First Responders

The Indian armed forces, like always, have been the first to offer their services to fight Covid-19

Smruti D

As Covid-19 cases rose rapidly across India, authorities from different establishments swung into action to contain the virus. The Indian armed forces, too, began to contribute in different ways.

Operation Rahat

On March 19, when a fresh batch of 175 evacuees from Iran arrived in India, they were taken to the Army Wellness Facility in Jodhpur. Prior to this, a batch of 277 evacuees from Iran were also taken to this centre. These evacuees were closely monitored by the army medical teams. This was done under ‘Operation Namaste’ introduced by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General M.M. Naravane on March 17 to extend help to the authorities managing the crisis.

Meanwhile, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen. Bipin Rawat informed defence minister Rajnath Singh of the availability of 9,000 hospital beds in 28 hospitals of the army, navy and air force. Fifty-one military hospitals across India arranged facilities including High Dependency Units and more Intensive Care Units (ICU) beds.

Five viral testing laboratories at armed forces’ hospitals were also made available for civilians across the country. These are Armed Forces Medical College, Pune; Command Hospital at Central Command, Lucknow and Command Hospital of Northern Command, Udhampur; Army Hospital (Research and Referral), Delhi Cantt and Air Force Command Hospital, Bangalore. Six more hospitals were said to be readied shortly with the required resources.

The army has put up quarantine facilities in Manesar, Kolkata, Chennai, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. The Jaisalmer facility is the military’s largest. Manesar is the first facility that was set up on February 1 and citizens who were evacuated from Wuhan were taken there.

The transport fleet of the Indian Air Force (IAF) supplied 60 tonnes of essential supplies, medicines and medical equipment to different parts of India. The IAF has put on standby 28 fixed wing and 21 helicopters in various parts of India for further assistance. They have been actively providing logistics support to civil authorities.

The IAF had earlier airlifted 25 tonnes of medical supplies like the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits, hand sanitisers, surgical gloves from Delhi, Surat and Chandigarh to Manipur, Nagaland, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.

The IAF’s C-17 Globemaster III carried out two overseas tasks of bringing back Indians and transporting medical supplies. The first trip it made was to China comprising crew, medical team and support staff carrying 15 tonnes of medical supplies to China and airlifted 125 Indians and few other citizens of ‘friendly foreign countries’ on its return. It also evacuated Indian citizens from Japan. It was sent to Iran, too, to bring back 58 stranded Indians (including 31 women and two children) and 529 samples for COVID-19 testing. The C-130J Super Hercules aircraft has ferried around 6.2 tonnes of medicines to Maldives.

The IAF has set up quarantine facilities in Dundigal near Hyderabad, Bangalore, Kanpur, Jorhat and Gorakhpur.

The Indian Navy has also been carrying out similar exercises. Six naval ships at Vishakhapatnam, Kochi and Mumbai have been taking supplies and medical equipment to India’s neighbours. Five medical teams were on standby for deployment in Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan. The navy has also set-up a quarantine camp at its base in Vishakhapatnam. It has also set up isolation facilities at its hospital INHS Asvini, Mumbai. Kochi Naval base, too, has been offering quarantine facilities for Indian nationals. Another quarantine facility is run by the navy in Mumbai.

The Indian Navy’s Naval Air Station (NAS) Utkrosh and Material Organisation, Port Blair carried out food distribution in Port Blair for 155 labourers working for the infrastructural development of the Air Station. Food and ration were distributed by the navy in Mumbai, too, for the stranded migrant workers on April 4 and 8 at Kamathipura area. As per reports, the armed forces have placed on standby five rapid-reaction medical teams to support SAARC countries too.

This, however, is not the only event where the armed forces have come forward to help the government in tackling a humanitarian crisis. Even in the past when natural or manmade disasters have hit India, the armed forces were called in as ‘aid to civil authority’ because of their manpower, technology and training. The Indian armed forces have proven successful in their mission of Human Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) in India and abroad in most cases.

Maj. Gen. Rajesh Singh (retd) says, “When crises occur, whether natural or manmade, they cannot be predicted, and in most cases when they are on a large scale, they cannot be managed by the existing arrangements or the civil authorities. That’s the time when the armed forces are called in as they have the capability.”

In 2013, when a series of flash floods hit Uttarakhand, one of the largest operations in several decades was carried out for the rescue and relief operations in the flood and landside affected areas of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. While the Indian Army called its mission ‘Operation Surya Hope’, the air force called it ‘Operation Rahat’, in which 83 helicopters were deployed.

The army had deployed about 8,000 troops and 150 Special Forces paratroopers for the search and rescue operations. Fourteen helicopters of the Army Aviation Corps were deployed which flew 737 sorties and transported about 30 tonnes of relief material. The helicopters were also used to establish a helicopter bridge at Govindghat which helped in reaching the devastated Joshimath faster. Engineer Task Forces built ropeways, makeshift rope bridges and foot bridges. Twenty-four medical teams and two psychologists were also deployed in disaster-hit areas from military hospitals. The army rescued more than 45,500 people.

The IAF brought in 45 helicopters and 13 transport aircraft despite the bad weather and managed to provide relief material and rescue people. The C-130J Hercules was used as a mobile weather platform, Airborne Command Post and as an Air Bridge. AN-32 aircraft was made use of as bridging equipment. The IAF flew 3,702 sorties, evacuated 24, 260 passengers and lifted 894.899 tonnes of relief supplies. The IAF later helped in building roads, communication links and shelters for the locals.

The Indian Navy had deployed two of its Marine Commandos (MARCOS) which undertook search and rescue operations at Haridwar. They also set up a community kitchen at Rudraprayag for about 500 pilgrims every day.

There have been claims in the past that the HADR exercises hamper war preparedness of the armed forces. During the 2013 Kedarnath floods, three helicopters of the air force crashed, killing the pilots and rescued people. While this claim may not be wrong as there have been accidents during HADR exercises, such incidents do not take away from the humanitarian work that the armed forces do.

A former navy officer, who did not wish to be named, says that what makes the armed forces good at HADR is the fact that they are continuously practicing to operate under tough, war-like conditions, albeit with all the precautions. He adds that the armed forces accept delays if the conditions are not suitable and that it is beneficial for them in a way that it trains them for war-like situations.

“We can in fact even counter-argue that HADR situations give us practice to do things that might come of use tomorrow in war, like being able to take calculated decisions. You also earn a huge amount of goodwill and it can help you if you are in some kind of war or conflict and have the citizens well-disposed towards you. It is enshrined in our duties, we continue doing it and it does not dilute combat readiness,” he says.


Services and HADR

Militaries in most countries have ‘disaster relief’ embedded in their programmes, which come handy in emergency situations. The militaries are trained to offer rapid response, aid distribution, protection and recovery. The role of Indian military has changed in the recent past where they have been the first responders during crises within the country and in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

HADR has a cycle — prevention and reaction. The Indian armed forces are not involved in the first process. It is only after the disaster strikes that the forces come in.

The Indian military is prepared to combat the aftermath of disasters even at a short notice because of its modern and unique capabilities, primarily in transport, logistics and communication. India, since Independence, has graduated from being a recipient of humanitarian aid to becoming a donor state. The armed forces possess several advanced capabilities like secure and robust communications, logistics, inventory management, rapid insertion and deployment of modular teams. They also have dominant presence in the Indian Ocean, strategic airlift capabilities, trained manpower and extensive distribution network.

The Indian armed forces have gone to neighbouring countries too for HADR missions. In 2006, during the Israel-Lebanon conflict, India evacuated 2,300 people including 514 from Sri Lanka, Nepal, US and Bangladesh. After the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and Tsunami, India rendered aid by deploying 32 naval ships, seven aircraft and 20 helicopters as part of five rescue, relief and reconstruction missions that were not only carried out in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Andaman Nicobar Islands but also to Maldives, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Due to India’s proximity to these nations, the armed forces were the first among other countries to reach these countries that are considered India’s maritime asset. In fact, within 12 hours, the first Indian naval helicopters were in Sri Lanka with immediate relief. After that, India extended help to Maldives and Indonesia too.

Operations in other countries ensure India’s goodwill among them. Maj. Gen. Singh says, “It’s an instrument of foreign policy. We go over there to spread our influence. So, whatever our national interests are, it becomes easier to pursue them as we ensure goodwill. For instance, as far as Nepal is concerned, there was an earthquake, we sent the army to carry out disaster relief and help out the local population. This creates confidence about India. When we need certain things from them in relation with national security, they are there to help us out. In case of Maoist insurgency, it is the native government that ensures that they don’t go and take shelter in Nepal. Nepal also has hydroelectric potential, so if they allow hydro projects there, then we can get electricity from there. It is beneficial both ways as India is getting its requirement and they are getting revenue out of it.”

In these relief efforts, India worked alongside various contingents of foreign militaries that came in to provide relief to the displaced people across Indian Ocean. These countries included the United States, Australia, Brunei, Spain, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea, France, Germany Norway and Switzerland among others.

By putting in rescue and relief efforts for other countries in their times of need, India is building interoperability with these countries. Another way of building interoperability with other countries is by undertaking joint-military services.

Indian Navy Operation Madad

Tiger Triumph was a tri-service joint-military exercise that the Indian military undertook with the US military. It was a nine-day exercise that was held in Vishakhapatnam. It was held solely with the purpose of establishing interoperability for conducting HADR operations. In 2018, the Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) and the IAF conducted their first joint air exercise dubbed Shinyu Maitri-1 that was meant to boost joint mobility and HADR. Another joint exercise was carried out by Indian and Chinese troops in Umroi, Meghalaya in December 2016, which focused on counter-terrorism scenario and HADR. The Indian Navy is generally at the forefront of HADR operations in coastal areas of India and the IOR region.


The former naval officer says that India with the US and other countries has had table-top HADR exercises in the past, Tiger Triumph being an exception. “Tiger Triumph was the first time that there was a live practical exercise, out of a setting. India and the US participated together and were given live situations and set of challenges to which they had to react to.”

On why such exercises are important, he says, “If you are a good runner, you would like to run with one. Similarly, for the forces, “at an operational level, it makes sense to get to each other’s practices and procedures, as HADR (on ground) can always include many countries working together, so it enhances their understanding and helps in interoperability. Strategically, country to country relations get better. As it is we have Malabar series of exercises, Tiger Triumph adds to it. Tiger Triumph involved all three services. By that you are not only increasing complexity, you are also making it better. It is an indication of greater bonhomie among nations as countries who trust each other, perform these exercises together.”

However, HADR exercises have not always worked in India’s favour. In April 2015, when an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude hit Nepal, India launched Operation Maitri for the rescue and relief of people in Nepal. But, a few months later, India imposed a blockade in between India and Nepal that disrupted the supplies that go from India to Nepal, which is a landlocked country. It had always been dependant on India for its basic supplies like fuel and medicine. This paralysed Nepal furthermore, as it hampered its economy with an already ailing condition in the aftermath of the earthquake. This gave China an opportunity to render its influence upon the Himalayan nation.

On India’s position at the time, Maj. Gen. Singh says that India had in 2013 done something similar in Bhutan and it was a ‘wrong thing to do.’ “What we did to Nepal also (by imposing) this particular blockade in which we stopped the supply of petrol and other essentials, should not have been done. It had adverse fallout. Nepal started leaning towards China and the latter had been looking for an opportunity like this one. China then started exports and imports with Nepal. They sent Nepal petroleum products and other essentials and that they could use China’s ports for exports. But because of the terrain and geography, it has not yet materialised the way it was planned. India did a wrong thing then and should take care to not do again,” he says.

He adds that India should treat Nepal on an equal footing and not let anymore Chinese influence over Nepal as “we have got lot of stakes as far as India and Nepal are concerned.”



Under the Disaster Management Act 2005, two bodies were constituted. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) is the supreme body when it comes to disaster management and was constituted in 2005 to plan, form and administer polices for disaster. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) was the other body constituted in 2007 for specialised response during disasters. It has a total of 12 battalions and each battalion consists of 1149 personnel.

However, during the 2013 Kedarnath floods and then during the Chennai floods in 2015, experts noted that the NDRF was mostly invisible and the rescue and relief efforts were carried out by the armed forces. This was because the Disaster Management Act does not give supremacy to the armed forces’ presence in such situations although it does mention that the deployment of armed forces may be done as it may be required for the purpose.

It is not that the NDRF is completely absent. They are on field doing the rescue work. They were in fact also present in Nepal during the earthquake. The reasons behind their lacklustre presence on field is primarily blamed on their fewer numbers as compared to that of the army and also because they have not been given as much attention by the central governments till date.

Director general, NDRF O.P. Singh had told an Indian newspaper in January 2016 that they had only around 13,000 men as compared to 13 lakh in the army.

The NDRF has a paucity of funds and lacks state-of-the-art equipment. During the 2018 Meghalaya mining accident, the operation to rescue 15 trapped miners was hampered due to the lack of equipment possessed by the NDRF. Their request for high-powered pumps had been pending for days. The high-powered pumps came in only three weeks after the mine collapsed.

Former director general military operations, Lt Gen. Vinod Bhatia says, “Indian armed forces are always the first responders. They do not look for requisitions. They just go and help out. Our nation cannot afford large forces in every domain as manpower costs money and HADR is not something that happens every day, and to keep a large standing NDRF will be a folly. What they need is specific equipment and training in case of disasters. A large NDRF is not required at all times as the armed forces are always there to supplement them given their pan-India deployment. Moreover, a national disaster requires all resources to be pooled in, from the armed forces, the central armed police forces, state police and civil administration to the non-governmental organisations.”


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