Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief by Indian Navy

Indian Navy has played a yeoman role in providing relief in times of natural calamities in the region

Issue: 2 / 2014By Rear Admiral (Retd) Dr S. KulshresthaPhoto(s): By Indian Navy

Natural disasters have always posed severe problems for nations. During the period 1904-2003 there were over two million deaths (75 per cent of these were in Asia) in ~6,300 disasters with a loss of property worth ~$1.4 trillion. During the period 2001-10, there were four distinct years in which death toll exceeded 1,00,000 people. In 2010, one of the most disaster prone years in recent times, over 2,90,000 deaths occurred in ~370 disasters with a loss of property worth ~$110 billion. Six of the ten most severe episodes of 2010 occurred in Asia, three in Americas and one in Africa.

Generally, civilian authorities carry out humanitarian relief, however since all resources including military assets are invariably needed to minimise the loss of human life, internationally norms have been established regarding use of foreign military assets in disaster mitigation situations. Military assets that have been most commonly used in international relief operations include, transport aircrafts, field hospitals, naval ships and disaster relief experts. US, with its vast resources, remains in the forefront of providing HADR across the world. In the Indian Ocean region, India, Japan and Australia have also taken the lead in HADR in neighbouring countries.

Seeking foreign military help for HADR depends primarily upon the extent of disaster and the affected country’s ability to cope with it so that relief can be provided at the earliest to its people. Generally, it is observed that once a country decides to take HADR from a foreign country, normally its neighbours, it does not differentiate if the assistance is provided is of civilian or military origin. Some countries like India, China and North Korea do not allow foreign troops on their territory even though they lie in the disaster prone zone.

Deploying military resources in a foreign land for HADR depends primarily upon factors like request from the affected country, own national interests, local policies, quantum of assets that can be spared and relationship with the affected country. Bilateral relationships generally govern the requests for HADR including military components. Unless the calamity is of very large proportions, multinational relief teams under UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) are rarely sent. A normative framework was created in 1994 (Oslo Guidelines), to provide guidelines for use of foreign military and civil defence assets in natural disasters. Some of the Key components of the ‘Oslo Guidelines’, as relevant to military HADR and out lined there in, are:

Military and Civil Defence Assets (MCDA)
MCDA comprise relief personnel, equipment, supplies and services provided by foreign military and civil defence organisations for International Disaster Relief Assistance. Further, civil defence organisation means any organisation that, under the control of a government, performs the functions enumerated in paragraph 61 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. When these forces are under UN control they are referred to as UN MCDA.

Last resort:
Military and civil defence assets should be seen as a tool complementing existing relief mechanisms in order to provide specific support to specific requirements, in response to the acknowledged “humanitarian gap” between the disaster needs that the relief community is being asked to satisfy and the resources available to meet them. Therefore, foreign military and civil defence assets should be requested only where there is no comparable civilian alternative and only the use of military or civil defence assets can meet a critical humanitarian need. The military or civil defence asset must therefore be unique in capability and availability.

Military and civil defence assets should be seen as a tool complementing existing relief mechanisms in order to provide specific support to specific requirements, in response to the acknowledged “humanitarian gap” between the disaster needs that the relief community is being asked to satisfy and the resources available to meet them.

MCDA can be mobilised and deployed bilaterally or under regional or alliance agreements as “other deployed forces” or as part of a United Nations operation as “UN MCDA”. All disaster relief, including MCDA should be provided at the request or with the consent of the affected state and, in principle, based on an appeal for international assistance.

All relief actions remain the overall responsibility of the affected state and are complemented by foreign MCDA operating bilaterally or within an international relief effort.

  • Foreign MCDA assistance should be provided at nocost to the affected state, unless otherwise agreed between concerned states or regulated by international agreements.
  • An assisting state deciding to employ its MCDA should bear in mind the cost/benefit ratio of such operations as compared to other alternatives, if available. In principle, the costs involved in using MCDA on disaster relief missions abroad should be covered by funds other than those available for international development activities.
  • Most MCDA provided by member states, explicitly for UN use, are diverted from other missions and are only temporarily available. When higher priority military missions emerge, these assets and/or forces may be recalled by the member states or regional organisations concerned. Therefore, as a general principle, UN humanitarian agencies must avoid becoming dependent on military resources and member states are encouraged to invest in increased civilian capacity instead of the ad hoc use of military forces to support humanitarian actors.

The UN, taking note of increasing frequency of disasters in Asia-Pacific region and the overwhelming response of the international community by providing civil and military HADR to this vast region, without adequate warning systems and developed infrastructure is formulating a document titled “Asia-Pacific Regional Guidelines for the Use of Foreign Military Assets In Natural Disaster Response Operations”. The overarching principles guiding the use of foreign military assets in disaster response operations in the Asia-Pacific region, as per the draft version 8.0 dated November 23, 2010, are:

  • “The sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity of States must be fully respected in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. In this context, humanitarian assistance should be provided with the consent of the affected country and in principle on the basis of an appeal by the affected country.”
  • zzForeign military assets involved in international disaster response operations remain under their own national command and control, operating in support of the Affected State.

Effectiveness of military assets in HADR depends upon various factors, firstly, timely response, as military aircraft and naval ships can transport large-scale supplies and carryout rapid search and rescue. Secondly, on how its capabilities are optimally utilised, thirdly whether the assets brought for HADR are compatible for the specific disaster situation, fourthly, upon effective coordination and communication between the foreign military assets and local disaster relief agencies. Often it is seen that communication problems are a major source of delay in carrying out the operations efficiently.

Navies have been at the forefront of effectively providing HADR, mainly because of the reason that large disasters have struck littoral states. Some of the capabilities required for a naval HADR effort include, large cargo carrying capacity (dry goods, fuel, fresh water, refrigerated goods etc), personnel transfer (high speed shallow draft vessels), fresh water production (ability to produce and transfer much beyond ships own requirements), self-sufficiency during operations, medical support (ability to carry out surgeries and treat and admit many patients), quick and efficient survey of the affected coastline, search and rescue (preferably with multiple helicopters), lift capability (landing craft support), aircraft (multiple helicopters with sustained effort), large number of extra berths on board and reasonably high transit speeds.

In recent years, India has gradually increased its HADR operations in neighbouring countries and developed capabilities of its armed forces keeping in view the natural disasters that frequently torment nations in the Indian Ocean. India normally provides HADR in areas that have been afflicted with earthquakes, cyclones, tsunami or floods. With the exceptions of Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, it normally does not offer aid to populations impacted by armed conflicts.

Humanitarian Face of Indian Navy

Indian Navy has played a yeoman role in providing relief in times of natural calamities in the region, some of the HADR missions undertaken by the Indian Navy are briefly highlighted in the succeeding paragraphs.

Tsunami 2004
On December 26, 2004, a mega thrust undersea earthquake shook west coast of Sumatra and resulted in a tsunami leading to enormous swaths of destruction in the Indian Ocean littorals up to the coast of Africa. The sudden rise of seabed by several metres due to the earthquake caused by subduction of the Indian plate by the Burma plate, resulted in formation of a far more destructive ‘teletsunami’ as distinct from a tsunami generated by horizontal movement of the sea bed. Major countries affected were, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Indian coast, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles and Somalia. The death toll was ~2,80,000 people.

The Indian Navy launched a massive HADR effort to help not only its own states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Andaman and Nicobar (Operation Madad and Sea Waves) but also, Sri Lanka (Operation Rainbow), Maldives (Operation Castor), and Indonesia (Operation Gambhir). Indian Navy did itself proud as the relief ships and material reached the affected areas in less than 12 hours. A total of 40 ships, 42 helicopters and 35 aircraft with over 20,000 military personnel were deployed in relief operations abroad. Three survey ships were converted to 46-bed hospital ships and sent to affected areas. Apart from providing immediate relief other important tasks carried out were harbour survey, evacuation, debris removal, repair to roads, water supply, power and communications.

Operation Sukoon Lebanon 2006
Indian Navy launched operation Sukoon in 2006 to evacuate Indian, Sri Lankan and Nepalese nationals from war torn Lebanon. In the aftermath of massive air strike and ground invasion by Israeli forces on Lebanon on July21, 2006, thousands of foreign nationals were caught in the war zone. The Indian Navy on being tasked to evacuate the personnel diverted three warships and a fleet tanker to the area. The ships were INS Mumbai, INS, Brahmaputra, INS Betwa and INS Shakti. It was planned to shift the evacuated persons to Cyprus from where Air India flights were used to fly them to India. INS Mumbai evacuated ~1,500 people, INS Betwa 254 and INS Brahmaputra 188 respectively. It was the largest evacuation operation carried out by the Indian Navy since independence.

Myanmar, Cyclone Nargis 2008
Cyclone Nargis caused the worst natural disaster in the history of Myanmar. The death toll alone was ~1,38,000 in the Irrawaddy Delta with a property loss of over ~$10 billion. Indian Navy had dispatched INS Rana and INS Kirpan to Myanmar for the HADR mission.

Operation Safe Homecoming Libya 2011
Over 18,000 Indians were trapped in Libya because of unrest in the country. Evacuation was difficult due to virtual closure of Tripoli Airport, other ports and harbours in Libya. Indian Navy was tasked with evacuation. It sent INS Mysore, INS Aditya and INS Jalashwa form Mumbai on Febuary 26, 2011. Two merchant vessels MV Scotia and La Superbia were also chartered from Sicily. The evacuation was carried out from Benghazi and Tripoli to Alexandria in Egypt from where Air India flew them to India.

Typhoon Haiyan Philippines November 8, 2013
Typhoon Haiyan has ravaged large tracts of Philippines leaving ~11,000 dead as per available details until now. An Indian Naval ship is being dispatched from Visakhapatnam with relief material as part of the Indian HADR effort.

Indian assistance to Malaysia for Flight MH370
India initially sent a long range Maritime Surveillance Aircraft P8 I of the Navy and C-130 Hercules of the Indian Air Force which operated from Subang Airport close to Kuala Lumpur. In continuation of the search for the Malaysian Airliner MH370, the Indian Navy had deployed four warships viz. INS Satpura, Sahyadri, Saryu and Batti Malv in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea and West of Andaman Islands. One Dornier aircraft also joined the search. So far in spite of a massive international effort, Flight MH370 has not been found and the mystery continues.

Capabilities Required

A preliminary examination of the capabilities required for large scale HADR missions involving Indian Navy reveals certain areas which need strengthening on priority if India wants to project itself as a regional HADR provider. The Indian Navy needs significant up scaling of its HADR capabilities as the numbers involved in HADR are far larger in Indian Ocean Region (IOR) due to burgeoning populations that get affected in calamities. Even though IN is replacing its medium Landing Ship Tanks, LST (M) with Large LSTs some of the areas where the Indian Navy needs to improve its HADR strengths are carrying of large quantities of relief material and its transfer, numbers of helicopters and landing crafts, medical services and hospital ships, blood banks, berthing space on relief ships, production and supply of fresh water, setting up of rapid communication systems, use of hovercrafts and possibly induction of more landing platform docks like INS Jalashwa.

It is also for consideration whether HADR ships can be indigenously designed and constructed to cater to requirements arising in the IOR, such that they can also be utilised as revenue generating coastal passenger ships when not on HADR missions.

In conclusion it suffices to state that IOR neighbours of India have unhesitatingly come to depend upon India’s ability to provide rapid relief by deploying its naval assets in times of natural disasters.


The author is former DG NAI and Senior Fellow New Westminster College, Canada