February 6, 2001
Wing Commander Ravindra Parasnis (retired)
Call in the ex-servicemen
Any natural calamity -- especially one of the magnitude that struck Gujarat on January 26 -- causes loss of life and destruction of property on a mammoth scale. It also results in all kinds of aid -- food, finance, medicine, material (in terms of clothing, blankets and the kind) and shelter (tents, mobile homes) -- from all the corners of the world.
As a result, there is further strain on the already precarious methods of transport. And, as aid and volunteers continue to pour in, chaos reigns. Matters are made worse by severe damage to bridges, railways, roadways and communication facilities. In such crises, the government machinery is always found inadequate. Which is why non-governmental organisations, fired by their zeal to help the distressed, are the best solution under the circumstances.
Methods of disseminating relief
- Too many good-intentioned NGOs with barely any co-ordination between themselves.
- The territory is unfamiliar, hence they find it difficult to travel, identify and reach the genuine victims.
- The language barrier and lack of means of communication are other stumbling blocks.
- The most pressing problem is the just and equitable distribution of aid.
- Once they are relieved of their distress, the victims tend to become greedy.
- Opportunists and criminals are always on the lookout to make some easy money. And it is difficult for the volunteers to distinguish between the genuine and the fake, unless they actually live with them. Criminal elements have to be opposed by force if necessary and scared away, or apprehended and handed over to law-enforcement agencies.
- Often, the administrative machinery is seen to co-operate with the opportunists.
- The volunteers soon have to return to their own lives, leaving the NGOs with a severe shortage of dedicated manpower.
- Building shelters and handing them over to the deserving victims is a long-term task and needs a different type of expertise.
- The quickest -- and costliest -- method is to airdrop food, medicines and blankets/clothing; unfortunately, its very nature necessiates that no records can be maintained. Besides, Indian civilian agencies have neither the aircraft capable of dropping supplies nor crews trained to do the same. Drops, as a result, are only possible through the Indian Air Force. This requires central government permission, which is easy to obtain under the prevailing circumstances. The government, however, reserves the right to decide if and where such airdrops should take pace, since the method is wasteful, risky and without accountability, even if the donors are prepared to bear the cost. In the present situation, though, the government is airlifting the supplies for free. Airdrops may be undertaken as a last resort, but the need to do so is not seen at present. Payment, if required (it is not the case under the present circumstance), for the services provided by the Air Force is made to the ministry of defence; there is a clear procedure for the same.
- Donors may hand over the aid to the government for further distribution at their discretion. But they have neither the responsibility nor the choice in deciding who their aid should go to.
- Alternately, the donor agency may request that their goods be airlifted to the required destination. This is normally done by the IAF, the national airlines or any other aircraft at the disposal of the government.They will have to receive their goods at the airport of landing and undertake distribution on their own from there on. The government will, if asked, help ensure proper distribution by identifying areas and victims. Prior liaison with the appropriate government department to obtain the necessary permission is, however, a must. The government of Maharashtra has also opened a special cell for the purpose.
- The donor agencies can also charter their own aircraft and request permission from appropriate liaison departments of the government for flying the aid into the desired airports, since normal civil flying and air defence rules are applicable to the aircraft flying in. Aircraft coming from abroad will be subject to customs and security checks. At present, access to military airfields within the disaster area, such as Bhuj, Naliya, Jamnagar, etc, has been relaxed to facilitate relief operations.
- Serious relief work is only possible if a proper organisation, with a proper chain of command and divisions for collection, transportation, storage, security and distribution of free aid, is created. It should facilitate the building of temporary and permanent shelters, clean and hygienic living arrangements with camp site kitchens and toilets, waste disposal, water for drinking and hospital camps. It should maintain proper records and allow for proper accounting/ audit of resources.
- Long-term measures must include building homes for the survivors. The construction should be light, longlasting and somewhat quake-proof. One also needs to impart education and vocational training to create a sustainable means of livelihood for those without any support.
- Those who undertake relief work will find interaction with the government's administrative machinery and the army inevitable. Access to many places will be blocked by the army to stop the plunder of unprotected assets. Besides, the initial identification of the victims and the affected areas is possible mainly through the government departments and their liaison cells. All this may sometimes prove problematic, but the process of working together can be smoothened. After all, the end-goal of all relief work is common. Both the government and the army have their own peculiar ways of functioning; the relationship with them needs to be delicately nurtured in order to achieve optimum results.
It should be possible to put together a dedicated force of about 20 ex-servicemen who can immediately proceed to the area struck by disaster. They would be capable of handling the project independently, if so desired. They will be resourceful enough to organise storage and security and will use local ex-servicemen to aid their effort. They can undertake long term projects as many of them are available for long term employment and can be easily motivated to stay in remote areas.
- Though most NGOs will bring in their regular employees, they will still need more manpower to help them in their work. Corporate donors prefer not to involve themselves directly in relief work; they only require regular feedback from the NGOs and some cursory supervision/audit. This does not mean the NGOs will recruit permanent employees.
- Tapping local social workers/ bodies is another way to obtain human resource. They are generally available for short durations, even though they have their own social agendas. The early birds may also be able to tie up with workers/organisations for a longer duration.
- Ex-servicemen are a definite source of disciplined and able-bodied men. They are used to a rough life and, in all probability, have participated in one kind of relief operation or the other during their active career. They are used to camp life, pitching tents, running mobile kitchens and are generally honest and hardworking. Ex-servicemen have the added benefit of working in close co-operation with the army, besides having hands-on experience in supervising civil work.
- A command and control centre could be established in Bombay, with co-ordination centres in various places in Gujarat. The operational units, which could work at pre-selected sites, could be easily linked through a communications network.