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In the season of Ebola virus scare, national disaster agency is adrift and headless

After J&K floods and Hudhud, now Ebola lurks. We examine India's response preparedness to disaster, both human and man-made

Written by Praveen Swami | New Delhi |
Updated: October 18, 2014 9:26:08 am
How did this mess come about? The answers are rooted in the genesis of the NDRF. How did this mess come about? The answers are rooted in the genesis of the NDRF.

Every morning, 18 women and men assemble at a rundown office block in central Delhi, knowing they could, later in the day, be called upon to deal with a pandemic, a catastrophic mega-earthquake, a tsunami, or an explosion at a nuclear reactor.

They have planned and prepared for years, but their ability to deal with these disasters has not improved; it would seem, in fact, to be decreasing with every passing day. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the nodal agency to lead a specialised response to natural and man-made disasters, does not have a full-time head. Its part-time chief does not have an office — and has been reduced to playing musical chairs with a colleague who shares the premises.

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An examination by The Indian Express of preparedness shows states across the country have little by way of infrastructure or institutionalised processes to deal with the disasters scientists have warned will occur sooner or later — events such as a larger-than-Hudhud storm, or a devastating Ebola outbreak.

“India has just one specialised force whose sole job is to protect the lives of ordinary citizens,” a senior NDRF officer said. “The harm being done to it puts every citizen in harm’s way.”


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Figures and documents accessed by The Indian Express show this isn’t mere alarmist talk. NDRF has just 18 headquarters staff — another 83 personnel that former home minister P Chidambaram had agreed were needed were never sanctioned by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The National Security Guard, which hasn’t been deployed in combat since the 26/11 terror attacks six years ago, has 400 headquarters staff. Its chief has the power to requisition aircraft to move personnel in an emergency. The director-general of the NDRF does not have that authority.

President Barack Obama speaks to the media while meeting with members of his team coordinating the government’s Ebola response. (Source: AP photo) President Barack Obama speaks to the media while meeting with members of his team coordinating the government’s Ebola response. (Source: AP photo)

During the recent floods in Kashmir, and during last year’s catastrophic landslides and flooding in Uttarkhand, the NDRF had to wait for the Home Ministry to route its requests for air support to the armed forces — leading, an officer said, to delays of 48 hours and more.

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Part of the problem is the NDRF does not have a full-time boss. Even though the National Disaster Management Act provides for a director-general — reporting to the National Disaster Management Authority — the MHA sanctioned an additional director-general, using a vacancy created from the ranks of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

O P Singh, NDRF director-general, is also director-general of the 10,000-strong Central Industrial Security Force personnel charged with airport security — a gargantuan task in itself.

Health workers spray a vehicle, used for collecting bodies, with disinfectant at an Ebola Isolation centre run by Doctors Without Borders in Donka, Guinea. (Source: AP photo) Health workers spray a vehicle, used for collecting bodies, with disinfectant at an Ebola Isolation centre run by Doctors Without Borders in Donka, Guinea. (Source: AP photo)

Singh shares a room with R R Verma, the director-general of civil defence, who is senior to him in the police service hierarchy. Their secretaries have devised a delicate game of musical chairs, intended to ensure both never need the boss’s chair at the same time. In the last seven years, the NDRF has had 15 directors-general.

The consequences, documents show, are stark. In 2008, the MHA had sanctioned Rs 290 crore to equip eight battalions with a 310-piece United Nations-recommended disaster-response kit. There have been no purchases since, in part because additional directors-general do not have the requisite authority.

Training has perhaps been the worst-hit. NDRF battalions are training-intensive: each group has 1,149 people divided into 18 independent teams, equipped with everything from technicians to operate specialist cutting equipment, dog-squad experts, and paramedics. Former home minister Shivraj Patil sanctioned Rs 100 crore in 2007 to build a 150-acre training campus in Nagpur. The proposal to release the funds still hasn’t been sent to the Cabinet for approval by the MHA, three years after the union government gave it approval.

“There isn’t a single NDRF battalion working out of a permanent building,” said a senior officer. “India’s disaster relief force lives and trains in refugee camps.”


How did this mess come about? The answers are rooted in the genesis of the NDRF. In 1999, after the Kargil war, a Group of Ministers first proposed creating a national disaster response system, with national, state and district-level forces — drawing lessons from the 1999 Orissa cyclone and the 2001 Gujarat earthquake.

In 2003, even as discussions for a legislative framework continued, former home secretary H S Gopalaswamy and his eventual successor R K Singh approved the setting up of the NDRF. In 2005, the Bill that would lead to the setting up of the NDMA was firmed up.

In retrospect, it would appear that the new Act laid the foundations of a power struggle. The MHA wanted the NDRF run by one of its secretaries, but the UPA government thought it would be better off under an autonomous body, the NDMA. Irked, the MHA reacted with obstruction.

Plans drawn up by the NDMA, in consultation with top international and national experts, are now available online — specifying exactly how disasters ought to be dealt with at the state and district levels. These plans, however, have never been notified by the MHA through the Gazette of India — which means there is no obligation on states to implement, or even consider, them. Funds flowed to states for creating infrastructure, but with no framework for implementing best practices — particularly on long-term building and urban planning standards to prevent disasters.

Therefore, the district disaster plan for Udhampur, in Jammu and Kashmir, had no instructions for what to do if communications were knocked out by an earthquake or large flood, nor how resources were to be mobilised in a calamity.

Srinagar authorities had never once rehearsed for a disaster — no surprise, since their plan was never published. Neither city — like most in India — ever rehearsed preparedness plans with civic authorities and the public, as NDMA plans mandate.

Legally, the NDMA has no authority to independently implement schemes; the MHA controls funding and execution. The NDMA thus remains just an advisory body, sending out missives few states pay attention to. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was the chair of the NDMA, attended only three meetings, records show — and never intervened to push forward plans drawn up bearing his name. Now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has removed the organisation’s entire board — and there is no word when one might be appointed.

“The whole thing is typical of the government response to problems,” says Ajai Sahni, director of the Institute of Conflict Management, a New Delhi think tank. “Faced with a problem, create an organisation. Then, let the organisation flounder about without support. Remember, someone else will probably be in office when the next crisis hits — so they can deal with it.”


In the summer of 2013, former NDMA chief K M Singh and then home secretary V K Duggal visited Uttarakhand to impress on its chief minister, V K Bahuguna, that this might not be good strategy. Ever since 2011, the state had sat on plans to help acquire a campus for the NDRF, where personnel for a state disaster management force could be trained. Two months after the men left, thousands were killed — and forces who could have saved many couldn’t be flown into the area for weeks afterward.

The NDA government has now killed the proposal altogether, and is relocating the proposed NDRF battalion to Varanasi.

Maharashtra trained two battalions for disaster relief, but never equipped them; now, sources said, both have been re-deployed on internal security and law and order duties.

The Jammu and Kashmir Armed Police sanctioned turning two battalions into a state disaster force, but never trained them.

Orissa, NDRF sources said, is the one stand-out. Its Orissa Disaster Rapid Response Force, or ODRAF, has been trained to world standards, and is headed by a full-time chief executive officer reporting to the chief minister. Funds from the World Bank, and consultations with the NDMA, have led the state to create cyclone shelters every five kilometres, saving tens of thousands during last year’s super storm.

Tripura, Gujarat, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, NDRF sources said, too have taken some steps forward in disaster preparedness, making land available for the force and promising to commit resources for training.

“The rest are just a mess,” said a top NDRF official.

Tomorrow: What if Ebola comes to cities?

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