By Krishna Kataria Project Research Associate, Maritime History Society (MHS)
When on 26 December 2004, Tsunami struck due to an undersea earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, within 12 hours the first Indian naval helicopters were in Sri Lanka with relief material. In the next 24 hours, two Indian naval ships were already in Galle and Trincomalee and three others had been dispatched to Male. And within a few days, the Indian Navy had converted two of its ships into hospital ships and sent them to Indonesia, which was the worst hit. Since then, the Indian Navy has played a leading role in being the first determinant in humanitarian operations carried out in the Indian Ocean littorals.
One of the defining characteristics of navies in the postmodern era has been their involvement in irregular security missions. As we gather, the scope of unconventional security tasks undertaken by maritime forces in recent years has expanded significantly. The most prominent of these tasks has been humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), aimed at helping populations in coastal areas survive natural calamities. It is important to remember the day when giant waves originating in the waters off Sumatra submerged huge swathes of coastal South and South-East Asia, since disaster relief has formed an important part of the Indian Ocean. On the occasion of Tsunami World Awareness Day, the article focuses on the historical emphasis of the 2004 Tsunami, Indian Navy’s emerging role as ‘First Responder’, contemporary developments and Indian Navy’s humanitarian intervention in the Indian Ocean.
Functioning as an Instrument of Humanitarian Relief: In many ways, this multi-national disaster-affected countries including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar amongst others and stretching all the away across the ocean to the East coast of Africa. 19 Indian naval ships conducted relief operations in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Maldives. The initial estimates of the scale of the disaster were perhaps inaccurate and it was only with the passage of a few days that the actual contours of what had happened became clear to the region and the global community. On December 26, 2004 – the first Indian naval helicopters were sent to Sri Lanka with immediate relief material. To complement this, on 27 December 2004, two Indian Naval ships, INS Taragiri and INS Sandhayak dropped anchor in Galle and Trincomalee respectively.
The relief support to Sri Lanka began in earnest with the third ship INS Sutlej also arriving at Galle by 28 December 2004. Simultaneously ships were diverted to Male in the island of the Maldives in the southern Indian Ocean. INS Mysore, a destroyer, arrived at Male by first light on December 28 while two other ships INS Udaygiri and INS Aditya arrived the following day. In addition to the assistance to Sri Lanka and Maldives, the Indian military was able to reach out to Indonesia as well. Two ships were mobilised and deployed on the west coast of Indonesia. INS Nirupak was converted into a hospital ship and dispatched to the worst affected area. The Indian Coast Guard had deployed a total of 32 ships and 5,500 army troops had been pressed into tsunami-related relief efforts.
‘First Responder’ to the disaster: In the same strain, as part of the Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief Operation undertaken in response to the Tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy deployed 32 naval ships, seven aircraft and 20 helicopters in support of five simultaneous rescue, relief and reconstruction missions as part of ‘Operation Gambhir’ (Indonesia), ‘Operation Castor’ (Maldives), ‘Operation Rainbow’ (Sri Lanka), ‘Operation Madad’ (Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu coast) and ‘Operation Sea Waves’ (Andaman & Nicobar Islands). This signifies how under the label of “first responder,” India signalled its intent to be a leading actor during emergencies in its neighbourhood.
Navigating Recent Developments: Indian Navy’s keen involvement in multiple relief missions in the Indian Ocean region is a reminder that as natural disasters become more frequent and intense, the Navy’s contribution to humanitarian missions will rise incrementally. With the growing urbanization of coastal areas, Indian naval ships have increasingly found themselves at the forefront of rescue and relief effects in disaster-hit states. In 2021, India, along with Australia, the UK and small island developing states (SIDS) is launching a new initiative for Infrastructure for the Resilient Island States (IRIS) which aims at creating a coalition for putting in place infrastructure that can withstand disasters and lessen economic losses in island nations.
To realise its leadership ambition, respond to new expectations, and address a range of emergencies in the neighbourhood, the Indian Navy is focusing on better coordination between the multiple government agencies, handling overseas relief operations, providing cross border assistance, improving bilateral and multilateral collaborations with its neighbours and leveraging regional institutions for disaster management.
Conclusion: The Indian navy’s credibility for its humanitarian response machinery, spans from the political, diplomatic and military determinants. The international community acknowledged India’s capability and resources. Indian navy had registered its presence in the tsunami-affected region, as a compassionate power capable of helping its neighbours’ needs even when its own shores were troubled. The Indian naval efforts have further exhibited its well-oiled disaster management machinery and that it was capable of assisting any regional maritime disaster crisis.
On the occasion of Tsunami Awareness Day, our vision for the Indian Ocean Region, therefore, is to preserve its organic unity while advancing cooperation. As we envisage the Indian Ocean as an engine for growth and prosperity in our region and beyond, it is of utmost importance that these waters remain safe and secure. We consider it imperative that those who live in this region bear the primary responsibility for the peace, stability and prosperity of the Indian Ocean.
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