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The Himalayan Disaster

The earthquake in Nepal provided an opportunity to the Indian Air Force to once again prove its mettle with a swift response to provide rescue and relief in the event of a disaster

Issue: 05-2015By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By IAF

At about 1140 hours Indian Standard Time on Saturday April 25, 2015, a devastating earthquake of a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter Scale struck Nepal, a tiny nation with a population of about 30 million nestled in the Himalayan mountains. With the epicentre of the earthquake just about 80 kilometres north-west of the capital city of Kathmandu, the tremors were felt well beyond the borders of the nation.

Regarded as the most powerful earthquake to strike Nepal since the one in 1934, the episode on April 25 this year also affected the adjoining areas in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Assam in India, though with less severity. Tremors of even lower intensity were experienced even in the national capital Delhi. It is understood that parts of Tibet too across the northern border of Nepal were affected. As is usually the case with powerful earthquakes, in this case too, it was followed by aftershocks that first occurred at 1244 hours the same day and continued intermittently for three days leaving the hapless inhabitants of the world’s poorest and least developed nation in complete distress and overwhelmed with a feeling of helplessness.

As assessed later by the Government of Nepal, around eight to nine million people were affected by the disaster. With around 25 per cent of the population in distress, the task before the Government of Nepal and the disaster management agencies was indeed challenging! As stated by the Prime Minister of Nepal, the number of lives lost could well exceed 10,000. Even this figure could be an underestimate as thousands still lie buried in the rubble in remote areas. What further compounded the problem was that the earthquake struck during the tourist season trapping a large number of foreign nationals. The scale of the disaster was unprecedented indeed! It destroyed not only a large number of UNESCO World Heritage sites but also the fragile economy that will take decades to rebuild.

Strategic Significance of Nepal

Nepal, a buffer state between India and China, is of immense strategic importance to both the nations. With China’s drive and determination to attain superpower status, this landlocked nation will assume greater significance for India. Rivalry between India and China in relationship with Nepal is thus quite natural and understandable as both vie for influence in what was once upon a time the only Hindu kingdom in the world. During the last decade or so, China has been making sizeable investments in the economy of Nepal with special focus on development of infrastructure in the areas of telecommunications, power generation and highways. China is reported to be also contemplating building a railway line that will link Tibet with Nepal. This project will involve digging a tunnel under world’s tallest mountain, Mount Everest. The project that is expected to be completed by 2020 will provide a rail link between Beijing and Kathmandu via Tibet, something that ought to be a matter of serious concern for India.

Signalling a break from the complacency towards Nepal that had set in the recent years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nepal in the beginning of August 2014 in an attempt to revive traditional ties, build new bonds and recover some lost ground. Incidentally, he was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Nepal in 17 years. With the aim to strengthen the weakening bilateral ties, the Prime Minister focused on four Cs—namely Cooperation, Connectivity, Culture and Constitution.

Indian Air Force to the Rescue

While the disaster that struck Nepal in the last week of April this year proved to be a litmus test for India’s foreign policy towards this neighbour that is of critical importance for the national security interests of the nation, it also provided an opportunity to the Indian Air Force (IAF) to once again prove its mettle with a swift response to undertake rescue and relief operations in the event of a natural calamity in a friendly nation. In fact, in the first week of April this year, the IAF had participated in a big way in the evacuation of a large number of Indian and foreign nationals from Yemen that was the victim of a man-made disaster. For this effort, the IAF had won global acclaim.

It is indeed a matter of pride for every citizen of the nation that India was the first nation to respond to the disaster in Nepal. A large-scale rescue and relief operation codenamed Operation (Op) Maitri, was launched. At the helm of affairs was Prime Minister Modi himself who took personal charge and taking a vow “to wipe the tears of every person in Nepal”, within a few minutes of receipt of news of the earthquake, he called for a high level meeting at 1500 hours during which he ordered the deployment of teams of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) including teams of medical personnel for relief and rescue. The speed and scale of response left rival China far behind!

The IAF was once again the spearhead of Op Maitri providing a swift response with a fleet of over a dozen aircraft that included the latest acquisitions such as the gigantic C-17 Globemaster III heavylift aircraft, the C-130J Super Hercules tactical transport aircraft and the versatile Mi-17V5 medium-lift helicopters. However, not to be left behind, the old workhorse Ilyushin IL-76 and the humble An-32 that joined in later, were also there to contribute their mite. The speed of response can be gauged by the fact that the first IAF aircraft landed at Kathmandu before 1800 hours on 25 April. Thereafter there was an aircraft was landing at the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu there every two hours. Operations by the transport fleet of the IAF continued round the clock.

The fleet of fixed-wing aircraft transported to Kathmandu, personnel of the NDRF along with engineering task forces, medical personnel with medicines, mobile hospitals, drinking water, dry rations, cooked food, blankets and tents. On the return flights, these aircraft brought back to India thousands of personnel, largely Indian but also some foreign nationals, who were stranded there. One major limitation that impeded operations by fixed-wing aircraft was the capacity of Tribhuvan International Airport at Kathmandu that had only nine parking bays. This factor militated against any effort to increase the number of flights to and from Kathmandu by fixed-wing aircraft. Alongside military aircraft, few civil airliners operating to Kathmandu had also to be accommodated.

The Mi-17 and the latest version the Mi-17V5 helicopters carrying relief material and personnel fanned out to the rural, remote and not so easily accessible areas in which most of the villages lay devastated and some even completely cut off from civilisation. Where possible, the helicopters landed mostly on make-shift helipads and flew back the sick, injured and the homeless to Kathmandu for evacuation by fixed-wing aircraft or to be housed in relief camps. Where landing was not feasible, the helicopters air dropped supplies to the needy. IAF helicopters reached Mount Everest base camp on the morning of April 26 to rescue a team of 61 mountaineers that were stranded with 19 of them having lost their lives in the avalanche that was triggered by the earthquake. Relief and rescue operations by helicopters were frequently interrupted by bad weather mainly heavy rain and low clouds especially in the first three to four days after the disaster struck. The relief operations by IAF in Nepal continue till date in the wake of the aftershocks and fresh quakes to hit the country repeatedly since the first major shock.

Strategic Significance

While the IAF reaffirms its commitment towards humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in support of nations in distress, near or far, these opportunities have a much greater importance and strategic significance. India has been undertaking disaster relief operations for more than a decade frequently evacuating Indian nationals from zones of conflict in different parts of the world. Long-range transcontinental disaster relief operations employing strategic airlift capability would help the IAF sharpen its professional edge should there be a need for military intervention across the border or in distant lands. The capability of swift response employing strategic airlift capability developed though these humanitarian or disaster relief operations, will serve as a force multiplier for the IAF when it is called upon to assist in the projection of military power abroad.