India is facing the worst disaster in recent times with the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic crippling the healthcare system and bringing misery all around. While it is India’s major cities that face an acute shortage of hospital beds and medical oxygen, things could soon be worse in rural India where the deadly virus has now made its way.
When the pandemic began in 2020, I had written that this is a war and the Narendra Modi government must deploy the armed forces to fight the virus.
A year since then, the armed forces have come to the aid of a pathetically equipped civil administration, which did not foresee the second wave and the crisis that was lying ahead.
From constructing makeshift hospitals to helping in the movement of oxygen cylinders and bringing in equipment and tankers by air and sea, besides opening up its facilities for the civilians and deploying doctors, nurses and paramedics, the armed forces have been pressed into action.
However, the forces find themselves stretched as state after state seeks their intervention without a structured proposal stating the source of medical infrastructure, including doctors, medics, oxygen and people to man these centres.
The Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) have also been directed to open up their medical facilities for civilians even as the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) take the lead by setting up makeshift hospitals and running them.
While the forces are doing their bit, there is one organisation which is missing in action. It has been raised, trained, staffed and equipped to deal with disasters, besides responding to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) emergencies. Yes, we are referring to the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF).
Where is NDRF
The NDRF, which comes under the home ministry, has a strength of about 15,000 personnel that includes medical personnel. The strength of the NDRF, which its website describes as the “the largest singular & specialised disaster response force in the world”, is drawn from various CAPFs, and all of them are Shape 1 category – the highest fitness level.
Sources in the NDRF told my colleague Ananya Bharadwaj, who tracks the home ministry for ThePrint, that the force has been put on standby to deal with any sort of natural disaster. NDRF sources also tell her that if the force is pressed into Covid relief, any other natural disaster will get ignored.
But that cannot be the case.
Time for NDRF’s entry
The Disaster Management Act 2005, which has been invoked by the Centre to deal with the pandemic, has statutory provisions for the constitution of NDRF for the purpose of specialised response to natural and man-made disasters.
The medical specialists of the force should be quickly roped in to cater to the Covid crisis and the force should be ordered to set up field hospitals that will bring the much needed succour to the people.
The armed forces and the ITBP have deployed additional personnel to man the Covid control rooms and other facilities. This is a work that can also be taken over by the ably trained NDRF personnel — they can very well be deployed at government coordination centres set up to deal with the Covid crisis.
NDRF personnel can also be used for transporting essential medical supplies and regulating the government supply chain.
I am not saying all NDRF personnel need to be pressed into action but a significant number can be. Enough workforce can be put on standby to mitigate any other disaster, and the personnel rotated. This will ensure optimal utilisation of a force that is well-trained and equipped to help with disasters.
The authorities need to understand that disaster does not mean just a building collapse, cloud burst or flood. The NDRF needs to move beyond this. Even when such a calamity strikes, the ITBP and the armed forces are usually the first responders.
While the armed forces are calling back recently retired medical personnel and asking veterans to pitch in, it makes no sense to keep the NDRF out of the game.
The corona crisis is also an ideal situation for live training of the ‘biological’ aspect of CBRN. Remember that the NDRF personnel had proper PPE kits and special suits years before the country came to know of these pandemic essential protection.
Limiting the NDRF to its traditional jobs would be a great disservice to the ability and potential of help that the force can bring to the table.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)