Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 03, 2020
India’s vision of SAGAR: Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in the Indian Ocean Region Addressing non-traditional threats in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is one of Indian Navy’s most prominent roles. Over the past decade, higher instances of natural disasters and regional instabilities has necessitated increased deployment of Indian Navy for undertaking Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), Non-combatant Evacuation (NEO), and Search and Rescue (SAR) Operations. The IOR and its hinterland form the locus of about seventy percent of the world’s natural disasters resulting from earthquakes, cyclones, tsunamis, and floods. By assuming a benign role and deploying assets, the Indian Navy continues to be at the forefront of HADR operations in coastal areas, both in India and in the maritime neighborhood. Before the unfortunate 2004 Asian tsunami which claimed thousands of lives, Indian disaster response was largely reactive and ad-hoc in nature. In response, the Indian parliament passed the Disaster Management Act in December 2005 which led to the establishment of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) as the principle coordinating authority for disaster response by both civilian and military agencies. By establishing the NDMA, the Indian government has signaled a shift from a responsive and ad-hoc approach, to one based on pro-active planning for potential disasters. By remaining at the forefront of HA/DR operations in coastal areas over the last decade, Indian Navy continues to maintain credible HA/DR capability, and promote capability deployment and coordination between regional navies for combined HA/DR operations. Towards this end, as a part of Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) initiatives in 2014, the Indian Navy assumed the chair of the IONS Working Group (IWG) on HADR, and subsequently formulating a way ahead for developing coordinated HA/DR response among IOR navies.

Net Security provider and First Responder in Indian Ocean

The Indian Navy has come a long way since 2013, when former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh declared that India was a ‘net security provider’ in the Indian Ocean and is committed in its efforts to improve the maritime environment. However, walking the talk and putting words into actions requires political will, operational readiness, and improved capabilities. The Indian Navy has demonstrated its capability to assume the role of a ‘net security provider’ in the IOR in recent years by positioning itself as a “first responder” along the Indian Ocean littorals. By contributing its resources to prevent or mitigate regional or international crises, the Indian Navy continues to demonstrate its ability to sustain long deployments across the IOR and shore up its credentials as a responsible global power. A significant beneficiary of India’s HA/DR missions has been African countries. With a vast coastline of 18,950 miles (30,497 kilometers), African littorals and Island nations are prone to natural disasters such as cyclones, floods, tsunami, typhoons, earthquake, and droughts. The key to mitigate disasters in such adverse situations rest on ensuring swift and coordinated interventions with local authorities on ground.

Cyclone Diane and Idai

The latest example of Indian Navy’s demonstration of its HA/DR operations capabilities came in the wake of ‘Cyclone Diane’ which landfall in Madagascar and La Reunion late on January 24 causing heavy rain and flash floods. The Madagascar government declared a state of national emergency as the floods claimed thirty-one lives and inundated more than ten thousand homes. Based on request from President Andry Rajoelina, the Indian Navy launched ‘Operation Vanilla’ to provide HA/DR relief. Indian Navy Ship Airavat which was mission-deployed in the Southern Indian Ocean and en-route to Seychelles, was immediately diverted towards Antsiranana – the capital of Madagascar - to render assistance. During the port call, the Commanding Officer and his team held meetings with local Madagascar authorities and took appraisal of the situation. Medical and disaster relief teams were deployed in affected areas. On February 1st, Indian authorities handed over relief materials comprising disaster relief stores, blankets, clothing, tents, food and medicines to Madagascar Cyclone Idai, a Category 4 tropical storm which made landfall in the port city of Beira, Mozambique in the early hours of March 15, 2019 caused havoc, destruction of property and resulted in numerous deaths. The accompanying rains left thousands of people displace from their homes, with its impact being felt further inland in Malawi and Zimbabwe. Fortunately, three Indian Navy vessels – INS Sujatha, INS Shardul, and INS Sarathi – which were operating in the region, were immediately diverted to render assistance. Upon reaching Beira on March 18-19, the responders immediately commenced liaison work with local authorities by disembarking HA/DR stores including food, medicines, clothes, and water. Indian naval crew deployed their boats and helicopters and rescued hundreds of stranded people, many of them in Buzi Island, which is cut off from the mainland. A makeshift kitchen was set up to provide meals for rescue workers, while doctors attended to causalities in medical camps. Further, in order to sustain the rescue efforts, India sent its fourth ship – INS Magar – which carried dry provisions, ready-to-eat meals, and daily essentials, in addition to 500 kg of epidemic-related medicines, and 400 tonnes of rice.

What makes it possible for Indian Navy to be ‘first responder’?

What made it possible for the Indian Navy to be the first responder to both these incidents in Madagascar and Mozambique is its operational readiness. Indian naval ships on overseas deployment are mandated to carry additional HA/DR kits for such possible events, thus enabling them to be well-prepared to undertake relief work. This has been possible due to a shift in Indian Navy’s deployment patterns from 2017 onwards to a dynamic ‘Mission Based Deployments’ in which Indian mission-ready ships are prepared round the clock to carry out anti-piracy patrol and provide humanitarian assistance when required. Such an approach provides Indian ships the requisite speed and flexibility to maneuver at the shortest possible time and provide assistance in its area of operations.

Previous instances

Previous instances of Indian HA/DR operations in Africa includes - ‘Operation Blossom’ in Libya 2011 in which 150 Indian citizens were evacuated by the Indian Navy; An assistance of $8 million to countries affected by severe famine and drought in Horn of Africa i.e. Somalia, Kenya, and Djibouti in September 2011 through the World Food Programme; Supplying $1 million worth of life-saving drugs and medical equipment’s to National Transitional Council (NTC) of Libya in January 2012; ‘Operation Rahat’ during which Indian warships rescued over 3,000 stranded Indian citizens in Yemen in April 2015. Initially Djibouti was designated as the center for evacuation, but the port of Djibouti played a critical role in the operation as it was used by Indian ships for passage and replenishment. In the aftermath of a drought in Mozambique in 2016, India provided $10 million for the purchase of wheat and a donation of 100 tonnes of essential medicines and transport vehicles;


Both these recent instances of natural disasters in Madagascar and Mozambique points towards the particular vulnerabilities of the Indian Ocean Region. It can be argued that more than armed forces, it is the navies of IOR countries that will need to play leading role in developing and executing HA/DR strategies. India’s vision for the Indian Ocean is encapsulated by the concept of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region). SAGAR has both various distinct and inter-related elements – such as deepening economic and security cooperation in the littorals, enhancing capacities to safeguard land and maritime territories, working towards sustainable regional development, Blue Economy, and promoting collective action to deal with non-traditional threats like natural disasters, piracy, terrorism etc. While each of these elements of SAGAR requires equal attention, developing an effective response mechanism to address humanitarian crisis and natural disasters is one of the most visible element in India’s evolving Indian Ocean strategy. Without distinguishing between natural or man-made disasters, the Indian Navy has time and again demonstrated that it cares for and stands by its IOR partners in times of need, and has incorporated HA/DR operations as of the foremost element in its vision.
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Abhishek Mishra

Abhishek Mishra

Abhishek Mishra is an Associate Fellow with the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (MP-IDSA). His research focuses on India and China’s engagement ...

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