National disaster response force chief OP Singh recalls how India rushed to quake-hit Nepal’s aid
Yogesh Rajput | May 27, 2015 | New Delhi
On the morning of April 25, India’s neighbour was struck by an earthquake of magnitude 7.9, creating damage unexplainable by mere citation of the numbers of deaths, collapsed structures, or people left homeless. The extent of the damage in Nepal has been so vast that no accurate assessment has been possible, even a fortnight after the tragedy.
Meanwhile, on the same morning, prime minister Narendra Modi was inaugurating the building of the national intelligence academy at Dwarka in New Delhi. The director general of the national disaster response force (NDRF), OP Singh, was also present there. While returning from the event, Singh was apprised about tremors experienced in parts of India. Concerned about the incident, he immediately made a few phone calls and inquired more about the intensity of the tremors and the ground status.
Though the damage caused in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar did not call for NDRF’s urgent help, Singh anyway alerted his men to be prepared for the worst. “There is this concept of pro-deployment and pre-positioning in disaster management, which teaches us to be prepared in advance even if no one told us so,” says Singh.
Later in the day, NDRF, through media coverage, got aware of the catastrophic destruction in Nepal. The force was ready, even in the absence of any orders from the centre. Singh spoke to senior bureaucrats and conveyed a message to Modi on the preparedness of NDRF and its willingness to help in Nepal. Soon after, at 3 pm, Modi called a meeting and asked NDRF to send teams for search and rescue, and conducting relief operations in Nepal, at the earliest.
Seven teams, comprising 305 personnel equipped with rescue gear and sniffer dogs, left for Kathmandu in two batches. The first batch of a single team reached the devastated Nepal capital at 6 pm while the rest in the second batch landed three hours later. NDRF quickly got in touch with the Nepal army to understand the ground situation. “We told the Nepal army that we had come to assist them in search and rescue operations, after which we were briefed about the four areas that had been heavily affected,” recalls Singh.
Within hours of reaching the quake-hit region, NDRF pulled out seven survivors from beneath the debris. The next day, three more teams of NDRF joined in. “The situation was grim. There was no correct assessment of the extent of damage. Soon, as many as 34 countries chipped in for help,” says Singh. India now had 748 people, including NDRF personnel and a few doctors, toiling to help the quake-hit Nepal.
Formed in 2006, NDRF has responded effectively to a number of crisis situations, and is well-versed in handling search and rescue operations. Challenges, despite the vast experience, are bound to come. In Nepal too, NDRF personnel faced hurdles in their task. “It is always difficult to work in hilly areas where buildings have collapsed. Moreover in such situations, merely searching for the victim is not enough. Reaching and finding trapped survivors immediately is of prime importance to increase the possibility of pulling out a victim in living condition,” says Singh. Consistent aftershocks also posed a problem, drawing more concern towards partially damaged buildings, which were prone to further collapse. Adding to it, rain on the second and third days of NDRF’s operation slowed down the pace of search and rescue.
Three types of machinery play a crucial role in improving search and rescue operations. The first necessary equipment is a gadget that can hear the sound of victims trapped deep under the rubble. It was this technology with which NDRF rescued a woman trapped for 36 hours under the ruins of her meat shop. Once a sound is detected, the second gadget – a tiny camera – is sent under the debris to visualise the condition of the victim and draft a plan to pull him or her out. The third hardware is required to break the different layers of debris composed of iron, concrete, wood and other material, in a manner avoiding further harm to the victim. Singh says NDRF is always researching for better equipment. “Currently, we are seeking all-terrain vehicles to add to our list, for better and faster movement.”
But when technology fails, man’s best friend comes to the rescue. NDRF takes substantial help from sniffer dogs in locating those trapped under debris. “At the Shobha Bhagwati Bridge [in Kathmandu], one of the most affected sites, a sniffer dog barked at four spots, and from all four of them, bodies were recovered,” says Singh.
Helping citizens of an ally nation requires communication among each other. A common language, thus, is important for mutual comprehension. “We did not face any language barrier as Nepalese understood Hindi. My team commanders can converse in English as well. However, the teams from other countries did face some problem in this regard. Given the importance of swift action, I feel time has come that NDRF personnel are trained in other languages as well, to be at ease while communicating with citizens of other countries. This way NDRF can become internationally rescue worthy,” says Singh.
NDRF is currently trying to achieve the top-notch international standard of search and rescue operation and be part of the elite INSARAG Externally Classified (IEC) team. INSARAG, that is, International Search and Rescue Advisory Group, is a global network of over 80 countries and organisations under the UN umbrella, that deals with urban search-and-rescue related issues to establish minimum international standards and methodology for international coordination in earthquake response.
“There are certain protocols that need to be adhered to by IEC members, such as reaching a disaster-hit spot within a particular time period. We have signed an agreement with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) to train us in capacity building exercises,” says Singh. As of now, two locations have been earmarked for the training. At Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh, NDRF personnel will be trained in rescue and search operations while at Mundali in Odisha, the force will be trained in handling sniffer dogs. The infrastructure for both the centres is currently being set up.
That, however, does not mean that NDRF is inefficient in handling disaster response operations. “In fact, of the 16 live victims pulled out in Nepal, 11 survived due to the efforts of NDRF alone, though we are not IEC qualified,” says Singh.
With new research again flagging the dangers of fault lines in Uttarakhand, India will need to constructively draw a detailed framework to minimise the consequences of unavoidable natural calamities. “Firstly, fault lines need to be properly mapped at the micro-level as well. Clear-cut land use policies and building codes need to be made and followed. In addition, periodic disaster management drills for citizens have to be carried out. In Japan, a prime earthquake-prone country, information boards displaying exit routes in case of a natural calamity have been installed at various locations. SMS alerts are sent on mobile phones to its citizens on dos and don’ts in such scenarios,” explains Singh.
NDRF, too, has been creating mass awareness by conducting programmes in various cities, independently as well as with support of state governments. “In the last five years, we have trained around 40 lakh people.”
Another reason why Singh lays stress on this practice is that he feels a state needs to act as the first respondent in a natural calamity. Singh adds, “It is incumbent on a state government to tackle the after-effects of a disaster with its own capabilities. NDRF can provide its full support but the first step has to be taken by the state.”
The credibility of an organisation depends largely on its chief, apart from its members. Singh, who took charge as director general of NDRF eight months ago, did not face any problem in getting accustomed to a new field, given that he had served in the field of security for long. This is because Singh, in 2007, had earned an MBA degree in disaster management. He is the first IPS officer to attain this distinction. “I love the subject. I had always been interested in studying disaster management,” he says with a smile.
Back in India after gruelling 12 days, Singh looks back at the hard work put in by the NDRF over the fortnight. “I am deeply satisfied with the work of my boys. From the efforts we made in Nepal, I feel we need to clap and compliment ourselves,” he says. Singh thanks the Nepal army, police and government, for maintaining excellent coordination with NDRF.
Nepal, however, would be in need of a greater assistance, given that rehabilitation asks for a greater test of patience and humanity.
(The article appears in the May 16-31, 2015 issue)
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