Battling on several fronts

Print edition : February 17, 2001

OUT on border patrol in the Rann of Kutch, Constable Amar Singh thought something had gone very wrong with his camel. The animal had begun to lurch madly, threatening to throw the Border Security Force (BSF) trooper off. It was only when he saw six-foot- high fountains of water erupting through the salt flats that Amar Singh realised what was going on: his camel was fine, only the ground underneath was not.

Army personnel at work.-TURPIN JEAN-MICHEL/GAMMA

For troops posted in the Kutch area, the earthquake of January 26 has meant unprecedented hardship. Within hours of the earthquake, troops from the BSF and Army were out helping in rescue operations, and moving food and water to victims. This was done wi thout complaint although the homesteads of the personnel themselves had been devastated. The Indian Air Force lost more than 150 personnel and their families in a building collapse in Bhuj, but with roads down, all IAF personnel had to play a central rol e in making relief available. And on top of it all, the defence forces have had to cope with their primary duty of keeping the border secure.

Incredibly, the over-stretched forces seem to have coped. Even as their colleagues were busy helping victims through Kutch, a forward position of the BSF arrested four top Pakistani weapons and narcotics smugglers who had escaped from the Bhuj jail durin g the earthquake. Sanchu Haji Ibrahim, Nawaz Usman, Usman Mohammad and Juma Haji Mohammad were picked up on January 30, after a BSF khoji detected their footprints. Khojis are expert trackers who can recognise individual human and animal prints. T he BSF regularly ploughs a 30-foot wide furrow through the length of the Rann, so anyone crossing the area will leave prints behind (see ''Battling at the sandy frontier", Frontline, February 21, 1986).

Two Pakistani prisoners, however, succeeded in making good their escape. Amba Hira Kohli of Diplo, and Farid Ahmed, a resident of Badin, just managed to evade the border patrol which arrested their four associates. The escape was made easier by the fact that much of the BSF's thin presence on the border was diverted to relief operations. Just four battalions of BSF troops, some 2,400 personnel, are responsible for guarding the 490 km-long Rann border. Although none of these troops was formally involved in relief operations, many were busy helping communities in their immediate area of operations, or repairing damaged outposts and bunkers.

Although the BSF largely escaped loss of life, losing only four members of troops' families, it has suffered extensive damage to its infrastructure. The organisation's rear headquarters at Gandhidham, built recently by the Central Public Works Department , has been completely destroyed. Sources told Frontline at least Rs.5 crores would be needed just to put up interim shelters. The Army has also suffered infrastructure damage worth crores of rupees. While the IAF infrastructure is relatively intac t, the loss of technical personnel at Bhuj, many of them recent recruits, has caused enormous grief.

The Army is, however, deeply upset about an unsavoury skirmish it had with the Bhuj district administration. District Magistrate Kamal Dhyani had alleged that Army personnel in Bhuj were diverting relief supplies for their own use. Dhyani's complaint may in part have been legitimate, for there have been allegations in the past about the quality of materials supplied to the troops. Whoever was responsible, the fact remains that much high-quality shelter and food flown into Bhuj did not make its way to th e worst-hit areas. Windcheaters, which had arrived from western countries, for example, were on sale in Bhuj. Although some foreign aid material may indeed have been diverted there is no evidence of widespread pilferage.

Dhyani was transferred out in the wake of his allegations, but the incident has inevitably left a bad taste in the mouth for both the forces and the civil administration. Such conflict could have been avoided had a proper disaster response system been in place. In Indeed, this experience has made clear that the use of the armed forces is not a substitute for planning. Many observers have suggested that the handling of future crisis should be left to the armed services. While India's defence forces do ha ve a valuable role to play in the mitigation of immediate hardship, they are neither trained nor equipped to deal with the complexities of class, caste and ethnicity that relief operations involve. More important, such work diverts troops from their prim ary job. The answer may lie in ensuring that State governments are equipped and able to deal with disaster.

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