- Issue Briefs and Special Reports
- Nov 08 2017
This brief seeks to understand the importance of Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) initiatives in the Bay of Bengal undertaken by the BIMSTEC countries individually, and the dynamics of their collaboration as a subregional forum. It opens with an analysis of the turbulent nature of the Bay of Bengal, because of which disaster management gains paramount importance for the littoral states. The aim is to understand the BIMSTEC countries’ individual HADR mechanisms, their varied approaches to the principles of HADR, and the avenues for cooperation they have explored in the recent past. The brief then examines the potential for greater collaboration amongst the BIMSTEC countries in the context of HADR, and offers recommendations to strengthen these efforts.
The Bay of Bengal bridges the two regions of South Asia and Southeast Asia. It is one of the world’s most turbulent water bodies; often-violent cyclones frequently develop in the bay, causing disasters in the surrounding areas. Therefore, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) mechanisms are highly important.
Natural calamities strike nations without discrimination based on political borders and thus foster bonds of unity amongst those that are affected. As a natural corollary, HADR has become one of the core areas of cooperation for the Bay of Bengal littoral states, which together form the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). All the member states—India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan—are equipped with varying degrees of military and civilian HADR capabilities. India, with the largest HADR force amongst the Bay littoral states, leads the BIMSTEC in the areas of environment and disaster management.
Against this backdrop, this brief analyses the HADR efforts of the BIMSTEC members individually, and their potential to make BIMSTEC a functional subregional organisation through mutual cooperation in times of natural crisis. It emphasises on the role of India as a major stakeholder in the context of 10 recent HADR operations conducted in the Bay of Bengal (see Annexure).
BAY LITTORALS and HADR MECHANISMS
The 1994 Oslo guidelines on "The Use of Foreign Military and Civil Defence Assets in Disaster Relief" state that “humanitarian assistance must be provided with the core principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality and must also fully respect the sovereignty of states.” Western and Asian countries differ in their approaches to providing aid during HADR operations. For Western nations, providing or receiving relief in the aftermath of a humanitarian crisis does not pose threat to their national sovereignty, as they are economically strong, to begin with. Asian countries like India, meanwhile, are more cautious and protective about their sovereignty and may be reluctant in engaging in such HADR operations where there exists a possibility of violating their own or another country’s sovereignty.
South Asian Members
India has the longest coastline, and several small islands, in the Bay of Bengal. These islands are extremely prone to natural disasters originating in the Bay. India’s HADR conforms to the “typically Asian view” being “apolitical”, “decentralised”, and most often taking a “government-to-government approach.” Only on one occasion did India extend aid in a post-conflict scenario, i.e., in 2008-2009 in Sri Lanka, when regional stability and ensuring harmony in the region gained precedence over its own Non-Aligned principles.
In 2005 the Disaster Management Act was adopted by the Indian government, leading to the formation of two bodies—the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), equipped to train people to handle disasters; and the National Disaster Management Authority, headed by the prime minister and the State Disaster Management Authorities under the respective chief ministers—“to spearhead and implement a holistic and integrated approach to Disaster Management in India.”
India, through its HADR activities, seeks to establish harmonious ties with its neighbours and conceives the idea of rendering assistance as “extending sympathy” to the disaster-affected regions or as a “goodwill gesture.” For India’s policymakers, “building capabilities, interoperability and a conceptual framework for participation in these operations is gaining increasing urgency.” India is cautious in its HADR approach as it believes that the responsibility to protect should not be a pretext for humanitarian intervention or unilateral action. During the first BIMSTEC Summit in 2004, India proposed cooperation in the area of information-sharing and remote sensing for catastrophe management. India also put forward a plan to establish the BIMSTEC Centre on Weather and Climate, which has been operational since August 2004.
While both military and civilian authorities engage in India’s HADR initiatives, it is the Army that is more active in disaster management operations. India engages in a number of joint HADR exercises, such as “Jalrahat”, “Prakampana” and “Sahayata”. The first was undertaken by the Indian Army, the second by the Navy, and the third, started in September 2016, was undertaken by the Air Force. To nurture a more effective and integrated HADR apparatus, India must not only engage in technologically advancing its armed forces but also devise a methodology by which its civilian authorities and armed forces can work in harmony.
Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to the frequent natural calamities occurring in the Bay. Unlike India, where HADR operations are based on direct government-to-government interaction, in Bangladesh, NGOs play a significant role in disaster relief activities along with the government.
Headed by the prime minister, the National Disaster Management Council was established when Bangladesh passed the Disaster Management Act in 2012. The task of the council is to review disaster-affected areas and respond effectively with policies and directives.Under the council are numerous nodal agencies. The Disaster Management and Relief Division under the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management, Government of Bangladesh is responsible for coordinating national disaster management efforts across all agencies in accordance with the Standing Order on Disasters of 1997.
Bangladesh’s armed forces—for its command structure, trained manpower and capabilities—is always in a good position to make the fastest response in the hour of need. The Ministry of Food and Disaster Management is the main government organ under which the Armed Forces Division works along with civilian authorities to address crisis situations.
However, the problem is one of lack of coordination and resource allocation amongst the different ministry-controlled agencies. The disaster management apparatus is not very effective at the grassroots level. Moreover, the resources and funds are spent more on disaster response than on disaster preparedness. Therefore, the National Plan for Disaster Management was framed to bring a paradigm shift in disaster management from conventional response and relief practice to a more comprehensive risk reduction culture. Bangladesh must empower local communities: with their local knowledge, they can take immediate measures to lessen the consequences should disaster strike. As a BIMSTEC member, Bangladesh contributes in joint HADR operations but can be more effective if it integrates its internal HADR mechanisms.
Sri Lanka often suffers from the natural calamities raging over the Bay of Bengal. The Sri Lankan Ministry of Disaster Management seeks to protect human life through effective prevention and management of disasters. The government adopted the Sri Lanka Disaster Management Act No. 13 in 2005 and established the National Council for Disaster Management (NCDM) as the supreme body for disaster management in Sri Lanka, under the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, led by the president. Unlike in other BIMSTEC countries, in Sri Lanka, some leaders of the opposition are part of the council along with some ministers from the central government and chief ministers of every provincial council.
It has been argued that although the NCDM is efficient and works without unnecessary delays, lack of interest of the private sector, absence of committed community participation, and the lack of political will in the execution of the National Disaster Management Framework continue to hinder effective disaster management in Sri Lanka. As a result, Sri Lanka remains more a recipient of HADR than a donor, dependent on India for assistance in the aftermath of natural disasters, as was evident after the Tsunami of 2004.
Nepal and Bhutan
Nepal is vulnerable to earthquakes, landslides and glacial lake outburst floods. It is geologically vulnerable due to difficult climatic conditions, and tectonic and geomorphic processes. Loss of life and property, therefore, is a common phenomenon.
The Nepal Centre for Disaster Management was formed in February 2002 to empower locals to handle natural disasters through training and proper awareness programmes. However, the flaws in Nepal’s HADR apparatus were exposed during the 2015 earthquakes. In an uneven terrain, providing HADR proved to be difficult. The government decided that there was an urgent need to engage in proactive policies related to natural disasters, with emphasis on preparedness, rescue, relief management and rehabilitation.
Like Nepal, Bhutan too is prone to earthquakes and landslides. The Disaster Management Act was adopted by the Parliament of the Kingdom of Bhutan in February 2013, which established the National Disaster Management Authority comprising the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs. This body formulated Bhutan’s Disaster Management Strategic Policy Framework and approved the National Disaster Management and Contingency Plan.The aim of the department is to reduce the risk of disasters and embark on disaster management initiatives to advance the goal of “gross national happiness.” A special feature of Bhutan’s Department of Disaster Management in comparison to the other BIMSTEC countries is that it also undertakes poverty alleviation initiatives as a grant of relief in the aftermath of a disaster.
Bhutan’s HADR apparatus is well integrated but has not made significant external contributions compared to other BIMSTEC members. However, during the massive 2015 Nepal earthquakes, Bhutan managed to provide aid and assistance in relief operations.
Southeast Asian Members
Myanmar and Thailand
The Myanmar government’s focal point for Disaster Preparedness and Response is the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement. In 2009, the Myanmar Action Plan for Disaster Risk Reduction was adopted, and three emergency coordination centres were set up. It proved to be the heart of Myanmar’s HADR apparatus, as was witnessed during the floods of 2015. The Disaster Management Law of 2013 led to the establishment of the National Committee for Disaster Management, the highest decision-making body for disaster management chaired by the vice president. Working committees and sub-committees are constituted depending on the emergency generated by the crisis. In 2015, the government formulated the Disaster Management Rules.However, Myanmar’s capability to respond to disasters remains inadequate.
HADR efforts come under the umbrella of the Myanmar Armed Forces. Effective coordination, information sharing, networking, monitoring, rapid assistance and deployment of forces are required between civil agencies and armed forces. Despite having a large HADR apparatus, Myanmar requires significant amount of external assistance from its neighbouring BIMSTEC countries.
Thailand experiences its fair share of natural catastrophes that originate in the Bay. The government adopted the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Act in 2007. The Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation under the Ministry of Interior is the core government department that handles national disaster management work. The National Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Committee, headed by the prime minister, is responsible for making policies on disaster risk management. The Provincial Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Committee and Bangkok Metropolitan Committee are present at the state level. The “provincial plan” authorises local governments to undertake disaster management in the aftermath of the disaster.
In terms of HADR engagement with the other BIMSTEC nations, the second Indo-Thailand HADR Tabletop Exercise 2017 was conducted in May 2017, between the Indian Air Force and Royal Thailand Air Force. The exercise aimed to lay down a procedure for disaster relief operations and establish a decision support system at various stages of relief operations.
ACROSS THE BAY: HADR COLLABORATIONS
An evaluation of the various approaches and HADR mechanisms of the BIMSTEC countries reveals that many BIMSTEC countries are underdeveloped, and therefore have inadequate capacity to respond effectively to disasters.Therefore, it is important in the Bay of Bengal subregion to study how the United Nations’ Sendai Framework may be effective in institutionalising collaborative HADR arrangement both at the micro and macro levels.
Sendai Framework: Making HADR more effective
The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015–30 propagates an institutional approach to disaster mitigation and includes seven goals: reducing global disaster mortality, lowering the number of disaster victims, minimising the loss of property and damage to infrastructure, increasing the number of nations with disaster management strategies by enhancing international cooperation, increasing the availability of early warning systems, and improving disaster risk information. This framework also provides four priority sectors for disaster risk reduction (DRR):
- Understanding the disaster risk;
- Strengthening disaster risk governance for effective management;
- Investing in DRR; and
- Facilitating better disaster preparedness for effective response and following the motto of "Build Back Better" in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.
The Micro Level: Decentralisation to Strengthen Disaster Preparedness
For implementation of the Sendai Framework, effective decentralisation is a prerequisite. Especially for the BIMSTEC nations that are highly susceptible to natural hazards, there is a need to shift from disaster response to disaster preparedness, which will significantly curtail the number of casualties. To achieve this, people at the grassroots must be educated and trained in disaster management. This has been successfully implemented to an extent in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where locals are being educated as nodal agents to report any signs of impending disaster and to mobilise early evacuation operations. It is desirable that such measures be undertaken on a subregional scale. Once implemented, the Sendai Framework will lead to decentralisation at the micro level of the BIMSTEC states.
The Macro Level: Facilitating Subregional Collaboration
To facilitate better exchange of ideas, experiences and HADR practices, and the initiation of new subregional collaborative ventures, it is important to enhance disaster prevention and preparedness in the Bay of Bengal. Keeping this in mind, the 2016 Delhi Declaration of the Asian Ministerial Conference for DRR, aimed at implementing the Sendai Framework, is an inspiration for the BIMSTEC nations to engage in better subregional HADR initiatives.
A reflection of such efforts may be found in the BIMSTEC Disaster Management Exercise initiated by India’s NDRF in August 2017.
Learning from MILAN
The joint collaboration of MILAN, which involved most of the BIMSTEC countries, may be worth evaluating to make the BIMSTEC’s own HADR operations more successful. MILAN deemed profitable the sharing of specialised HADR skills and best practices between the navies of all Bay littoral states. Thus, an “international maritime seminar,” focusing on “Maritime Cooperation for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) Operations” was organised as part of MILAN 2014. Participating navies found common procedures of coordination, logistics and medical aid, all essential for joint HADR operations. MILAN has been growing from strength to strength ever since. It allows participating navies to interact on several fronts, and showcases the Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ rich heritage. After all, the enormity of managing any natural disaster calls for collective and collaborative efforts so that relief can be provided with efficiency and speed.
In March 2017, the security chiefs of the BIMSTEC members recognised Bay of Bengal as a common space for which collective strategies must be designed. They put emphasis on maritime security and on looking for avenues to strengthen maritime security cooperation and HADR operations.
The first preparatory BIMSTEC Disaster Management Exercise was organised by India’s NDRF in August 2017. This exercise provides a platform to share the best practices on comprehensive aspects of DRR, and strengthen regional response and coordination for disaster management amongst the BIMSTEC members. The next phase of the exercise—comprising tabletop exercise, field training exercise and after action review—was held in October. The main points highlighted were inclusion of women in disaster management and arrangements for psycho-social trauma care. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s words on greater regional integration and the 10 points on DRR further established India as the leader of HADR operations in the Bay of Bengal.
An independent HADR force under BIMSTEC can only be as effective as the member countries strive for it to be. At an individual level, developing harmony and coordination between civilian and military capabilities is necessary, and at the subregional level, BIMSTEC members must foster mutual understanding and cooperation while keeping in mind each other’s sensitivity to the protection of national sovereignty.
This brief makes the following specific recommendations:
- Organise joint HADR exercise drills within BIMSTEC;
- Standardise procedures for evacuation, a common legal framework, capacity building;
- Share best practices among the members; and
- Consider building an independent HADR force under BIMSTEC.
India’s role in recent natural disasters in the Bay of Bengal
|Incident||Year||Effects of the Incident||HADR collaborative initiatives|
|Indian Ocean Tsunami (India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand)||2004|
Massive loss of life and destruction of property.
Many were left homeless.
|India, despite being itself affected, sent three external relief operations to Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Maldives, which included 32 naval ships, 20 helicopters and 7 aircraft.|
Low-lying areas were flooded, causing immense loss of life.
Destruction of infrastructure.
Collapse of communication, electricity and water supplies.
Bangladesh government provided money and resources to victims and re-engaged them in livelihood activities.
NGOs ran rehabilitation centres.
The Indian Navy was at the forefront of relief operations.
Loss of life and destruction of property.
|The Indian Navy sent two naval ships, INS Rana and INS Kirpan, to provide relief to the victims under ‘Operation Sahayata’.|
|Cyclone Aila - India, Bangladesh and Bhutan||2012|
Loss of life and livelihood.
Massive floods, resulting in loss of agricultural crops and contamination of freshwater resources.
|All three governments undertook disaster management initiatives. Coastal shelter homes were built and cash and resources were distributed to the displaced.|
|Cyclone Phailin- Mainly India Bangladesh and to a lesser extent, Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand||2013|
Loss of life.
Destruction of property.
Collapse of infrastructure.
Scarcity of commodities.
18 helicopters, 12 aircraft and two warships were kept on standby by the Indian government for rescue and relief operations.
Victims were evacuated to shelter homes.
HADR apparatus of all affected states provided necessary relief measures.
Death toll rose to 1,000.
Immense loss of property.
India deployed four unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to scan areas.
Centre for Science and Environment pointed out that there was need for understanding climatic changes to make India’s HADR apparatus more inclusive.
|Cyclone Hudhud-India (Odisha and Andhra Pradesh).||2014|
Loss of life.
Collapse of infrastructure.
The National Disaster Response Force sent 42 teams to undertake evacuation measures.
The Indian Navy launched ‘Operation Lehar’ a massive search and rescue operation, to assess the damage and rush help. Lehar', a massive search and rescue operation, to assess the damage and rush help to areas still reeling under the effect of the devastating storm. the Indian Navy launched 'Operation Lehar', a massive search and rescue operation, to assess the damage and rush help to areas still reeling under the effect of the devastating storm. the Indian Navy launched 'Operation Lehar', a massive search and rescue operation, to assess the damage and rush help to areas still reeling under the effect of the devastating storm. the Indian Navy launched 'Operation Lehar', a massive search and rescue operation, to assess the damage and rush help to areas still reeling under the effect of the devastating storm. the Indian Navy launched 'Operation Lehar', a massive search and rescue operation, to assess the damage and rush help to areas still reeling under the effect of the devastating storm.
|Nepal Earthquake - Nepal, north India, north-west Bangladesh, western Bhutan||2015||Thousands were killed and many were injured. Architecture and property lay in shambles.|
Task forces sent to Nepal included the Indian Army and the National Disaster Response Force.
The Indian Air Force operationalised repair, helped in evacuation and transportation.
Unfamiliarity of terrain, language and replication of aid was a problem.
When Nepal’s own HADR apparatus fell short of managing the disaster, India filled the vacuum with its own HADR support.
Loss of life.
Flash floods destroyed all physical modes of connectivity.
Evacuation centres were set up.
Displaced people were returned to their homes.
India extended help after an official request from Myanmar.
|Cyclone Mora-Bangladesh (Cox Bazaar, Chittagong)||2017|
Immense loss of life.
70% of property damaged.
In an act of disaster preparedness, food and shelter had already been arranged by the Bangladesh government for the evacuated people. Medical teams were assigned for their treatment.
Cyclone Mora was one of those rare instances when civilian authorities undertook HADR operations.
Control rooms were set up and disaster mitigation plans were drawn up.
Indian Navy sent two ships to Bangladesh with relief materials and was simultaneously running two HADR operations; one in Sri Lanka and the other in Bangladesh. INS Sumitra was engaged in search and rescue operations after Mora struck Chittagong.
- ‘Cyclone Hudhud, Navy’s Operation Lehar in full Swing’, The Times of India, Oct 14, 201414 October 2014,
- ‘Cyclone Mora: Indian Navy sends second ship to Bangladesh’,
- ‘Drones scan flood-hit Uttarakhand’. 2013, Live mint,
- ‘HADR Exercise by Indian Navy’, Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Defence, Government of India. 10th February 2015,
- ‘Myanmar: Floods and Landslides’, Reliefweb, Jul 2015,
- ‘Navy on High Alert for Hudhud Relief Efforts’, Report from Government of India, 10 Oct 2014,
- ‘Thousands evacuated as cyclone Mora nears Bangladesh coast’,
- 29th May 2017,https://newsnextbd.com/?p=4222
- Dhanasree Jayaram , ‘Climate Diplomacy, The Need for Regional Disaster Diplomacy Initiatives in South Asia’., 23 November, 2015.
- Elsevier’, Geoforum , Volume 64, August 2015, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016718515001748
- Indian Navy, Press Release, ‘Navy on the alert for Phailin relief efforts’.
- Nadiruzzaman and Dr, Wrathall, ‘Participatory exclusion – Cyclone Sidr and its aftermath.
- Yeshey Lotay, ‘Country Report, Bhutan, Disaster Management ‘, Asian Disaster Reduction Center, February 2015,
- Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury is a Fellow at ORF-Kolkata, working under the Neighbourhood Regional Studies Initiative. She is Coordinator of the 'Proximity to Connectivity' research programme.
- Sohini Bose is a Research Assistant at ORF-Kolkata. She is part of the research project, 'India’s Maritime Connectivity: Importance of the Bay of Bengal’.
 Sarabjit Singh Parmar, “Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) in India’s National Strategy,” Journal of Defence Studies 6, no. 1 (January 2012): 91,
 Ibid., 92.
 Ibid., 95.
 Claudia Meier and C.S.R. Murthy, “India’s Growing Involvement in Humanitarian Assistance,” GPPi Research Paper No. 13, March 2011, 6,
 Sarabjit Singh Parmar, op. cit., 93.
 Ibid., 91.
 The Indian navy ships managed to rescue civilians of other nationalities, among which were three BIMSTEC nations: Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. Sarabjit Singh Parmar, op. cit., 94.
 National Plan for Disaster Management, Disaster Management Bureau, Disaster Management and Relief Division, Government of People’s Republic of Bangladesh, April 2010, 41, http://extwprlegs1.fao.org/docs/pdf/bgd146945.pdf.
 “Inter-regional Comparisons of Humanitarian Action,” Report, Conference organised by The Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) Programme Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.
 National Plan for Disaster Management, op. cit., iii.
 Hilmy Ishak, “Disaster Context in Sri Lanka: An Analysis of Country's Preparedness to Flood,”Oracle HCM Cloud.
 Based on interaction with the officials, Department of HADR, Government of Andaman and Nicobar Island on 18 July at Port Blair.
 “Preparatory Meeting of the First BIMSTEC Disaster Management Exercise-2017 begins,” News Clippings, National Disaster Response Force-Official Website, Ministry of Home Affairs,Government of India, 9 August 2017,.
 “Preparatory Meeting of the First BIMSTEC Disaster Management Exercise-2017 begins,” op. cit.
 “4-day-long BIMSTEC Disaster Management Exercise – 2017 concludes, India has emerged as a frontline state for Disaster Risk Reduction,” Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs,Government of India, 13 October 2017.