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Turning Disaster into Opportunity

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By AIR MARSHAL BD JAYAL (RETD)

That two civil registered helicopters involved in disaster relief operations in Uttarakashi District crashed on two successive days must be of concern to the State Disaster Management authorities. Whilst the DGCA accident investigation teams will investigate these cases from the technical and operational aspects, the larger question that must exercise the minds of the latter, however, is whether there is adequate understanding of both the potential and limitations of the use of helicopters in furtherance of disaster relief operations in the mountainous terrain of our state. Further, whether there are clear plans, systems and standard operating procedures in place that are regularly exercised and seamlessly activated should a disaster strike. If media reports suggesting that in both cases the helicopters hit external obstructions are indeed true, then clearly this does not appear to be the case. A fundamental question that comes to mind is why were commercial helicopters and pilots being tasked for the disaster support role in the first place? In mountainous terrain like ours, these are specialised and high risk operations and those executing them must be trained and current for such missions. That is why it is the armed forces that are generally called upon to assist civil authorities when such occasions demand. Whilst this is in no way a reflection on the professionalism of the commercial crew who were doing a difficult job, the question is whether commercial operators in general are qualified and indeed certified to undertake such missions? This, one hopes, will be one area that the DGCA investigators will be looking at. This writer has served in Eastern Air Command where for most part, the terrain is equally challenging and where air support operations in support of civil authorities are part of joint State and IAF responsibility. It is with the benefit of this background and the then Chief Minister’s call for suggestions, that in November 2007, one had written to the then Secretary, Home and Disaster Management of the State Government, the contents of which bear recalling: “I refer to the recent Seminar on Disaster management held at RIMC and the brief word that I had with you at its conclusion. In his address the Chief Minister had indicated that the Government would welcome any suggestions towards helping the cause of mitigating the effects of disasters. It is in furtherance of this that I make the following suggestion. Ours is a state mostly consisting of mountainous terrain with limited surface communications thus making any effective disaster plan heavily dependent on helicopter support. While this will no doubt be made available by the IAF when a disaster actually strikes, it is unlikely that such support will easily be available for recces towards formulating plans, training to ensure coordination and exercises both planned and surprise ones to check system response. In the absence of such regular exercises and interaction, coordination and effective rescue and relief will remain subject to ad hocism and delays. Arunachal Pradesh, which depends heavily on regular air maintenance support, has a special arrangement with the Ministry of Defence/IAF. There is thus regular interaction between the State authorities and Eastern Air Command along with the IAF Units earmarked for providing support. In this way response time in emergencies is minimal and there is total synergy between the State authorities and the IAF support providers. While our State does not need regular air maintenance; being a border hill state and being prone to natural disasters, does mean that in times of disasters and emergencies our dependence on IAF helicopter support would be significant. To be prepared to plan and train for such contingencies, it is perhaps worthwhile for our State also to explore with the MOD and IAF as to how best we can synergize towards building a sound capability for managing disasters. I will be happy to discuss the subject at your convenience.” Ironically, the letter was not even acknowledged! Since then, the State has had its unfortunate share of disasters, the Kedarnath one in 2013 being the worst. That there were many lessons to be learnt is well known. How many of us remember that some three months after the disaster struck, 185 bodies were recovered from the approach to the Kedarnath temple, of men and women who were not overtaken by the flash floods and accompanying debris, but who had the tenacity to beat this deluge and scramble to the safety of high ground in the belief that if they beat the fury of nature, the might of the state would rescue them? They must have waited for help to arrive for hours, days and some perhaps even weeks before falling prey to starvation and the weather. And all this while the administrative might of this nation, and here it must be emphasized that all resources of the nation were at the command of the authorities, failed to come to their rescue. At the time this writer had written about how only an enquiry could have revealed the weaknesses that allowed such a failure to take place in our search and rescue system, with a view to learning lessons. Post the Kedarnath disaster, in an interview to a news portal, Dave Petley Dean of Research and Global Engagement at Durham University in UK who has worked on landslides in the Himalayas since 2000 had analysed and explained the scientific explanation for that unique disaster. Significantly, in the interview he also sounded this caution: ‘It should also be noted that large parts of the Himalayas are overdue a large earthquake. Such an event would be even more destructive over an area hundreds of times as big. India should take notice of the Uttarakhand event and start preparing for a large earthquake. The difficulty of coordinating the response in Uttarakhand suggests that the country is ill equipped to deal with a large earthquake in a mountainous area. The effects would be many times worse.’ One wonders how well prepared is our State Disaster Management System to cope with a massive earthquake within our geographical area of responsibility? Judging by recent experience, one cannot but be pessimistic. If the two recent helicopter crashes result in the State Disaster Management authorities getting back to the drawing board and truly preparing for the types of challenges that lie ahead, then the unfortunate lives lost in the recent helicopter crash may not have been in vain. Let this be a wake-up call.