Managing the aftermath of disasters

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P M Nair

P M NairDr P M Nair
Director General of Police, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) & Civil Defence, Government of India

“What the NDRF has, above all, is a big heart. We thrive in providing help to the public. We are always there for the people who have been impacted in anyway by natural or manmade disasters,says Dr P M Nair

What is the mandate of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF)?

National Disaster Response Force was constituted by the Government of India with the objective of providing a comprehensive and competent response to natural and man-made disasters. The Disaster Management Act, 2005, has made the statutory provision for the constitution of the Force. The act provides for three agencies, one is NDMA (National Disaster Management Authority), second is NIDM (National Institute of Disaster Management) and the third is NDRF. NDRF is the force for actual response in the time of disasters, NIDM is the research wing, and NDMA is the policy planning body. We, at NDRF, are the ground soldiers. We currently have 10 battalions, which have been stationed in such a way that effective response can be provided in different parts of the country in a quick and efficient manner. Now two more battalions have been sanctioned, one will be stationed in Haridwar and second in Mysore.

What is the procedure by which NDRF gets the personnel who can provide timely and efficient service during the time of disasters?

The battalions that we have today in NDRF come from different forces, BSF and CRPF contribute three battalions each, while CISF and ITBP provide two battalions each. The two new battalions that we are raising will come from Sashastra Seema Bal. The people who are deployed are fully trained soldiers; we don’t have to give them the training in basic discipline. The men are already familiar with the kind of work that is generally expected from the forces. People keep moving after every five years, and as the soldiers come from different forces, NDRF has a combination of cultures. We are home to BSF culture, CRPF culture and the CISF and ITBP culture. Soon we will also have the SSB culture in our midst. We take pride in such amalgamation of cultures. I would say that NDRF is unique as it has personnel coming from different forces and joining hands to serve the nation in times of natural or manmade disasters. The beauty of the force is that we don’t have weapons. All forces have weapons, but we don’t. What we have is equipments that are cutting edge and are designed to protect and rescue life and property during the times of disasters. What the NDRF has, above all, is a big heart. We thrive in providing help to the public. We are there for the people who have been impacted in anyway by natural or manmade disasters. NDRF has a focus on the most vulnerable areas and the most vulnerable people.

As many parts of the country get affected by flood every year, this is an area NDRF must be doing lot of work. Tell us about the role that you are playing in helping the nation deal with the aftermath of floods and other disasters?

We have a specialisation in flood management. We provide services like rescuing people trapped in floods, prevention of floods, improving the capacity of the people to mitigate their sufferings during floods. We take a pro-active attitude towards disasters. This means that we are providing people with the training of the ways by which they can stop disasters from happening, or be better prepared to deal with the aftermath of disasters. At times disasters become inevitable, but if people are prepared in advance, they can survive in a much better way. We are also providing services in earthquake. Then there are the landslides. Major casualties can happen
during the time of landslides in Northern India. Flash floods, avalanches, tsunami are also the disasters where we provide rescue related services. The point is that all the battalions of NDRF are equipped and trained to combat all natural disasters. Some of our battalions are trained in combating nuclear, biological and chemical disasters. Across the country we have people who can deal with nuclear, biological and chemical disasters.

Has the organisation had the opportunity to deal with nuclear disasters?

You will be surprised to know that 46 of our men went to Japan in 2011, when that country faced a series of disasters – an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear problem. So our boys went there, led by our commandant Mr. Avasthi, and they did magnificent work in Japan. We have a commendation from the Hon’ble Prime Minister of Japan himself. The Prime Minister of Japan is full of praise for the work done by the commandant and his team.

The management of disasters must entail the usage of all kinds of equipment. Can you provide us with an overview of the types of equipments that are being used by NDRF?

If we go by the numbers, then each battalionhas about 310 pieces of equipment today. This is a mixture of low-tech and high-tech  systems. These are all kinds of useful equipment. Some of the equipment at our disposal can enable NDRF personnel to cut through rubbles and enter any building. The idea is to have the kind of tools that will allow NDRF to provide relief to the effected population in a seamless and easy manner. Sometimes you have to cut through piles of columns, which are huge and made out of reinforced concrete. We have the capacity to cut through any column in India. Some of the equipment we are using is imported. In case of train accidents, you may have to cut through entire compartment and lot of wreckage to reach the survivors. We have the capacity to do that. In major train accidents we have been called, and we have managed to salvage the situation. Railways have used our services. Different government agencies and private agencies have used our services. Even the army has used our services. The cutting and salvaging equipment that we have is amazing. We have a cushion like structure that can be pushed under huge pile of rubble and once the machine is activated, it can raise the rubble by as much as 20 metres. The machine can lift weights of up to 20 tonnes. With such power an entire railway compartment can be lifted up.

At the time of disasters medical care is often found to be in short supply. What kind of medical facilities does NDRF have?

We have doctors, we have paramedics, we have trained nurses – both male and female – and we have ambulances and all kinds of advanced medical facilities. Most of our medical equipment is world class. The personnel with NDRF are fully trained in the use of these equipments. We automatically know what kind of equipment and medical facility will be required in what kind of disaster. So when a bridge collapses, the NDRF people who rush to that spot for providing help will carry the kind of equipment that is most suitable for that kind of disaster. They will not be carrying equipment that might be required for tsunami relief. A detailed “Training Regime for Disaster Response” has been prepared by NDRF identifying the specific disaster response training courses and devising a unified, structured and uniform course module as well as syllabus for these training courses.

Chemical disasters could be quite challenging to handle. What should be done in case of chemical disasters?

There is no doubt that the chemical disasters can be particularly challenging to handle. But we have the expertise to handle every type of chemical disaster. A chemical disaster is not that uncommon, you know. Even a gas cylinder leakage can lead to a chemical disaster. I remember one incident where tanker carrying cooking gas cylinders in Northern Kerala overturned on the road. One cylinder burst and lot of gas percolated into the atmosphere. Someone was preparing tea in a roadside stall, the gas caught fire and it started spreading. This led to a chain reaction and all the cooking gas cylinders that were in the tanker started bursting one after the other, leading to even more fire. You can imagine the plight of the people in that area. Some people who came running towards the site of the accident, died due to the fire and the flying debris. Those who remained inside their homes survived. The entire accident transpired in a matter of few seconds or minutes, so there was not much time for anyone to do anything. When NDRF reached the spot, we tried to help the injured in the best possible ways. We also told the locals that if such an accident happens in future, they should not rush to the site. They should remain inside their home or flee away from the site. Till the gas completely dissipates in the atmosphere, people need to be very careful.

“NDRF has a focus on the most vulnerable areas and the most vulnerable people”

The first respondents in case of a disaster are usually the local population. So are you taking some steps to teach the local populations  in different parts of the country about the best waysof managing disasters?

Empowering the civilian population through knowledge on the ways of dealing with disasters is one of the major tasks that the NDRF is performing. We have made major advances in training people in managing the aftermath of disasters. We provide training on all issues related to safety. We have also developed a complete set of pamphlets, which have been revised and improved after my joining the NDRF. The pamphlets have comprehensive details on the kind of strategies that need to be used for tackling the aftermath of disasters like earthquakes, floods, chemical bursts, tsunami, and others. There is one brochure on cooking gas disasters, one on earthquake, one on floods and so on. The brochures are made in local languages and are designed to provide information in easy to understand ways. Wherever we go we distribute these brochures.

You have also started the policy of adopting villages.

After my coming to the NDRF, I have started the policy of adopting a village. Each battalion should adopt one, two, three, four or more villages, according to its capability.

What villages should be adopted by the NRDF battalions?

Naturally, the villages that are prone to disasters of any kind would be the ones that are most deserving of NDRF assistance. I have stated that the battalions should adopt the villages continuously for five years. During that period of time adequate systems can be built to enable the disaster prone villages to develop systems through which they can escape from the cycle of disasters. So the 10 battalions of NDRF have adopted about 35 to 40 villages. For instance, there is village in Assam that is continuously under water. There is a village near Bhuneshwar in Odhisa that goes under water every year when the Mahanadi gets flooded. The population is just 700, consisting of boys, girls, young and old men and women. They face terrible time during the flood situation. But now they are being looked after by NDRF battalions and their life has become much easier during the flood season.

By your initiatives like adopting the villages and training the local population must have endeared NDRF to the local population. What is the feedback that you are getting?

We take this kind of work as a mission. NDRF has now been endeared to the grassroots population. We are liked by the locals wherever we do our work. And the role that NDRF is playing has also endeared the Government of India to the people residing in the far-flung areas. We are also playing a major role in preventing stampede in popular places of worship. We have deployed two teams at the Kumbh mela. Our boys are stationed right in the water so that they can rescue anyone who gets caught in the river current. The NDRF is busy all round the year. When there are disasters, we are in action protecting people, and when it is peacetime, we are busy in training people on ways of surviving major disasters.

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