Explained: Civil defence volunteers, and what they can and can’t do

The role of the civil defence volunteers in the national capital has come under intense scrutiny during the pandemic. Here's why

Civil Defence volunteers at Anand Vihar interstate bus terminal in New Delhi on April 2, 2021. (Express Photo: Praveen Khanna)

From being lauded for their work during the pandemic to facing allegations of high-handedness, the role of the civil defence volunteers in the national capital has come under intense scrutiny in the recent past.

Due to their identical khaki uniform, it often becomes difficult for people to distinguish between police and civil defence personnel, leading to arguments. One such incident recently turned into a full blown fist-fight between a group of civil defence personnel and general public near IIT-Delhi.

The Delhi Police also issued a statement, pointing out that civil defence personnel, also known as Delhi Civil Defence (DCD) volunteers, have no power to stop people using police barricades and prosecute them for violation of Covid-19 appropriate behaviour such as not wearing masks.

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Who are civil defence volunteers?

In Delhi, these are men and women who work under the command of the district magistrates. The overall command lies with the divisional commissioner, to which the DMs report. These volunteers are governed by the Civil Defence Act, 1968 which has undergone multiple amendments, with the latest being in 2010, when disaster management was added as one of their roles. With the Centre invoking the Disaster Management Act in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, the role of these volunteers came under the spotlight.

Civil Defence volunteers direct travellers at Anand Vihar interstate bus terminal in New Delhi on April 2, 2021. (Express Photo: Praveen Khanna)

What is the primary role of civil defence volunteers?

According to the Civil Defence Act, 1968, civil defence is defined as any measure “not amounting to actual combat, that protects persons, property and places in India from hostile attack”. The 2010 amendment expanded the definition by including disaster management as one of the responsibilities.

The basic role of the volunteers is to assist the local administration. During the pandemic, the volunteers assumed the role of frontline workers by way of participating in screening hotspots and distributing food for the needy. In the recent months, DCD volunteers have also been deployed to ensure social distancing in markets and other crowded places and also at vaccination sites.

Before the Covid outbreak, a large number of DCD personnel were deployed as marshals in public buses to ensure safety of women.

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Doesn’t the role of DCDs overlap with that of home guards?

In some ways, yes. However, in Delhi, Directorate of Civil Defence was carved out of the Directorate of Home Guards through a 2009 notification issued by the then Lieutenant Governor. The notification came into effect on January 1, 2011. The Directorate of Civil Defence has 162 sub-divisions across 11 districts in the city.

“In a city like Delhi, which is not only a metropolitan city but also serves as national capital, it is mandatory that the organizations like Civil Defence must be strengthened to face the problems of terrorism and disaster inch to inch i.e., from earthquake to collapse of buildings,” states a document of the directorate.

But, are they authorised to issue challans for violations of Covid-19 norms?

No, says the Delhi Police. It issued a detailed statement recently after it came to light that DCD volunteers were standing near police barricades, stopping vehicles and issuing challans. A police officer explained that DMs and SDMs are authorised to issue such challans, and in many cases they get the DCD personnel to prosecute people.

“Very often, these officials remain seated in their vehicles while the DCD personnel stationed nearby issue challans on their behalf. While that is wrong, the issue becomes bigger when DCD volunteers are handed over challan books and pressed into duty without any supervision,” the police official said.

A Civil Defence volunteer directs traffic at Ghazipur on April 7, 2021. (Express Photo: Prem Nath Pandey)

How are civil defence volunteers recruited?

Recruitment drives are carried out from time to time by the Delhi government. Anyone aged above 18 years with primary level educational qualification can apply. In most cases, those who have passed Class 8 are preferred. But, people with higher qualifications also apply, a Delhi government officer said. The candidates found eligible are made to undergo a week-long basic training course. At later stages, specialised training is also imparted. A person who intends to apply must also be a citizen of India or a “subject of Sikkim or Bhutan or Nepal”, according to the Act.

Why does it say ‘subject’ of Sikkim?

The language, which state governments across the country continue to use in laying down recruitment rules for civil defence volunteers, is a verbatim reproduction of the Civil Defence Regulations, framed under the Civil Defence Act, 1968. While the Act, through a gazette notification dated September 8, 1975, was extended to cover Sikkim, which became a part of India on May 16, 1975, the regulations pertaining to the eligibility conditions remain unamended, which is why governments continue to use the same language.

One such recruitment notice by the Delhi government had sparked a controversy in 2020. Sikkim CM Prem Singh Tamang had publicly termed it as “regrettable, objectionable and harmful”. The officer who had cleared the ad was suspended by LG Anil Baijal. However, he has been reinstated now.

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