It is said that when three calamities struck India in quick succession—the Orissa super cyclone of 1999, the Gujarat earthquake of 2001 and the 2004 Tsunami—leading to large-scale death and destruction, the country realised that it needed something more than army personnel to lead rescue and relief operations. The Government recognised that it needed a team of elite and specialist personnel that was trained specifically in dealing with disasters. This led to the formation of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) in 2005.
Comprising ten battalions, three each from the BSF (Border Security Force) and CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) and two each from CISF (Central Industrial Security Force) and ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police), each battalion has 18 specialist search and rescue teams of 45 personnel each. These include engineers, technicians, electricians, dog squads and medical and paramedic staff. The total strength of the force is currently 1,149. They are equipped and trained to respond to natural as well as man-made disasters, whereas four battalions among them are also trained and equipped for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear emergencies.
In earlier calamities, relief operations in India used bulldozers to haul debris, while rescuers, using eyes and ears to look for people, used simple tools and bare hands to pull live individuals and bodies out. Sniffer dogs would sometimes be used. Not only is the NDRF better skilled and trained, it now uses sophisticated technology. Thermal sensors and heartbeat detectors are used to locate people under the rubble, holes are drilled to lower cameras, and modern equipment is used to cut through concrete. After serving in various emergencies in the country, from the floods in Bhavnagar and Rajkot in 2007 to when Cyclone Phailin hit Andhra Pradesh and Odisha in 2013, the force is currently serving its first mission abroad.
Termed ‘Operation Maitri’ (friendship), a total of ten battalions, 45 personnel in each, are deployed to conduct rescue and relief operations in Nepal. At the time of going to press, India has sent another six teams. India is also sending essential supplies apart from using its aeroplanes and choppers to rescue people.
Deployed in various affected regions, the force has been able to rescue several people. They’ve also recovered personal belongings, like ornaments, cash and mobile phones. As on 30 April, the team had rescued a total of at least 11 people and pulled out 73 dead bodies. Among these was the miraculous recovery of a woman in Kathmandu’s Maharajgunj area who had been trapped under rubble for around 50 hours. Sunita Sitoula had remained trapped under the debris of a five-storey building and had been presumed dead by her family. The team was able to pull her out alive on 27 April.
The entire operation has come in for praise from both the international community and Nepali citizens. In terms of geopolitics, India shares a long and open border with Nepal. The two have traditionally been close allies. But over the past few years, the Himalayan country has become increasingly friendly with China, raising some fear and suspicion in New Delhi. China has invested heavily in Nepal and is involved in building several infrastructure projects, apart from planning to connect Kathmandu to Lhasa by rail, and thus by extension to Beijing. India’s help to Kathmandu in this moment of crisis is a major humanitarian effort. But it will also generate a lot of goodwill in this strategically- located country. In days to come, as Nepal and other international rescue operations press on from Kathmandu to other severely affected areas, the efforts of the NDRF will no doubt be keenly felt.