, waiting for rains to subside so they could be rushed to the recovery zone.

Personal Experience

This author has personally witnessed the above in operation when in the USA during Hurricane Florence in Sep 2018. We were scheduled to travel by road from Florida to Maryland and had to advance our journey by a day owing to the hurricane. As we dashed over 1100 miles that we had to cover – owing to the automatic redirection of traffic away from the coast to make way for citizens leaving the vulnerable areas and for disaster relief forces to move in, – we saw the massive mobilisation. Thousands of military vehicles, cranes, water bowsers, refrigerated trucks, fuel tankers, ambulances et al, were moving towards the areas likely to be affected. The radio gave reliable official information regularly and advanced computer modelling made accurate predictions. The President signed the necessary order to treat the event as an emergency well in advance and there was a reassuring feeling of someone being ineffective charge.

What Remains Unchanged

Foremost among these is the lack of sustained attention from the Dept of Homeland Security, whose priorities justifiably keep shifting. Despite the renewed focus since Katrina, FEMA still has limitations in its powers with respect to prevention and preparation, mainly in the area of deciding land use, zoning and development, which are made at the state and local levels. Further, politicians and bureaucrats at all levels of government have taken their eyes off disaster relief, leading to inadequate enforcement of legal norms and facilitation of violations under influence of various hues.  

Way Ahead

In its current form, the NDMA doesn’t appear to be adequately endowed to handle its entire mandate, which includes CBRN threats. Towards this, fresh central legislation for mitigation of NTSCs, akin to NDMA Act 2005 may be considered necessary. Further, as sweeping powers across ministries, as well as between the central and state governments will be required for effective control and coordination, especially during the preparation and post-disaster recovery phases, the National Security Council may have to be assigned the responsibility for operationalisation of the new legislation. An additional wing could be created in the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) for this purpose, manned in a large measure by members from the armed forces, both serving and retired.

The existing linkages could be strengthened and new, exclusive linkages created among NSCS, NDMA, NITI Ayog and concerned Ministries for ensuring a proactive and prompt response for mitigation of all Non-Traditional Security Concerns (NTSC). These linkages must adopt a unified functional approach between the Centre and the States, like what exists between NDMA and the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA).

Core agencies made up of vertical specialists need to be created separately for handling Chemical and Biological elements of CBRN from civilian backgrounds and a combined agency created for Radiological and Nuclear elements comprising of specialists from the armed forces. These agencies could be charged with making up the core handling teams at the NSCS in case of disasters, while NDMA could be tasked to concentrate solely on coordinating training and awareness campaigns in the country. It is a different kind of jointness that the country needs, in handling disaster relief in general and CBRN threats in particular.

The country is still awaiting a National Security Strategy document. Devoting a major part of this document to the management of NTSCs, especially CBRN threats, would pay many dividends. This document could make provisions for additional budgeting to meet the operating expenditure for the NSCS, NDMA and other entities involved.

Title Image Courtesy:

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies.

By Cmde G Prakash (Retd)

Commodore G Prakash, Nau Sena Medal, (Rtd,IN) served the Indian Navy for 36 years. He is a specialist in Air Warfare and Anti Submarine Warfare. He has had the honour of commanding three war ships and four naval bases. He has served at the Naval Headquarters, New Delhi, in the field of Naval Aviation Future Plans and Strategy, Concepts and Transformation. He has vast experience in Operations, Training, Policy Making and Human Resource Management. He has been lecturing over fifteen years at the national level on National Security, Doctrine & Strategy, Military History, Leadership etc and has lectured at the National Defence College, the War Colleges, at the College of Defence Management, Corporate bodies, Universities and Colleges. He is also a keen writer on a variety of topics.