Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR): India’s Journey from 2014 to 2024
PK Khup Hangzo, Associate Fellow, VIF
Introduction

The ten-year period from 2014 to 2024 has witnessed numerous humanitarian crises. The crises were triggered by, among other things, armed conflicts (Israel-Hamas war, Syrian civil war, Libyan civil war, Yemeni civil war, Tigray war, Sudanese civil war, Sahel crisis, Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russia-Ukraine war), the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis), and climate change-induced extreme weather events (floods, droughts, cyclones, heat waves). In the face of these challenges, India stepped up its Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) efforts that are aimed at saving lives, alleviating suffering, and maintaining and protecting human dignity during and in the aftermath of emergencies. In doing so, India has positioned itself as a first responder in HADR. That was a remarkable turnaround because the country has long been a recipient, not a provider, of humanitarian assistance. India’s growing presence in the domain of HADR coincides with its rise as an economic power and its desire to assume a position of regional and global leadership.

India’s HADR Journey over the Last 10 years (2014-2024)

Although India did not have a designated HADR policy, it has provided humanitarian assistance and been involved in relief measures in South Asia and beyond. The country’s external HADR is primarily managed by the Development Partnership Administration (DPA) division of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). DPA coordinates foreign efforts domestically with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and other organizations within the central government and across regional states and civil society. Some of the notable HADR operations that India have undertaken in response to humanitarian emergencies that arose due to armed conflicts and natural disasters from 2014 to 2024 are as follow:

Humanitarian Airlift/Sealift Operations

Airlift and sealift operations are critical parts of India’s HADR toolkit. A key reason for this is the sheer number of Indian diasporas all over the world. The United Nations estimated the number of international migrants - people who live outside the country where they were born – as of June 2020 at 281 million. Of this, almost 18 million are Indians, the largest in the world.[1] And according to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of the Government of India, there are around 13 million Indian nationals abroad (labourers, professionals and experts) as of August 2023.[2] During times of emergencies, they needed to be evacuated. Between 2014 and 2024, India has undertaken numerous humanitarian airlift and sealift operations to evacuate its citizens safely back to the country.

  1. Operation Ajay: Following the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, India launched Operation Ajay on 11 October 2023. The objective of the operation is to evacuate Indian nationals from Israel. Till date, 1,309 Indian nationals, 14 Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) card holders, and 20 Nepalese have been airlifted through six special flights.[3]
  2. Operation Kaveri: On 15 April 2023, fighting broke out in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, between the two main factions of the military regime namely the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). That has led to more than 14,000 dead and it displaced more than 8 million people. In order to evacuate Indian nationals from the country, India launched Operation Kaveri on 24 April 2023. In all, more than 4,097 people (including 136 foreigners) evacuated with the help of 18 Indian Air Force (IAF) sorties, five trips of Indian Navy ships, and 20 commercial flights.[4]
  3. Operation Ganga: On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine and that set off the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II. In response, India launched Operation Ganga on 26 February 2022 to evacuate Indian nationals, mainly students, from Ukraine through its neighbouring countries i.e. Romania, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. Between February and March, 18,282 Indian nationals were brought back to India by 90 flights, of which 76 are commercial flights and 14 are IAF flights.[5]
  4. Operation Devi Shakti: Twenty years after their ouster by American forces, the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in 2021. In its immediate aftermath, India launched Operation Devi Shakti to evacuate Indian nationals from the country. In all, over 800 people, including Afghans, are evacuated from Afghanistan.
  5. Vande Bharat Mission and Operation Samudra Setu: On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak a global pandemic. In order to repatriate stranded and distressed Indian nationals in various parts of the world, India launched the Vande Bharat Mission in April and it started operation on 7 May. By 31 December, more than 3.8 million Indian nationals have been repatriated from 24 countries through special international flights.[6] Meanwhile, the Indian Navy had also launched Operation Samudra Setu on 5 May. The 55 days operation repatriated 3,992 Indian nationals from Iran, Maldives, and Sri Lanka by sea.[7]
  6. Operation Sankat Mochan: Following South Sudan’s slide back into civil war in July 2016, India launched Operation Sankat Mochan to evacuate Indian nationals who are stranded at Juba, the country’s capital. In all, 153 Indians and two Nepalese were airlifted by IAF transport aircrafts from the troubled city.[8]
  7. Operation Rahat: Yemen has been troubled by civil wars for decades, but the current conflict intensified in March 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition intervened on behalf of the internationally recognized government against Houthi rebels aligned with the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. In response, India launched Operation Rahat to evacuate more than 4,000 Indian nationals, and also foreigners, from the war torn country from Aden port.
Disaster Response

Traditionally, the focus of India’s HADR has been on natural disasters including earthquakes, floods, storms, etc. The likelihood of some of these disasters, storms and floods in particular, occurring with increasing frequency and intensity due to rising global surface temperatures has increased drastically. South Asia and Southeast Asia are highly vulnerable to this phenomenon. As such, these two regions are the primary focus of India’s HADR efforts. However, India has also responded to calls for humanitarian assistance from far flung regions such as West Asia. Some of the notable HADR operations that India have carried out in response to humanitarian emergencies that arose due to natural disasters from 2014 to 2024 are as follow:

  1. Operation Karuna: On 14 May 2023, Cyclone Mocha, the strongest in the Bay of Bengal in the last 10 years, made landfall in Myanmar causing heavy rains, storm surges, flash floods, and landslides. Up to 90% of the western Rakhine state’s capital city Sittwe was destroyed. India responded by launching Operation Karuna on 18 May 2023 and Indian Navy ships promptly delivered around 40 tonnes of relief materials.[9]
  2. Operation Dost: On 6 February 2023, a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck southern Türkiye and northern Syria. More than 40,000 people lost their lives and entire cities were destroyed. In response, India launched Operation Dost on 8 February 2023. Using the IAF’s transport aircraft, India deployed a specialized SAR team, equipment, essential medicines and other relief materials. India has also delivered more than six tons of emergency relief assistance to Syria.
  3. Operation Samudra Maitri: On 28 September 2018, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the province of Central Sulawesi in Indonesia resulting in a 1.5 metre tsunami wave that caused widespread damage and destruction. In all, 4,340 people lost their lives and tens of thousands of buildings were affected. India responded to the crisis by launching Operation Samudra Maitri on 1 October 2018. Using the IAF’s transport aircrafts, the country deployed medical personnel and relief materials to the affected areas. Indian Navy ships were also mobilized to carry out HADR operations.
  4. Operation Maitri: On 25 April 2015, a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal in what was the worst natural disaster of that year. More than 8,000 people died and millions of homes were either partially or fully destroyed. India reacted promptly by launching Operation Maitri the very next day. Operation Maitri was the largest ever relief operation undertaken by India in response to a natural disaster on foreign soil. It involved delivering relief materials (tents, blankets, medicines, cooking material, food, water, heavy engineering equipment, ambulances, reverse osmosis water plant, oxygen generators, etc.), deploying search and rescue and medical teams, building field hospitals, evacuating and treating injured victims, transporting stranded people, etc.
Humanitarian Aid

It is also worth mentioning that in response to the humanitarian emergency that arises due to the Israel-Hamas war, India has provided 70 tonnes of humanitarian aid on a bilateral basis including 16.5 tonnes of medicine and medical supplies to the Palestinians.[10] The country has also provided USD 5 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) since October 2023. The fund will support UNRWA’s core programmes and services, including education, healthcare, relief and social services provided to Palestinian refugees. Likewise, India has also provided humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Last year, the country delivered 50,000 metric tons of wheat, 28 tons of disaster relief, and 200 tons of medicines, vaccines and other medical items.[11] India has also partnered with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in its humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan and it has supplied 1,100 units of female hygiene kits and blankets for UNODC female rehabilitation centres across the country.

HADR Exercises

India continues to sharpen its HADR capabilities by organizing regular exercises with like-minded countries. For example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi instituted the tri-services Annual Joint HADR Exercise (AJHE) known as Operation Chakravat in 2015. The exercise, conducted in turn by the Indian Army, the Indian Navy, and the IAF since 2016, aimed to demonstrate India’s readiness and capabilities in responding to humanitarian emergencies. The most recent exercise, Chakravat 2023, was conducted at Goa from 9-11 October 2023 under the aegis of the Indian Navy. Eight countries from the Indian Ocean Region - Comoros, Madagascar, Maldives, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Tanzania - have also participated in it. India has also undertaken bilateral exercises. For example, in March 2024, it conducted Operation Tiger Triumph, a US-India bilateral tri-services HADR amphibious exercise, to enhance coordination and interoperability for disaster relief operations. The harbour phase of the exercise was conducted at Visakhapatnam from 18-25 March and the sea phase of the exercise was conducted from 26-31 March respectively. The aforementioned exercises facilitated and enhance cooperation between regional as well as extra-regional countries on disaster preparedness and response strategies. There are numerous other examples of such exercises that India has conducted with other countries. And they are indicative of India’s seriousness with regards to humanitarian emergencies as well as its growing prowess in undertaking complex HADR operations.

Way Forward

In the face of escalating humanitarian crises throughout 2014 to 2024, India has risen to the occasion and it carried out complex HADR missions in South Asia and beyond. In doing so, the country has cemented its position as first responder and a trusted and reliable partner. India’s transformation from being a receiver of humanitarian assistance to being a provider is a divergence from the past and therefore laudable. It is highly probable that in the coming years, India will be called upon frequently to respond to humanitarian crises in South Asia and beyond. In order to respond to new expectations, address an increasingly complex and frequent range of emergencies, and further realise its leadership ambition in the HADR domain, India will have to adapt on three fronts.

First, past and even current HADR experiences will be insufficient to deal with future threats and risks. As such, a shift to future-oriented approaches is needed to be prepared for the challenges ahead. The notion of “humanitarian futures,” which emphasizes adaptation, anticipation, and innovation, provides an alternative perspective to develop robust humanitarian policy.

Second, there are currently multiple government agencies involved in any humanitarian operation. As such, decision making is largely ad-hoc and there is no standard operating procedure that dictates a specific chain of command. Going forward, India should focus on better coordination between the various government agencies handling overseas relief operations, state governments providing cross-border assistance, the media, and civil society.

Third, India should leverage regional institutions and groupings for HADR. Such institutions include the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the Quad, etc. These institutions and groupings have elements of HADR built into them. Enhanced cooperation among members of these institutions and groupings will go a long way in improving readiness and capabilities in responding to humanitarian emergencies throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

Endnotes

[1] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. 2020. “International Migration 2020 Highlights.” (ST/ESA/SER.A/452). https://www.onlinelibrary.iihl.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2020-UN-International-Migration-2020-Highlights.pdf
[2] “Question No-3776 Indian citizens in various countries.” Lok Sabha unstarred questions No - 3776. August 11, 2023.
https://www.mea.gov.in/lok-sabha.htm?dtl/36994/QUESTION_NO3776_INDIAN_CITIZENS_IN_VARIOUS_COUNTRIES
[3] “Question No-1258 Evacuations of Indians.” Lok Sabha Unstarred Question No-1258. February 9, 2024.
https://www.mea.gov.in/lok-sabha.htm?dtl/37593/QUESTION+NO1258+EVACUATION+OF+INDIANS
[4] “Question No-1258 Evacuations of Indians.” Lok Sabha Unstarred Question No-1258. February 9, 2024.
https://www.mea.gov.in/lok-sabha.htm?dtl/37593/QUESTION+NO1258+EVACUATION+OF+INDIANS
[5] “Question No-1258 Evacuations of Indians.” Lok Sabha Unstarred Question No-1258. February 9, 2024.
https://www.mea.gov.in/lok-sabha.htm?dtl/37593/QUESTION+NO1258+EVACUATION+OF+INDIANS
[6] Rajan, S. Irudaya and H. Arokkiaraj. 2021. “Unprecedented repatriation programme: India’s Vande Bharat Mission in 2020.” MoLab Inventory of Mobilities and Socioeconomic Changes. Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. February. https://www.eth.mpg.de/5850637/Rajan-S-Irudaya-and-Arokkiaray-H_Unprecedented-repatriation-programme-Indias-Vande-Bharat-Mission-in-2020_molab_6718.pdf
[7] “Indian Navy Completes “Operation Samudra Setu.” Ministry of Defence. Government of India. July 8, 2020. https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1637314
[8] “Question No. 2820 – Operation Sankat Mochan to rescue Indians in Sudan.” Rajya Sabha Unstarred Question No. 2820. August 11, 2016.
https://www.mea.gov.in/rajya-sabha.htm?dtl/27308/question+no2820+operation+sankat+mochan+to+rescue+indians+in+sudan
[9] “Operation Karuna - India’s Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief to Myanmar following Cyclone Mocha.” Embassy of India Yangon. May 19, 2023.
https://embassyofindiayangon.gov.in/public_files/assets/pdf/Cyclone_Mocha%20_English.pdf
[10] “Remarks by MoS Dr. Rajkumar Ranjan Singh at the NAM Ministerial Meeting on Palestine.” Speeches & Statements. Ministry of External Affairs. Government of India. January 17, 2024. https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/37516/Remarks_by_MoS_Dr_Rajkumar_Ranjan_Singh_at_the_NAM_Ministerial_Meeting_on_Palestine#
[11] “Statement by India during the Interactive Dialogue on the OHCHR Report on human rights situation in Afghanistan at the 54th Session of the Human Rights Council (11 September - 13 October 2023) delivered by Ambassador Indra Mani Pandey, Permanent Representative, 12th September 2023.” Permanent Mission of India. Geneva. September 12, 2023.
https://pmindiaun.gov.in/pageinfo/MzAyOA

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