The Indian Navy (IN) is currently assisting the Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan governments in dealing with a devastating cyclone and flood, respectively. The IN has sent its personnel along with relief supplies to Sri Lanka. The situation is still developing with the arrival of the monsoon in southern and eastern India; it is possible that India may send more assistance to the concerned governments. India has rendered similar assistance in previous years, most notably in in April 2015, when Nepal was hit by a massive earthquake. Indian assistance teams were quick to reach interior parts of Nepal and help the citizens affected due to the earthquake.
In 2015, the Indian Air Force (IAF) was deployed in Yemen to bring back Indian and other nationals trapped in the war-torn country. During that relief effort, India rescued nationals from 41 countries apart from bringing home a large number of Indian citizens. Last July, India was quick to get its citizens out of South Sudan as well. In both these efforts, India’s deputy foreign minister himself was overlooking the rescue effort.
Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh were hit by natural disasters whereas the crises in Yemen and South Sudan are cases of civil war. The Indian response to both natural and manmade disasters has been evolving into a pattern where India is quick to respond. India has done so in the past as well, as seen during the 2011 evacuations from Libya and assistance provided in the wake of tsunami in 2004.
It’s important to note that all these crises have been in the region from the Red Sea to the Malacca Strait. The Indian mainland is not very far from these disaster zones. Hence, India could deploy its military assets more effectively than in other parts of the world. The Indian military is the strongest force in the region; its geographic advantage is coupled with material capabilities like naval warships and long range aircraft.
In the early 20th century, the British Raj dominated the region from Red Sea to Singapore, with control over sea routes and inland areas alike. The Royal Navy in particular was the most powerful force in the region. The British Raj in India had built up an expeditionary force and was politically as well as financially capable of deploying it. Post-independence India has not been able to continue to play the same role for a variety of reasons, but India’s economic and military capabilities have increased in the last three decades. Hence, India is now beginning to play an important role in the region, as could be seen in its humanitarian and disaster relief activities.
Indian policymakers have been purchasing long-range, heavy airlift aircraft like the C-17 Globemaster and C-130J Hercules in the last decade. The United States has been a chief source of supply for these heavy aircraft. India has purchased 10 C-17s and one will be added to the fleet in the coming year. India had bought six C-130s and is now left with four, two being lost to accidents. These aircraft have been used in the relief efforts mounted in the past.
In addition to these heavy aircraft, the Indian Navy has built up capabilities over the years to send relief supplies and personnel quickly in case of a disaster. The benefits are visible in the current situation in Sri Lanka. In case of the 2004 post-tsunami operations and Libyan rescue as well, it was the navy that played a major role. The IN has also been coordinating with other regional navies to patrol the waters off the coast of Somalia to prevent piracy.
The Indian Air Force and Indian Navy have been quite active in relief efforts abroad, like those in South Sudan and Yemen. However, in case of domestic emergencies, like the floods in the state of Kashmir, the Indian Army has been deployed. In fact, the army typically plays a major part in relief efforts at home. The Indian Army has also been participating in peacekeeping efforts with the UN since the 1960s.
India’s active participation in disaster relief operations has been noted across the world. During the Yemen operations, Indian assistance was sought not just by smaller south Asian neighbors but also by Europe and the United States. Such disaster relief operations serve two principal purposes for India. First, by responding to crises situations quickly, India is able to project its growing power. However, the display of such growing power is not done in an obnoxious manner. Rather, by taking a lead in rescue efforts and relief operations, India projects its image as a responsible power.
There have been voices within and outside India arguing that it should play the role of a net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region. As the strategic situation in IOR is changing due to uncertainty over U.S. policy under Donald Trump and an assertive China in Asia, it is time for a major regional power like India to become more active in the region. Whether India will gather sufficient political and financial resolve to play the role of net security provider or not will be decided in the coming years. But as of now, India’s growing and active role in disaster relief operations in the IOR points to the possibility and capability of India.
Sankalp Gurjar is a Ph.D. candidate at South Asian University.