On September 3, a fire broke out in a large crude carrier MT New Diamond off the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. The Indian Oil Corporation (IOC)-chartered ship was carrying 270,000 tonnes of oil en route to Odisha and was helped by the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) and Navy to douse the fire, rescue crew members, and prevent an oil spill. India’s response was initiated through the South Asian Cooperative for Environment Protection (Sacep) for coordinating pollution response in the South Asian Seas region. In 2018, India signed an MoU with Sacep assigning the ICG as the competent authority for implementation under the initiative.
This response is unique in that it was evoked through a regional framework for addressing environmental emergencies. Historically, a key feature of India’s humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) strategy has been the emphasis on bilateral engagement with the affected country. This year, for instance, Indian assistance to tackle the MV Wakashio oil spill in Mauritius and the help provided to countries in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic have both technically been bilateral in nature. An often-cited reason for this is India’s insistence on respecting territorial sovereignty while extending relief measures. The emphasis on bilateral emergency assistance has impeded the development of a regional mechanism for disaster relief in India’s neighbourhood.
In the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake, India launched its biggest-ever relief operation. Although successful, the operation garnered criticism from a few quarters in Nepal who accused it of hindering other international efforts. Moreover, the international response featured bilateral assistance from six different South Asian countries but lacked a coordinated relief effort, including from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec).
As seen in the MT New Diamond case, India’s neighbours would probably approve of the deployment of Indian military assets through a regional agreement as opposed to a unilateral relief operation on their soil. In a recent Brookings India policy brief, Neighbourhood First Responder: India’s Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief, I highlight the bilateral and regional dimensions of emergency assistance provided by India in its neighbourhood over the last 20 years.
Saarc has codified disaster management by adopting the comprehensive framework on disaster management in 2006 and establishing the Saarc Disaster Management Centre (SDMC) as part of its mandate. In 2011, Saarc approved the Agreement on South Asia Rapid Response to Natural Disasters (SARRND), which formalised a policy for a cooperative response mechanism in the region. Also, the Saarc Food Bank was established in 2007.
Under Bimstec, India has been leading efforts towards the “Environment and Disaster Management” priority area and established the Bimstec Centre for Weather and Climate as a platform to share information and build capacities on disaster-warning systems.
While these are commendable initiatives, there is still a long way to go towards building an effective regional disaster relief mechanism. This is best exemplified by the fact that despite having an official policy in the form of SARRND, no Saarc-level contingent has ever been deployed during emergencies in the region. Similarly, in Bimstec, although member-countries have shown a willingness to work together on relevant issues, there is a large gap to fill in terms of establishing operating procedures for joint relief campaigns.
With climate uncertainty, humanitarian emergencies in the region are poised to grow. India must invest in regional frameworks for disaster management and take the lead in setting up a road map for greater cooperation. Building capacities through training and joint exercises and coordinating comparative advantages for collective action will help India leverage goodwill among its neighbours through its disaster relief programmes.
Saneet Chakradeo is a research analyst at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress (formerly Brookings India)The views expressed are personal