By Colonel H R Naidu Gade
With a history of serious chemical accidents and a population vulnerable to biological disasters, India has in the past few years implemented comprehensive reforms of its CBRN disaster management preparedness, writes Indian Army Veteran Colonel H R Naidu Gade.
On the fateful night of December 3/4, 1984, events at the Union Carbide Plant in Bhopal, India, evolved into the world’s worst chemical disaster, killing about 15,000 and maiming half a million people for life. Since then, there have been numerous accidents in many plants across India’s thriving chemical industry, which is not comprehensively regulated. Being a nuclear power, India has many nuclear power stations, fuel enrichment plants, nuclear waste management facilities, and other related establishments. Radiological equipment is also widely used for health and industrial purposes.
While there have been a few cases of minor accidents at nuclear facilities and incidents of theft of radiological instruments, India is more vulnerable to health disasters caused by pathogens spread due to low standards of health, hygiene, sanitation, and huge concentrations of population in urban centers. The pneumonic plague epidemic that struck the city of Surat in September 1994 was one such biological disaster, and the COVID-19 pandemic also caused many deaths in India. Indeed, it was the timely manufacture and supply of COVID vaccines that saved 1.4 billion Indians from this deadly disease.
Disaster Management Preparedness in India
The turning point in India’s Disaster Management (DM) preparedness was the enactment of the National Disaster Management Act 2005 that triggered the rapid development of disaster response mechanisms at all levels of administration, whether it be a central, state, district, city, or other local level. The act envisaged the creation of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) headed by the Prime Minister, as well as individual State Disaster Management Authorities (SDMAs) headed by respective Chief Ministers, with the intention to spearhead and implement a holistic and integrated approach to DM in India. Similar organizations were created all Indian states at a district and municipality level.
The NDMA is the national apex body mandated to lay down the policies, plans and guidelines for DM to ensure timely and effective responses to disasters, including those of a CBRN nature. The National Disaster Management Policy 2009 defines the approach for DM as a paradigm shift from erstwhile reactive and relief-centric policies to a holistic and integrated proactive approach of prevention, mitigation, and preparedness.
Its main objectives are: conserving developmental gains and minimizing loss of life, livelihood and property; an emphasis on building strategic partnerships at various levels; community-based DM, including integration on policy, plans and execution; capacity development in all spheres; consolidation of past initiatives and best practices; cooperation with agencies at national and international levels; multi-sectoral synergy; and focus on all aspects of the DM cycle, namely prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction, recovery, knowledge management, and research and development.
With the National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP) 2016, India has aligned its national plan with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, to which India is a signatory. More broadly, the NDMP aims to make India resilient to and significantly reduce the loss of lives and assets as a result of disasters.
National and State Disaster Response Forces
At the national level, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) was set up to train, equip and respond to all types of disasters, including CBRN disasters. NDRF units are geographically located in areas frequently prone to major disasters in order to facilitate their speedy deployment. Additionally, Central Civil Defence Organizations (CDOs), Central Police Organizations (CPOs), Central Home Guards, and Fire Services have been reorganized, revamped, reoriented, trained and equipped to be the first responders for all types of disasters.
The National Institute for Disaster Management (NIDM) has been established to train personnel from the NDRF, the CPOs, the CDOs, and states’ police forces to respond to disasters. National Disaster Mitigation Resources Centers have also been established all over the country. If needed, the efforts of these organizations can be augmented with the resources and expertise of the Indian Armed Forces depending on the magnitude of the disaster as the Indian Army has formed Quick Reaction Teams and Quick Reaction Medical Teams to respond to CBRN disasters anywhere in India. Meanwhile, CBRN training institutes of the Indian Armed Forces also provide training to the NDRF and other civil organizations on CBRN aspects.
The NDMA has nominated certain ministries, departments, and laboratories at the national level as “nodal agencies” for those aspects related to their specialization, including in the CBRN realm. These nodal agencies prepare and implement the plans approved by the NDMA for capacity-building in their areas of specialization. Many hospitals in various cities and districts all over India have been tasked to prepare for treating CBRN casualties, while plans to train and equip teams in these hospitals are being implemented. Academic and technical institutions, scientific organizations, non-governmental organizations, professional bodies and even the corporate sector are being involved to assist the government in its efforts to mitigate the effects of large disasters.
Mock Exercises & Responses to Actual CBRN Emergencies
The Response Forces regularly conduct joint mock drills and exercises at various locations to practice responses to any CBRN disasters, and joint teams of responders take part in international assistance delivery exercises conducted worldwide. For example, an NDRF task force was deployed to help with situation mitigation and restoration after the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station disaster in March 2011, in Japan. NDRF teams have been seen in action responding to chemical emergencies at many locations in India, and this would indicate that the ongoing capacity-building efforts to respond to CBRN disasters is slowly bearing fruit.
Capacity-Building at the States’ Level
As per the DM Act, 2005, every state and union territory’s State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) had to prepare their own State Disaster Management Plan (SDMP). While most of the 29 States and seven union territories have finalized their SDMPs, preparing and updating SDMPs is a continuous process. Each district and large city have set up Disaster Management Authorities, sections and cells which would operate as control centers in the event of a disaster occurring in their areas of responsibility.
Some of the units of the State Armed Police Forces have been designated as State Disaster Response Forces (SDRF), while States’ Fire Services, Civil Defence Organizations and Home Guard Units have also been incorporated into DM Plans. These SDRF units are being trained and equipped with the help of the Indian Armed Forces, the NDRF and the NIDM. Meanwhile, Fire Services, Civil Defence, Civil Police, and Home Guard units are put through awareness and basic training to respond to all types of disasters, including CBRN. They also carry out mock exercises and drills on a regular basis to test their readiness.
Over the last two decades India, its states, and union territories have invested great effort to prepare and respond to all types of disasters, including CBRN disasters. Though a lot has been achieved in recent years, the road before India becomes fully geared up to respond in an effective and timely manner to frequently occurring major disasters remains a long one, and more work is needed.
Colonel H R Naidu Gade is a civil engineer, management, and security professional, with a rich experience in the field of combat engineering, chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives (CBRNe) defense, security, and disaster management. Presently, he is a Chief Consultant with CBRNe Secure India, a forum and knowledge center for bringing awareness to the public, government, and security entities on the threats arising from the use of CBRNe material and their disastrous consequences. He is also a prolific writer and speaker.