Inept efforts by armed forces anger flood-stricken villagers
By Our Defence Correspondent
Journalists who covered the flood-affected areas during the crisis witnessed the slow reaction of the forces, and the utter inadequacy of the numbers and men and resources that were sent to these areas. The lack of training of service personnel, both officers and men, in handling natural disasters was also clearly evident.
For example, personnel who were packing essential items in sacks to be airdropped to marooned villages, were seen putting loaves of bread at the bottom of the sacks, then placing large parcels of rice and dhal on top of the bread. One journalist quipped that the loaf of bread had become as flat as a "rotti" by the time it reached the hungry masses. Other sacks were dropped from helicopters without their necks being tied, and items tumbled out in mid-air and fell in the mud, infuriating the hungry people. Other helicopter crews were seen throwing normally packed lunch packets out while the choppers hovered above crowds, and the packets broke apart and showered people with rice and curries!
So slow and weak was the response of the three armed forces after the country was hit by the worst flooding in 55 years, that furious villagers attacked service personnel who arrived in their submerged villages many days after the flooding. In several instances, army and police personnel ran for their lives, while navy sailors in dinghies leaped into rivers, and air force helicopters beat hasty retreats from crowds of hundreds of hungry and homeless people who were angered by the incredibly inept response on the part of government personnel who should have been their saviours.
While many other government departments were also to blame, including the Department of Meteorology, National Disaster Control Centre, municipal and urban councils in the affected areas, etc, the public was particularly angered that so few service personnel were involved in the rescue work, and what efforts they put in were nowhere near enough considering the magnitude of the disaster, which left nearly 300 dead and more than 150,000 homeless.
To begin with, there is no proper plan according to which the forces operate during such natural disasters. While some individual units of the three forces which were sent to the affected areas worked tirelessly with little thanks from anyone, what is very clear is that there was no proper central command and control. Considering that the country has experienced floods on smaller scales many times before, the unpreparedness of the armed forces is unpardonable.
No proper early warning mechanism has been developed and tested between the Department of Meteorology and the three armed forces. The top brass of the army, navy and air force only realized the magnitude of the disaster much after the rains began, when government officials in the affected areas began calling for help, and the media began reporting horror stories from Ratnapura. Even then no one seemed to know who would co-ordinate the rescue efforts. Disaster management had earlier been under the president, under whom the service chiefs are used to working, but this system was scrapped when a special Ministry was created last year for disaster management. However, no proper planning or exercises were ever carried out between this ministry and the armed forces.
The forces had no idea of the geographical layouts of the affected districts, or where affected villages were located, and many villages were completely cut off from the outside world for more than a week, with all access blocked by landslides and too few armed forces personnel around to try to get through to them.
Air force helicopters which tried to ferry supplies to some villages after they were marooned for more than a week, were swamped by hundreds of hungry people, and many chopper pilots lifted off the ground quickly, afraid of the wrath of the people.
The non-performance of the army was most glaringly apparent. Although the army has more than 90,000 men in its ranks, more than half are stationed in the Northeast, and were not redeployed to combat the disaster. Only a handful of soldiers were ever involved in operations to rescue people in flooded villages and to distribute food and other essential supplies.
The brunt of the work among the forces thus fell on the navy and the air force, which themselves did not use enough of the available resources.
The main resources of the navy which are located at Trincomalee, were also not called upon and the brunt of the navys effort came from smaller bases in Galle, Tangalle, Colombo and other bases in the Western and Southern provinces. Far too few dinghies were sent to the affected areas. In fact, after the floods of 1996, it was decided that each area command of the navy would maintain ten dinghies especially for rescue work, but this practice was forgotten after a few years and none of the area commands had maintained this requirement.
However, the navy units which were deployed to the affected areas did a gallant job, against impossible odds.
In contrast, the armed forces of India reacted in a far more professional and well-planned manner to Sri Lankas crisis.
Within hours of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghes call for urgent assistance from the international community, an Indian Navy Offshore Patrol Vessel steamed out of a South Indian port, speeding towards Sri Lanka, carrying hundreds of tones of essential supplies and more importantly, dozens of divers, doctors, nurses and other personnel who are especially trained in handling emergencies and natural disasters.
The Sukanya class vessel also carried two helicopters which were used to airlift the emergency teams and ferry supplies to hard hit areas.
Ironically, the Sri Lanka Navy has an identical vessel, SLNS Sayura, but the navy did not use any of its warships for the rescue efforts. In any case, Sayura has no helicopters, since the navy took a controversial decision last year to scrap the Air Wing of the navy that was about to be launched and would have been based on helicopters flown off the Sayura and two other such vessels that the navy had already purchased from Israel.
Even then, the Indian vessels mission of mercy was needlessly delayed after it arrived in Sri Lankan waters. When it arrived at Galle just after dusk, it was found that Galle has no lit up buoys in the harbour and the vessel could not be brought in until after dawn the next morning. Then, it was found that the navy had not arranged sufficient land vehicles for the Indian rescue workers to use and there was a further delay of a few hours.
The same day, two Indian Air Force aircraft touched down at Katunayake with several tonnes of supplies.
The Indian rescue personnel certainly handled their jobs extremely well and also showed that they can team up with local personnel very quickly, moving with Sri Lanka navy personnel into affected areas using rubber dinghies.
The Indian armed forces are clearly well prepared to tackle natural disasters and the manner in which they quickly evaluated the situation and called in additional help from India was particularly impressive. In all, more than 350 Indian rescue personnel were involved, working for more than two weeks. The Indian efforts were also not confined to a small area and they were seen in the remotest villages of the Ratnapura, Galle and Matara districts.
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