Nation needs to understand Ethos of Forces: Uttarakhand Disaster- A Test Case
The devastation in Uttarakhand because of cloudbursts that occurred on 15th /16th June and heavy rainfall thereafter is unprecedented. Until June 27, rainfall was nearly 3.9 times more than the average monthly rainfall of 328 mm for June, leaving a heavy trail of death, destruction and devastation in its wake. While official sources give figures of under one thousand dead and around two thousand five hundred missing, the toll, as per conservative estimates, is likely to exceed five thousand. The devastation saw 154 bridges and 1520 km of road destroyed and upwards of 2232 houses wrecked. Over one hundred thousand pilgrims found themselves trapped as the Army moved in to rescue the stranded.
The Army’s Area Headquarter, located at Bareilly reacted before even being asked to do so. Commanded by a three star General Officer, it mobilised on 17th June and relocated to Dehradun from where it started functioning early next day. Simultaneously, it passed orders to its units to relocate immediately for rescue missions. The units responded with typical military precision and alacrity, underlying in the process the true nature of military leadership, which leads from the front. As an example, on the 17th itself, after an aerial reconnaissance, a unit was ordered to move to Kedarnath, establish its command post there and report readiness to the Area Commander. This occurred at a time when the civil administration was not even fully aware of the scale of devastation. The commanding officer moved forthwith, reaching Kedarnath with his unit and reported readiness by the 18th complete with command and control elements to the Area Commander. The Commanding Officer was the first to reach Kedarnath. Paradoxically, at this time, his counterparts in the civil administration were being evacuated!
The message from military commanders was clear. At a critical time, four flag officers were available at dangerous places in the mountains of Garhwal where civil administration had ceased to exist. This helped greatly in the subsequent rescue missions with decision makers available on the spot. The Commander-in-Chief of the Central Army also provided a sterling example of frontline leadership, when on 26 June he walked with the stranded passengers, leading them to safety. How many leaders walk their talk?
The Army’s reaction was quick and efficient. While exact figures are not available due to security reasons, estimates suggest initial deployment of 5000 or more troops. Thereafter, based on requirement the strength went up to around 8000 to 8500 troops. With more assistance sought in the form of support for engineering tasks, such as, construction of bridges and repair to roads the strength will only go up. The Air Force and Army Aviation contributed nearly 40 helicopters, civil aviation nearly a dozen or fewer helicopters. The ITBP initially contributed a battalion, building this up later to two battalions. This may further increase by another battalion for force strength of over two thousand personnel. The NDMA contributed around 300 personnel in the initial days of the rescue and now its strength stands further increased. The tragedy has shown up the top-heavy nature of the NDMA, overstaffed with high-ranking officials sitting in Delhi, but woefully short of functional elements at the ground level. That the Army moved in as first respondents instead of the NDMA tells its own tale.
The Indian state deploys the Forces whenever the chips are down. The forces too deliver, but whereas, the forces understand the concept of civilian supremacy the Indian state has paid scant attention to understanding the ethos of the Forces. This ethos - of Service before Self, leadership from the front, mission accomplishment at all costs, and transparency in all its dealings have been under acute national media scrutiny. Continuous live media coverage by the print and visual media has brought home to the Indian public both the unfolding tragedy and the role the Armed Forces are playing in its mitigation. Not a blemish has come on the Forces, which speaks volumes of their ethos. This factor is little understood, as the Services shy away from presenting their achievements. For them, mission accomplishment remains the single greatest aim and not its publication. This has led to a wide gap and the soldiers’ ethos of a three hundred old organisation is brushed under the carpet of babudom. In 2012, a large number of us retired veterans took part in a seminar organised by Uttarakhand Sub Area Head Quarters on the role of the Army in the floods of 2011. It seems the civil administration learnt no lessons. It slept over the findings of the seminar and today relies solely on the Army and the Central Police Forces such as ITBP for disaster management as that is the ground reality so visible today.
A weakness of the Armed Forces lies in its recording of the events. Each unit will dutifully record the role it played in disaster mitigation in its war diaries and subsequently a consolidated list of lessons learnt will emerge. The ethos of the Forces will treat this as merely a part of duty and the collective history of this great achievement is unlikely to be recorded. The Forces need to record in full, the collective effort of commanders and troops at all levels so that the nation remembers and knows what took place at such a tragic time in our history. Till 27June, the relief effort was 1820 sorties, 15, 311 evacuated by air and nearly 1, 05, 000 evacuated by air and land. Its time Dehradun Sub Area records this collectively for posterity and not lessons learnt alone. The forces need to let the nation know how they surmount almost impossible odds in service of the country as this will inspire our youth to join the Forces. The Service ethos of Service before Self leads the military to maintain a stoic silence and treat all its actions as mere rendition of duty. But we need to record the great work done so that the nation knows, and holds up such example to the rest of the country.
The forces have a commitment to the task, the fierce single-minded obsession to accomplish the mission even at the peril of one’s life. The details that the Army goes into are painstaking, with an obsessive eye for detail. Every contingency is planned for, troops briefed, events rehearsed and special troops earmarked. In this case, people were stranded at inaccessible places and special troops were sent. As an organisation the Army mitigated the risks to ensure that those rescued were not put at risk. Self-containment is another requirement for the forces. Each time there is a flood or a disaster, when all else are coming out the soldier is going in. Who looks after his sustenance? Evidently, he has to look after himself, and the military leadership, with its eye for detail, ensures that the soldier is self-contained for the mission. This gives the soldier the freedom to devote all his energies to the task. In addition, the soldiers are briefed of the need to be patient with the people they are assisting as these people are at the end of their tether. This makes for better understanding and compassion.
Locating people stranded at various places remained a challenge. In addition to locating the stranded by helicopters, the Army sent many young officers on foot patrol to locate pilgrims. It built bases up ahead to ensure that the choppers spend more time on doing the job at hand and less on commuting up and down. It is running hospitals and with the border roads is ensuring that the road axis clears up earliest. The forces are deployed in large number and assisting the civil administration in command and control functions which remains a vexed problem for the latter. The poor state of infrastructure has been pointed out by the Army, but perhaps the time has come to be more forceful in talking about such issues lest we be caught wrong footed again.
The ability to multitask without affecting the main missions shows the solid foundation of the Army organisation. Today, a web site assists in finding missing people, Army doctors provide medical aid, its units double up as bases sheltering pilgrims, its light helicopters assist in dropping supplies and the Army seamlessly goes about the main task of rescuing stranded pilgrims in a viable period. This sends a clear strategic message to those having nefarious designs because of the poor infrastructure on our border areas that the collective will of its citizens will prevail and the situation stabilised.
The nation however needs to understand the ethos of the soldier to get the best out of him. It must trust the Army’s deep commitment to democratic values and its secular mind set. Most of us veterans have managed troops and presume all is hunky dory. This is not really so as prolonged deployment brings its own sets of problems. The media will highlight just one bad incident, as that is its rightful role. However, the nation needs to understand between the working ethos of the forces and an odd event. A few stray cases cannot be taken as an erosion of the ethos of the Forces, which remains as strong as ever as shown so convincingly in the assistance being provided at Uttarakhand.
Brig Chander Thapa(Retd) is a renowned defence analyst