The first C 17s laden with emergency supplies and 1676830699829

How India’s ‘disaster diplomacy’ became a potent tool of statecraft

New Delhi’s quick response earned it praise from the afflicted countries.

“We really appreciate the help extended by India to Turkey within hours of the earthquake. We too use the word ‘dost’ for friend. I would say a friend in need is a friend indeed. Friends help each other,” said the Turkish Ambassador to India Firat Sunel.

Ironically, there hasn’t been much friendly feeling between New Delhi and Ankara over the last few years.

Turkey’s close ties with Pakistan and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s criticism of Indian policy on Kashmir have pushed both countries apart in recent years.

However, when the 7.8 magnitude earthquake decimated southern Turkey in the early hours of February 6, India’s aid was forthcoming.

“India is demonstrating that there is a certain magnanimity when it comes to giving assistance and that we don’t hold grudges when it comes to helping people. This has been part of our ethos and foreign policy since the 1950s,” said a senior retired diplomat, speaking anonymously.

New Delhi’s “disaster diplomacy” stretches back to its first post-independence decades. In that era, India’s humanitarian interventions, especially in the form of UN peacekeeping missions in the Congo and Korea, served to cement its image as a helping hand in the developing world. India’s aid after cyclones in Bangladesh and the devastating violence unleashed in Sri Lanka by a civil war served as potent tools of New Delhi’s outreach to its neighbours.

While disaster relief was always a key feature of the country’s foreign policy, diplomats and officials recall that the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami marked a turning point in how India saw disaster relief.

“In 2004, India’s capacity as a first responder was recognized by other major countries in the region, particularly by the US. Indian naval vessels were the first to reach the devastated Indonesian province of Aceh, which even the Indonesians found difficult to reach because it was very remote. That was when India’s profile as a first responder began to grow. The government also began to recognize the advantages that it could derive from being seen as a provider of security and assistance in the region,” recalled a senior official in the Ministry of External Affairs.

With increased disaster response capacities at home, India’s disaster diplomacy began to take shape.

Prominent examples included assistance to China after the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes, which further cemented the principle of giving assistance regardless of political difference with afflicted countries.

The passage of the Disaster Management Act in 2005 paved the way for New Delhi to rapidly scale up its ability to respond to crises. The Act created the National Disaster Management Authority and also led to the formation of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), with a strength of 8 battalions, in 2006. The NDRF, which is spread across much of the country, now has grown to a strength of 15 battalions drawn from the Border Security Force, Indo Tibetan Border Police and Assam Rifles among other security agencies. O.P Singh, a senior IPS officer who served as Director-General of the NDRF between 2014 and 2016, credits the NDRF for building up a range of specialised capacities, including search and rescue, engineering, medical assistance as well as an ability to respond to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) emergencies.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, OP Singh remembers. New Delhi’s response to the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan was tardy and the NDRF was unable to effectively provide aid. That sparked another phase of capacity building. The organisation began cooperation with regional countries like Bangladesh and Nepal, boosted the capabilities of state level forces and embarked on a training regime that allowed the NDRF to increasingly incorporate technology in its relief duties.

The Nepal earthquake of 2015 was to be a proving ground for India’s disaster diplomacy.

“In a very swift response, we were the first international rescue team to land in Kathmandu. Within a few hours, we had the whole gamut of equipment, more than 70 urban search and rescue teams, eight or nine teams of canines and all the latest gadgets.We were there for a week and pulled out 11 live victims from the rubble. For the first time, we received global recognition,” recalls Singh.

For New Delhi, its disaster diplomacy brings a few key dividends. First, it allows India to demonstrate its increased geopolitical reach. By responding to crises stretching from Japan in the Far East to Turkey in the Middle East, New Delhi is underscoring the reality of its rise to major power status. Second, research by scholars suggests that states often use disaster aid to achieve breakthroughs in bilateral ties. India’s Operation Maitri during the Nepal earthquake of 2015 played a crucial role in India’s outreach to Kathmandu in the years afterward, points out Saneet Chakradeo in a paper for Brookings India, a think tank. The same might be said of Turkey, with which India has been steadily pushing a rapprochement over the last two years.

There are limits to this outreach though. “If the expectation that Turkey will not rake up Kashmir every now and again, I’m afraid that’s rather unrealistic. Diplomacy does not bring results overnight. However, we may see some level of thaw between Ankara and New Delhi, which is good enough for now,” says Kabir Taneja, Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi based think-tank. India’s assistance to Nepal has also not delivered lasting benefits as the bilateral relationship has become increasingly strained over territorial disputes since 2021.

Despite this, New Delhi’s disaster diplomacy is set to be an increasingly important part of the country’s foreign policy toolkit. The increasing occurrence of climate change related disasters will place a greater demand on India’s particular capabilities. This will be especially true of South Asia, which is especially vulnerable to climate change. The World Bank estimates that more than 800 million people live in climate vulnerable hotspots which will generate around 40 million climate migrants by 2050. India may be better positioned that most to aid crisis-stricken nations.

“I think it’s going to be a tool of growing importance for India, both for power projection purposes and for diplomacy purposes. What we’re going to see is much better Standard Operating Procedures and much quicker response times,” opines a retired Ambassador.

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