Paramilitary forces

Raw deal

Print edition : April 03, 2015

September 12, 2014: Flood victims being rescued by the NDRF in Srinagar. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

O.P. Singh, NDRF Director General , visiting the 10th Battalion on the banks of the Krishna river at Seethanagaram village in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh on February 24. Photo: V. Raju

June 22, 2013: In Guptkashi, Uttarakhand, NDRF personnel carrying pilgrims rescued from the flood-hit areas of the State. Photo: Manvender Vashis/PTI

The government’s treatment of the National Disaster Response Force, which battles heavy odds to perform its duties, is seen as highly discriminatory.

IN June 2013, when Uttarakhand was caught unawares by a devastating flood, it was the personnel of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Army who ably supplemented the sparse rescue and relief operations conducted by the State machinery. During one such operation, on June 25, an IAF MI-17 helicopter crashed, killing 14 personnel on board. Five of them were from the IAF and the government promptly announced Kirti Chakras or Shaurya Chakras for them. The other nine were from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). There was no commendation, no award, no homage for them.

The bereaved families kept doing the rounds of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) demanding that their martyred men be given their due, but nothing happened. The NDRF recommended their names for Jeevan Raksha Padak, but the Ministry dithered. In October 2014, the Director General of the NDRF followed it up with the MHA, demanding that the personnel be conferred with Kirti Chakras/Shaurya Chakras. The MHA announced the President’s Police Medals for Gallantry for all nine of them in January this year. The medals were presented on January 26, Republic Day. This is only one example of the government’s stepmotherly treatment to a force it created specially to deal with disasters, both natural and man-made.

The NDRF, the only specialised force of its kind in the world, was created 10 years ago in the aftermath of such mammoth natural calamities as the 2004 tsunami and the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. It remains deprived of necessary funds and infrastructural and other logistical support from the Centre. Its personnel continue to be discriminated against monetarily so much so that the force is finding it hard to get enough recruits from the paramilitary forces. It is battling to raise two additional battalions, which it is supposed to get from the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB). The NDRF at present has 10 battalions, with 1,149 personnel in each. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Border Security Force (BSF) provide three battalions each, while the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) provide two battalions each. The proposal to raise two more battalions from the SSB has been pending for more than two years now.

A major reason for the delay, say senior NDRF officers, is the unavailability of personnel from the paramilitary forces as the remuneration is not attractive enough. In fact, those who do join the force from the other paramilitary forces get less monetary rewards than their counterparts in the parent organisation. For example, a CRPF jawan who joins the NDRF gets a much lower salary than his counterparts in the parent organisation because the latter get allowances such as risk allowance and hardship allowance, which the jawan in the NDRF does not get. He gets only a 5-10 per cent allowance over the basic pay and dearness allowance. Hence, there is no motivation for paramilitary personnel to join the NDRF.

Moreover, NDRF personnel work at a grave risk to their lives, which is equal to, if not more than, the risk faced by army jawans, National Security Guards, or members of the Special Protection Group (SPG). NDRF personnel get into action in the wake of cyclones, floods, earthquakes, building collapses, and chemical, biological or radiological hazards. Since they are required to train constantly in simulated conditions of hazards, at times they end up either losing their lives or getting permanent disabilities, which goes uncompensated. For example, in one such mock exercise in Gurgaon in 2006 by the 08 battalion, one constable lost his life. Again, in 2010, during a heli-slithering exercise carried out by 02 battalion in Kolkata, one constable sustained a serious back injury, which rendered him permanently disabled. There is no disability pension or any other compensation for them. At Mayapuri in Delhi in 2010, NDRF personnel were called upon to tackle radioactive leaks.

To attract personnel to the force, the NDRF has been pushing for an increase in the allowance by at least 25 per cent, but so far nothing has happened. It is pertinent that personnel of other specialised forces such as the NSG, Assam Rifles and the SPG get a 25-50 per cent allowance over their salary and DA, besides other allowances for their specialised duties. As a senior officer pointed out, NSG or SPG personnel work in situations that have been pre-sanitised by the local police, but NDRF personnel are the first to be deployed in life-threatening disaster situations.

“The NDRF personnel feel deprived when they compare the risks undertaken by them and the risks undertaken by their counterparts deputed to forces like the NSG, SPG and Assam Rifles and the allowances the latter get in lieu,” says a letter to the MHA by the NDRF authorities. In order to tide over the problem of personnel from the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) not opting to join the NDRF, the force has sought the MHA’s permission to forward names of persons having the requisite qualifications, capabilities, skills and experience in disaster management and willing to join the forces, not always necessarily from the CAPF. This proposal has been pending with the Ministry for long.

Lack of resources

With a mere strength of 11,490 personnel, who are thinly spread across the length and breadth of the country, the force is saddled with the task of responding efficiently and professionally to disasters, like the Odisha cyclone or the Jammu and Kashmir floods. Little wonder then that at times, as was seen during the Kedarnath (Uttarakhand) floods, it has failed to respond as swiftly or efficiently as it should have. Senior NDRF officers, while reiterating the force’s problems, admit its shortcomings: “There is no doubt that Kedarnath is a black chapter in the history of the NDRF, but we have tried to improve our response after that. Our swift action during the Kashmir floods is proof that despite severe handicaps like shortage of boats, manpower and other necessary equipment, we managed to save over 50,000 lives, distributed over 90 tonnes of relief materials and attended to more than 10,000 patients,” says one of them. According to him, this operational efficiency was achieved despite constant threats from separatist forces. In fact, many a time miscreants seized rescue boats and held NDRF men hostage, even threatening to kill them, but the force did not stop its work. “Our biggest handicap is lack of resources and funds for purchasing world-class equipment,” the officer says.

What is worse, the force does not have a single pucca structure of its own. All its training centres, living quarters, and offices are run from tents. The force is a training-intensive institution, yet it has no training centre of its own. Over 60 hectares of land was acquired for a training centre in Nagpur many years ago, but no construction has begun, not even a proposal has been made. Ironically, a few days before the Kedarnath floods, a team of NDRF officers had visited Dehradun to request the Uttarakhand government to allot land for one of its units there, but nothing happened. Now that project has almost been dropped. Instead, Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency, is reportedly being considered for housing one unit of the NDRF.

It is disconcerting that a country like India, which has had many trysts with natural disasters, such as devastating earthquakes (as in Latur, Maharashtra; Gujarat; and Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand), landslides, cyclones, cloudbursts, and floods, besides man-made calamities such as the Bhopal gas tragedy, should show such a cavalier attitude towards its response mechanism. According to senior NDRF officers, as of today the country needs a “minimum of 20 battalions” but the government is dragging its feet on even the two additional battalions sanctioned.

Another problem that the force is battling continuously is ambiguity in the control and command structure. While the MHA controls funds and execution, it is the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) that has administrative control over the force. Hence, there is always a tussle between the two. The NDMA being an autonomous body whose members are appointed by the government, the force has to deal with two bosses for everything that it needs; this complicates and delays processes.

For example, the DG, NDRF, has powers to sanction purchases only up to a maximum of Rs.10 crore, a paltry sum considering the high cost of the specialised equipment needed by the force. Any purchase beyond that has to be routed through the NDMA. The MHA is the final authority in either case, but this multiplicity of sanctioning authorities only causes delays, say senior NDRF officers.

Inadequate resources remain a big handicap. In Uttarakhand, for example, if the NDRF had had a dedicated air wing, it could have swiftly airlifted its teams to areas that had become inaccessible following the floods. But it had to depend on the IAF and the Army, and the process got delayed. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, addressing the force on the occasion of its 10th anniversary in January this year, promised it a dedicated air wing.

What is also worrying is the fact that most of the States have remained dismally lethargic in creating a disaster response mechanism as mandated by the Disaster Management Act of December 2005. Only 16 States have so far made some movement, and only six—Odisha, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Punjab and Bihar—have a modicum of a structure to deal with disasters. Odisha alone has raised an ultra-efficient force which, in collaboration with the NDRF, efficiently controlled damage during the recent cyclones there. Uttarakhand even now has only a parody of a disaster response mechanism. Jammu and Kashmir had none whatsoever when floods ravaged the State. In fact, had these States been even slightly prepared for disasters, many more lives could have been saved and the loss of property could have been controlled.

So ridiculous is the state of affairs of our disaster response mechanism that until December 2014, the NDRF did not have even a full-fledged head. The DG, NDRF, O.P. Singh, was in charge of both the CISF and the NDRF. It is inconceivable how a person heading the CISF, a force with more than 1,65,000 personnel and responsible for guarding over 300 industrial installations and all airports across the country, can devote time to supervise disaster response. Only in December last year did the government relieve him of his responsibilities in the CISF and make him full-time chief of the NDRF.

A senior official in the Home Ministry, requesting anonymity, told Frontline that senior IPS officers considered a posting to the NDRF a shunted assignment and only those at the fag end of their careers agreed to it. Hence, they show no interest or inclination to do much while in NDRF service. Significantly, since its inception the force has not had a chief who has stayed beyond one year. One DG, Prakash Mishra, stayed only for four months. Until February 2014, the DG, NDRF, also worked as the DG, Civil Defence, which meant supervising the fire force and home guards all over the country, a humongous task in itself. Mehboob Alam, appointed in February 2014, was the first full-time DG of the NDRF, but his tenure was only for six months.

O.P. Singh agrees that the force functions with severe handicaps, but hopes that the Home Ministry will take corrective measures. “The Home Minister has promised us full support,” he says. Uppermost on his wish list is a dedicated air wing, which could go a long way in cutting response time. Making the forces alluring enough so that dedicated and capable young men come forward to join it is another big challenge. “As we have shown in Jammu and Kashmir, in spite of the challenges we performed well there, and so there is no reason why we cannot become a world-class force, the only one of its kind. The only thing needed is a bit of motivation, and infrastructure support,” Singh says. One hopes the government will not wait for the next disaster to respond.