Substance over showmanship needed

by May 7, 2020 0 comments

The ‘Corona warriors’ would have been much more appreciative if they had been provided with PPE and protection from rampaging mobs by the military. Our Ordnance factories could have been used to mass-produce such gear

The Indian subcontinent has always been extremely prone to natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches and storms. Statistics published in media reports suggest that post-Independence, till 2017, India has witnessed 529 natural disasters, leaving aside those caused by droughts, epidemics and extreme temperature. These disasters have resulted in nearly 2,00,000 deaths and left hundreds of millions affected in the country.

In all of these incidents, our armed forces have been employed for conduct of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) missions, more often than not, as the key nodal agency.

It, therefore, comes as a major surprise to all, especially the military leadership, when they find themselves and the military on the fringes in this ongoing war against the pandemic, tasked with providing only limited assistance on the periphery.

That apparently appears to have become a source of immense anxiety and insecurity among the Service Chiefs, forcing them to call a press conference to announce a series of displays by elements of the three Services and the Coast Guard to honour our “Corona warriors.”

If, on the other hand, these were the directions of the Government that they were complying with — which is also a major possibility — it shows them up as weak, only aiming to please their political bosses in hopes of future rewards.

To my mind, there appears to be no other reasonable explanation for this bizarre exercise, which obviously appears to have, at least outwardly, paid them some dividends, if the Prime Minister’s tweet means anything.

Let us not get it wrong. There is indeed much to be appreciative of, inasmuch as such displays go towards building the morale of the “Corona warriors.” But did it really require the Chief of Defence Staff and the three Service Chiefs to make the announcement? Is that what they have been reduced to? For that matter, was the scale that this morale-boosting exercise was undertaken at really necessary?

In such troubled times, substance over showmanship would have been better appreciated. Much of that time, money and effort, could and should, have been better utilised in providing assistance to the vast numbers of our citizenry who have been rendered utterly destitute, hungry, without shelter and unable to reach their homes because of an ill-planned and poorly-executed nationwide lockdown.

Feeding the hungry, providing tented shelters for the homeless or transport for the weary are not matters that require approval from the highest levels, just a humane bent of mind at the local level. That in itself would have garnered enough goodwill among the populace, without this grasping for publicity that we witnessed on television.

It should be seen as a positive step that our military has not been called out in this disaster, except of course for providing medical assistance where necessary. This suggests that our civil administration is finally maturing and waking up to its duties, however poor its performance might have been this time around.

In all fairness, this particular disaster has been on an unprecedented scale. We neither anticipated it nor were we prepared or trained for it and errors were to be expected.

It has been the bane of the military in the past that whenever a disaster occurred, it invariably led to the civil administration and its agencies all but abdicating their responsibilities, leaving it to the military to take over the process, coordinate and provide the required assistance. Examples are too numerous to quote but the floods that devastated Uttarakhand and Kashmir, in the past, best illustrate this phenomenon.

Clearly, as we look at and assess the security environment in our region, there can be little doubt that our military must take all necessary precautions to keep its units out of harm’s way so that they can meet their constitutional obligations and successfully protect our sovereignty at a moment’s notice. Static units and those uncommitted operationally, spread out all over the country could have been utilised in a number of ways to provide succour to our hard-pressed brethren. As a matter of fact, it was the bounden duty of our Service Chiefs to have interceded with the Prime Minister and have convinced him of the enormous range of assistance that our forces were capable of providing.

Obviously the lack of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) within the forces may well have been an important consideration for the hierarchy in whatever suggestions they may have made. In any case, the “Corona warriors” would have been more appreciative if they had been provided with PPE and protection from rampaging mobs instead.

In fact, within the veteran community, leaving aside a few, these theatrics have been seen as contrary to service norms and ethics, as the former Naval chief, Admiral Laxminarayan  Ramdas’, article in one of our  dailies makes it amply clear.

Instead of copying what the US Air Force Aerobatics Teams did at New York, we could have looked at the more innovative ways the Spanish military was used to manufacture PPE. It may come as a surprise but various Ordnance Corps establishments within the Army are authorised tailors and equipment repairers, who could have been gainfully employed to produce masks and other equipment.

Given the massive deficiency in PPE suits, even the Ordnance Parachute Factory at Kanpur could have been modified quickly to mass-produce them. An opportunity to do good was truly squandered, leaving behind only a bitter taste in the mouth that is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

(Writer: Deepak Sinha; Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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