Three devastating earthquakes of 7.8, 7.6 and 6.0 magnitude struck Turkey’s South-eastern region bordering Syria in the early hours of 6 February. These were followed by a massive aftershock of 5.6 that hit on Tuesday.
The widespread destruction and ensuing death toll have, as expected in any major disaster, overwhelmed the local administration—there can never be enough responders in a major disaster.
As countries scrambled to assist Turkey, India was among the first to rush to assistance, prompting the Turkish Ambassador to India Firat Sunel to thank PM Narendra Modi, adding, ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’.
India's Prompt Aid
As news of the first set of earthquakes trickled in, India had commenced preparations to send disaster responders and assistance in its preliminary effort. And on Tuesday, the responders in form of two 51-member teams of its National Disaster Response Force (NDRF)—one led by Deputy Commandant Deepak Talwar, and the other by Commandant Gurminder Singh, left from Hindon Airport (Ghaziabad) for Turkey on-board separate Indian Air Force transport aircraft.
In so far as medical assistance is concerned, the Indian Army has despatched a field hospital to Turkey.
Presently, there are sixteen battalions of the NDRF, the largest disaster-response dedicated force in the world. The battalions are located at 40 locations across India, ie, sixteen battalion locations and 24 Regional Response Centres.
These locations have been chosen based on a pan-India hazard vulnerability assessment that ensures minimum response time. Every NDRF battalion has 18 self-contained teams with each team of 45 personnel comprising specialist manpower in form of medical officers, engineers, paramedics, technician, electrician, and a dog squad.
The 8th Battalion at Ghaziabad, intentionally located next to Hindon Airbase, is a de facto regional hub for both training and airlifting of responder teams to disaster zones within India and abroad.
NDRF- A lowdown
Well-trained and well-equipped as per international standards, the NDRF has carved a niche for itself as responders in both domestic and trans-national disasters. Since its raising in 2006, it has been utilising the India-adapted courses of the ‘Program for Enhancement of Emergency Response’ (PEER), particularly the Medical First Responder (MFR), Collapsed Structure Search-and-Rescue (CSSR), Urban Search-and-Rescue (USAR), and the Community Action for Disaster Response (CADRE) for training its personnel.
The PEER is a regional program supported since 1998 by the United States Agency for International Development’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance. Its roots lie in the Urban Search & Rescue program commenced in 1997 for Asia by the USAID - Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (Thailand) and Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department.
Renamed PEER, it got built on similar programs that were originally developed by USAID for Latin America (1983), the Caribbean and South Pacific (1990s). Launched in India and the broader region in 1998, the PEER was initially utilised for training personnel of the Central Armed Police Forces many of whom formed the core of the NDRF when it was raised.
The NDRF also trains many of its personnel along the guidelines prescribed by the United Nation’s International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG). The international dimensions of the PEER and INSARAG training enables the NDRF to work alongside and even integrate with local as well as international teams, and thereby, achieve synergy in the overall response effort.
Flexibility of Operations
The NDRF also familiarises itself with the protocols required for international teams to enter a country beset by a disaster, which is summarised below:
Despatch from India after clearance by the Ministries of Home Affairs and External Affairs, and after due liaison with the Embassy of India in the disaster-affected country.
Arrival at the nominated seaport / airport; joint reception by staff of the Indian Embassy and officials of the host country.
Border processing, immigration, customs, quarantine, consular liaison, security clearances.
Registering and briefing of teams.
Move to the International On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (situated close to disaster site).
Tasking of response teams by the Local Emergency Management Authority.
Commencement of response effort.
In sum: the NDRF is ideally trained, equipped and enabled to respond to transnational disasters, integrate itself with local as well as other international responders if required, and get to work immediately.
Quick-footed Medical Assistance
The Indian Armed Forces have three types of major assets they can deploy for quick medical assistance in the event of a disaster, (i) field hospitals of the Indian Army; (ii) the Rapid Action Medical Team (RAMT) of the Indian Air Force; and (iii) medical elements of the Indian Navy’s warships (the Navy does not have a hospital ship as of yet, though one is under acquisition).
The RAMT, a 25-bedded transportable, tent-based medical shelters, requires at least two lifts of a C-130 type of aircraft or more in case of a smaller aircraft. Configured to move at short notice, the RAMT has been utilised during the 2014 Srinagar floods, the 2015 Nepal earthquake, and the 2018 Kerala floods.
The decision to despatch the Field Hospital of the Para Brigade (Agra), along with its 89-member medical team is pegged around the Field Hospital’s exceptional capability to mobilise swiftly and deploy quickly as a vital component of airborne operations including in the enemy territory. Equipped with state-of-art equipment, it can commence operation of a 30-bedded medical facility within 4-6 hours of arrival.
India's Humanitarian Outreach to Turkey- the Larger Picture
While rendering humanitarian assistance to disaster-stricken people ranks among the highest service to humanity, such assistance also has strategic dimensions. Historically, national security has been synonymous with the term “enemy at the gates” and thus, it was assessed by studying frontiers, weighing opposing groups of States and alliances as also industrial might.
Accordingly, the destruction of the enemy’s main forces were the prime military canon for securing national security but in an interconnected, globalised world of digital businesses and economies, national security is also linked to a nation’s ability to project ‘soft’ power.
India, the world’s fifth largest economy with established, well-tested organisational structures, is no longer a net recipient of humanitarian aid, but has transitioned to a position of being a ‘provider of assistance in international disasters’.
In turn, this position potentially allows India to leverage its Disaster Management (DM) / Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief (HADR) operations abroad for furthering Indian interests particularly regionally, and thereby, secure both its interests through ‘soft power’.
It merits mentioning that humanitarian assistance rendered to people during their crisis times, is seldom forgotten. The assistance to Turkey during these darkest hours, aims to also fulfill all those strategic objectives.
(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)