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Opportune Moment in History

There couldn’t have been a more opportune time to write this piece. Here we are, in a world overwhelmed by a biological disaster that, as of 10 Jul 2020 when I am writing this piece, has infected over one crore twenty-six lakh people the world over and killed almost six lakh. The USA, a ‘superpower’, looks fragile and vulnerable, with over 32 lakh infections and the number of deaths fast approaching 1,40,000. As an example of the terrible state of helplessness the famed ‘powers’ of Europe are facing, Britain has had around 3,00,000 infections and over 40000 deaths. We in India are beginning to realise that we aren’t headed for rosy times either, with known infections approaching nine lakh and the number of deaths breaking records on many passing days.

Worse is the fact, that no one has any idea as to how and when this pandemic will subside. Meanwhile, the virus continues to spread. Its source, ostensibly under investigation, is a subject of much speculation and international bad blood. People the world over are going through hell. Unemployment, poverty, inequality and uncharted depths of depression from unaccustomed forced lockdowns inside homes, are wreaking havoc.

Every generation encounters localised disasters of various intensities. But once in a long while comes along a global pandemic that causes cataclysmic destruction. The COVID 19 episode is one such, coming one hundred years after the previous one, the Spanish flu, which killed around five crore people worldwide. The COVID 19 episode has shown us the entire spectrum of the disruption possible from a true blood Biological disaster. Other than personal tragedies associated with the massive scale of death, the world over, production and consumption have been hit and supply chains lie fallow. The world’s wealth has diminished and the future looks bleak. Theories, policies, beliefs across a large spectrum of areas, from international cooperation to local disaster mitigation have been tested and many have been revealed to be meaningless.

So, this is an excellent time for reflection. But any thought that the world as a whole will learn serious lessons from this episode and move to restore a less chaotic, less strenuous, more cooperative, more benign, gentle world of milk and honey, is utopian. As long as humans rule this world, conflict and strife are assured. The regular chemical accidents we keep encountering, the unending terrorist action from Pakistan even in these times of Corona etc must convince us that each element of CBRN will remain ever relevant to India. The only sane option is to expect more disasters in the future and prepare international, national and local structures for mitigation. However, as the current happenings between WHO and the USA show, even international structures may not work when in real trouble and countries will turn inwards during such times.

National Security & National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA)

Though anything that had the potential to degrade the life of any citizen constitutes a national security issue, this view was accepted by the world only a few decades after the second world war. National security remained linked purely to military dangers till then. Today, with neighbours looking to exploit any little chink in our society to imperil us, there are plenty of ways in which non-traditional methods can be used to endanger our national security. As the necessity directly emanates from the security of the nation itself, the structures created for mitigation have to be necessarily uncluttered, nimble and above all, supremely empowered. The NDMA, with its present structure, mandate and functional architecture doesn’t appear to meet such lofty requirements.

History shows that bad times bring a combo of trouble and multiple problems tend to co-exist. For instance, during the Spanish Flu, despite tens of millions dying worldwide, the highly resource-intensive World War I continued, that too for several years. The same way, even during the current COVID 19 crisis, the world is seeing several traditional as well as non-traditional security challenges at play concurrently. Successful mitigation of these simultaneously is possible only at the apex level, ie, by the National Security Council itself. It is a question of balancing myriad fights, with limited resources, with the criticality of each challenge changing priorities all the time. It is the NSC alone which can achieve this. Offloading an important part like CBRN threats to an agency like NDMA and its subsidiaries is likely to result in failure.

Tsunami Effect

Despite the occurrence of various disasters since independence, especially the terrible Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984, it was only in 1999 that a High Powered Committee was set up for Disaster Management at the national level. Though this was followed by the setting up of a National Committee after the Gujarat earthquake of 2001 to make recommendations on the preparation of Disaster Management plans and suggesting effective mitigation mechanisms, it was the Tsunami of Dec 2004 that provided new vigour to the process.

India’s quick reaction in reaching out with assistance to Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Maldives, mainly through a massive deployment of the Indian Navy, duly supported by elements of the Army and Air Force, was a watershed event. India had reacted faster that the Americans in our region and that too when we ourselves had been hit by the Tsunami. The distinct capacity excess will act and competence that we displayed made the world sit up and take notice. This event led to India formalising its approach to disaster management with the Disaster Management Act (DMA) of Dec 2005 and the formation of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) subsequently. The critical lesson we must remember from this genesis is the unbreakable link the armed forces have had with disaster relief in India, and forever will retain, whenever India will face a disaster. Greater the disaster, greater will be the role of the armed forces.


It is acknowledged that with the enactment of the DMA, a paradigm shift happened in India’s approach to disaster management. This was a shift from post-disaster relief and rehabilitation to pre-disaster prevention and preparedness. Therefore, fittingly, NDMA’s stated Vision came to be, to ‘build a safer and disaster resilient India by a holistic, pro-active, technology-driven and sustainable development strategy that involves all stakeholders and fosters a culture of prevention, preparedness and mitigation’. This is comprehensive. But it is also a tough task to achieve this vision, especially in a complex country like ours. With the conviction that critical analysis and questioning the status quo contributes greatly to useful progress, I write the following.

Enduring Strength of Armed Forces

The armed forces have held centre stage in mitigating almost every major disaster in India because of certain advantages they alone enjoy among the various Government agencies in India. Salient among these are their size, training, discipline, equipment, organisation and the ability to innovate in the face of uncertainties. Also of importance has been the sheer geographic spread of the Armed Forces in our country. With all these, it was possible for them to effectively contribute to disasters in India, where about 58 per cent of India’s geographical area is earthquake-prone, 68 per cent is drought-prone, 12 per cent is flood-prone and eight per cent prone to cyclones.

Further, the large Indian Navy, and in some ways, the IAF too, have had long years of experience in helping many foreign countries in recovering from natural disasters. The confidence that the citizens and official machinery in India and in several countries abroad have gained from our illustrious past is immense. This cannot be allowed to wither away. Hence, it is important that the NDMA structurally embraces the armed forces much more than it does now.

Prevention & Preparedness

The shift of our Disaster Management doctrine from post-disaster relief and rehabilitation to prevention and preparedness comes with great responsibilities. Firstly, as disasters directly degrade national security and disrupt the lives of our citizens, the investment behind the new doctrine has to be without limits, always erring on the side of caution. Prevention demands major changes to our culture, in the way we view safety, our basic honesty, sense of responsibility to the community and discipline. In a country where the majority is bogged down in their daily struggles, and deeply weighed down by legacy societal baggage, expecting them to get converted is illogical. In this light, the present number of people the NDMA plans to train as trainers to spread awareness and the efforts being taken to influence the general public’s approach to safety and disaster prevention, appear inadequate. The gigantic effort involved in meeting the stated vision can be greatly offset with the use of as many as we can get from the large pool of about three million ex-servicemen in the country.

NDMA – Leadership

Though the NDMA has the Prime Minister himself at its head, it’s current manning appears inadequate. Though the DMA 2005 caters for up to nine Members at the apex level to provide leadership under the PM, only five have been filled. One retired General, two IAS Officers and two professionals in the field of disaster make up these five. It is important that the remaining four vacancies be filled with Officers from the Army, Navy and the Air Force, with at least one being a CBRN Specialist. Further, there are definite gains to be made by inducting more Armed Forces personnel qualified in CBRN, who retires from Short Service Commissions, into the NDMA staff. It is also useful if Members of the NDMA and the people under them are chosen for their qualifications and experience in the study and management of disasters, rather than by rank held.

Perils of Multi Agency Cooperation

As it often happens with Govt organisations in India, the mandate, structure and mode of functioning prescribed for NDMA are not likely to produce useful results. The sheer task of coordinating with multiple ministries is unwieldy. The National Executive Committee too is too unwieldy to be even gathered together easily. For meaningful results to be achieved, NDMA/ SDMA must have sweeping powers across departments.

Empowering Local Govt Bodies

However much we in India make our apex organisations strong structurally, there is no doubt that it is the robustness of systems and structures at state and local levels that can make mitigation of any disaster effective. Disaster after disaster has revealed the sarkar mai baap approach of the average citizen. This is an unfortunate mindset that originated and solidified during the long years of colonial rule. It was the result of the Benevolent Feudalism the British employed in their colonies. While local governments are supported with money, other resources, sharing of best practices etc, it is the general public that we must work on. Not an easy task in India, where much of the population is struggling to make a living or are distracted by a multitude of divisive issues.

Chemical,Biological,Radiological ,Nuclear(CBRN) & India

Traditionally, it is the armed forces that have shouldered the lion’s share of tasks during natural disasters in India. They have also been the most invested in the study and mitigation of the R and the N elements of CBRN threats. While the C element of CBRN has received some attention from civil society owing to a string of industrial disasters, the B element has lain somewhat under-addressed. It is important for us to build on the existing strengths, in order to achieve useful proficiencies at the national level.

Chemical Threats

Independent India has regularly faced chemical disasters. However, the industrial mishap at Vizag in early May 2020 that killed 11 and led to over 5000 being hospitalised remind us, that incidents like the massive Bhopal gas Tragedy that killed 5295 are not incidents from an industrially backward past, not likely to recur. Industrial accidents will happen again, owing to procedural mistakes, dereliction of duty, poor quality material used in creating infrastructure, poor maintenance or sabotage. It is well known that strict implementation of existing rules, strict periodic inspections and assured, expeditious exemplary punishment for violations will bring much relief in the future. However, realities like confrontational politics, social contradictions, poor levels of education and corruption have the potential to condemn the long line of our industrial disasters to perpetuity.

There are two steps for its mitigation. One is the induction of motivated professionals from the field of academics and social work into the disaster management system, along with executive powers akin to the bureaucracy. The second is to bring in qualified personnel from the vast pool of ex-servicemen available in this country. Combined, these two groups can effectively ensure the entire spectrum of preventive as well post-disaster measures, like enforcement of town planning rules for siting human dwellings in the vicinity of industrial areas, training the population on detecting and identifying chemical fallouts, enabling people to take care of themselves, creating an infrastructure for shelters, and developing methods to disseminate warnings with speed, devoid of confusion. Above all, it is strict enforcement of industrial safety regulations that can avoid chemical disasters. When an NDMA member was asked at a post-disaster press conference how they planned to ensure that disasters like the recent one at Vizag didn’t recur, his answer was that adherence to the existing rules simply had to be enforced. Mitigation of Chemical threats, therefore, is best done primarily through strong authority.  

Biological Threat

The COVID 19 pandemic has indicated how any amount of preparation can flounder in the face of a massive scale Biological disaster. Now that the destruction that a Biological attack can create has been practically demonstrated, the world will do well to unite against sinister agencies which would have noted the possibilities and may aim to employ Biological warfare.  

Though without the flashiness of a nuclear explosion, Biological threats hold the maximum potential for disruption in time, space and effect. As they are also relatively easy to perpetrate, they should receive the most urgent attention at the highest level. Hence, this should be directly under the NSC itself, with orders directly going to SDMAs, in order to avoid unnecessary levels of communication which cause delays. Here too, the armed forces, with their huge spread and capabilities should immediately be called in to help at the large scale required. A case in point is the unprecedented mass migration of labourers that happened as a result of the national lockdown. The armed forces could have done an excellent job of facilitating that mass movement, devoid of pitfalls brought on by politics.

Radiological & Nuclear Threats

While radiological threats through industrial mishaps can be expected to be rare, it is a possibility through dirty bombs emanating from countries where Govts are hard-pressed to protect their radiological assets. With nuclear threats too not easy to materialise in the modern world against pure civilian areas, actions for the mitigation of Radiological and Nuclear threats could be primarily left to the armed forces. Though the related orders would have to flow from the National Security Council (NSC), a small military authority and a large pool of nationally distributed, trained former military personnel could run the national effort in managing these two threats wherever they occur.

CBRN – Not Undetachable

Grouping entities not entirely connected with each other is a common trap. Sometimes such vestigial hyphenations are simply legacy groupings, made when much was not known about each entity involved. Separating each element and resolving the challenges around each is a practical solution. CBRN appears to be one such. Someone somewhere in the past linked them and we continue with it. Going by their characteristics, CBRN is best handled in three separate entities. C and B as independent entities and R & N as a third one.

Part 2 of this article will focus on the Mitigation of CBRN threats

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.