O.P. Singh, the director general of the NDRF, speaks to The Wire about the enhanced training and communication tools the force will rely on to reduce fatalities during floods this year.
The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) was constituted by the union government in 2006 to provide a specialised response to natural and man-made disasters. The NDRF, which has 12 battalions of 1,149 personnel each, is the prime responder in disasters of all kinds, including floods.
This year, higher-than-average monsoon rainfall has been forecast for the country – which means an increased threat of floods.
O.P. Singh, director general of the NDRF, speaks to The Wire about the NDRF’s preparations for the year.
With a greater-than-normal forecast for monsoon rainfall this year, the chance of floods has also increased. How has the NDRF prepared for this scenario, in terms of its deployment strategy for a quick response?
There are 12 NDRF battalions and an additional 23 ‘footprints’ located in different places across the country, based on the vulnerability profile of the region. The placement has been done keeping in mind mobility with respect to adjoining states and minimal response times in their deployment to disaster sites. Making sure these forces are proactively available and ‘pre-positioned’ has immensely helped minimise damage during natural calamities. In addition, some urban search and rescue teams are permanently kept on alert mode in each battalion. These teams are self-contained in all ways and move to the disaster site within 30 minutes of being informed of the eventuality. All NDRF battalions cover flood-prone states or areas and pre-position their urban search and rescue teams to respond to any emergency at all.
Have you acquired more equipment and boats to effectively deal with flood situations?
Our preparedness focuses on chiseling skills and equipping oneself. This is called capacity-building and can be used to reduce vulnerability to disasters, mitigate their impact or respond more efficiently to them. Presently, the NDRF has 310 different types of equipment as per international standards for responding to various natural and manmade disasters. Specialised equipment forms the backbone of any search-and-rescue operation by the NDRF and is based on the latest technologies available worldwide. Efforts are being made to procure additional equipment and inflatable rubber boats to enhance our response to floods. We have recently established a research and development cell in the NDRF headquarters to explore the latest disaster response equipment available worldwide at the moment.
Is the NDRF making use of modern technology, like drones, to help locate marooned people?
The NDRF’s mission is to respond effectively and in a timely manner to victims of disasters. Towards those aims, we have collaborated with specialised agencies in the country for upgrading information, data, skills, training and preparedness. A memorandum of understanding has also been signed with the National Remote Sensing Centre at the Indian Space Research Organisation, Hyderabad, to facilitate the NDRF in disaster management support services.
We are invariably using drones to locate marooned people. We are also in the process of acquiring technologically superior equipment, which will be more effective in doing this.
Is the NDRF taking other measures to improve its performance?
We are in the process of creating state-of-the-art infrastructure for all our battalions. Secondly, the NDRF has built a training academy in Nagpur. This academy will impart training to not only NDRF personnel but also to other stakeholders. Then, the NDRF is using local media as a tool to communicate with the masses, so that in times of need, accurate information can be gathered directly from the people, which may help the NDRF respond accurately and save precious human lives.
Every year about 1,500 people die due to floods in India, mainly because they get cut off from land and are swept away. Are there new strategies to prevent such scenarios?
The Centre and states are working together to minimise losses due to various disasters, especially floods. The NDRF has also pre-positioned its teams in flood-prone areas to respond quickly to disasters. These teams are equipped with inflatable boats, and deep-diving and other flood rescue equipment. The NDRF works in close coordination with the states and other stakeholders. We are in continuous touch with the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), in order to act upon their warnings. The NDRF is also engaged in community capacity building. Our men are carrying out familiarisation exercises and training in basic rescue techniques using locally available resources, to be used in the case of floods, especially in flood-prone areas.
The responses of the states and the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) are also crucial during floods. What is being done to improve the coordination and response of government officials to ensure a quick evacuation in situations of rising floodwaters?
The SDRF plays an important role in managing the loss of lives during floods, especially during the monsoons. Being the local arm, it has much more knowledge about the topography, access routes, vulnerable and safe areas, and basic needs of the affected population. It plays an instrumental role in the timely evacuation of the affected population, since it can respond before the arrival of the NDRF.
To improve the coordination and response of government officials, joint coordination meetings are being conducted at regular intervals at the Central level, with the participation of the state, the NDRF, IMD, ministry of home affairs and National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), to discuss strategies to tackle flood disaster situations.
Besides this, joint mock exercises with state officials and NGOs are being conducted at regular intervals. Vulnerable areas in the states have been identified and rescue teams of the NDRF and the SDRF are deployed as a part of the mission of proactive deployment. Apart from this, the home affairs ministry, the states, the IMD, the NDMA, the Central Water Commission and other agencies have been involved for better management. Further, timely information provided by agencies greatly affects the evacuation plan. For this, the NDRF and states are in close contact with the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services and IMD.
Are we better placed this year than before in being able to reduce fatalities during floods?
Experience accumulated over the years, of operational challenges and close interaction with the masses, has made the NDRF a reliable and efficient response unit capable of responding to all kind of disasters across the country and abroad.
This experience enables the NDRF to face challenges with confidence. More familiarisation exercises and community capacity building programmes are being organised at regular intervals in vulnerable areas, to enhance interaction with local populations and sensitise them to flood disasters and rescue techniques using available local resources. During the current year, we have pre-positioned 29 urban search and rescue teams of the NDRF across the country to reduce fatalities during disasters. These teams are equipped with state-of-the-art disaster response gadgets and life-saving tools that include boats, deep-diving sets and effective communication setups.