Indian HADR assistance to Nepal during the November 2023 earthquake
In November 2023, it was reported that India had provided emergency assistance to Nepal in the form of essential medical and auxiliary supplies after a massive earthquake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale hit Jajarkot in Nepal.1 This news came close on the heels of India providing Nepal with economic assistance worth $1 billion as part of Indian efforts for post-earthquake reconstruction in Gorkha and Nuwakot districts in Nepal.2
These recent developments demonstrate the importance that HADR has acquired within the larger Indian foreign policy discourse. It also enables us to understand that HADR has emerged as a key aspect of Indian foreign policy — as India has emerged as the first responder to humanitarian crises within its immediate neighbourhood and beyond. These developments also demonstrate India’s far reaching HADR capabilities as well as its engagement in responsible state behaviour within its neighbourhood. Finally, India’s prompt assistance to Nepal enables foreign policy practitioners to appreciate that Nepal is a close neighbour of India and a key beneficiary of Indian HADR.
Indian HADR capabilities
HADR is a peacetime operational activity collectively carried out by the Indian Armed Forces. Its salience within the diplomatic toolkit of India came to the fore for the first time after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, when the Indian Navy (IN) participated in Search and Rescue Operations (SAR), task disaggregation, and reconnaissance activities to assist millions of people in different countries affected by the tsunami.
Indian HADR operations across Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia during the Indian Ocean tsunami enabled India to project its soft power capabilities within the neighbourhood as India assisted other regional Navies in disaster mitigation efforts — as India refused foreign aid during the crisis and employed indigenous resources such as naval ships, helicopters and other relief equipment to provide humanitarian relief.3
Over the years, India has used HADR as a tool to mitigate the impact of disasters in the disaster-prone South Asian region as well as the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Since climate change has made several States vulnerable to climatic disasters, India has made HADR a key foreign policy priority in a bid to ensure that States within its immediate and peripheral neighbourhood are not severely impacted by natural disasters and climate induced emergencies.
Indian HADR in Nepal
India has emerged as a ‘net responder to crisis’ in the Indian subcontinent, assisting its continental and maritime neighbours in mitigating the debilitating impact of natural disasters and climate emergencies.
India has provided relief and assistance to its neighbours – Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal as and when these states have faced natural disasters like cyclones and floods in recent years. In this quest, India has carried out humanitarian relief operations through its key institutions such as the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) at the domestic level and the Indian Armed Forces, effectively led by the Indian Army and Indian Navy and duly supported by the Indian Air Force at the international level.
While these HADR operations have given India operational visibility, they have also enabled India to demonstrate its commitment to humanitarian needs. This is especially true in the case of its immediate neighbourhood — where countries like Nepal and Bangladesh have continued to face ecological disasters due to their vulnerable geological and geographical locations.
India and Nepal share a 1,751 kilometre border at present.4 While the open border provides opportunities for friction, it also provides a conducive environment for mutual cooperation. Indian emergency assistance and its HADR operations in Nepal, viewed within the rubric of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’ fall within the latter category – as India envisages a peaceful neighbourhood where mutual cooperation trumps conflict.
More importantly, India’s actions to assist its neighbours during humanitarian emergencies is a concrete manifestation of its philosophy of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”. In fact, Nepal enjoys a high priority within Indian diplomatic discourse with India viewing itself as “Nepal’s foremost friend and development partner” according to a leading practitioner of the discipline of international relations.5
Within this context, Indian HADR operations in Nepal have been all encompassing in nature. India has participated in HADR operations providing relief during ecological disasters and natural hazards while also engaging with Nepal’s citizenry through evacuation missions in different politically volatile countries at different points in time. Indian assistance to Nepal during the April 2015 earthquake is a case in point. India responded with great agility and swiftness after the incident, as Nepal reeled under the impact of a powerful earthquake of 7.8 magnitude on the Richter scale.
India adopted a multi-pronged approach to assist Nepal. On the one hand, the Indian government assisted the Nepalese through the deployment of the Indian military forces to provide immediate succour and relief to the people. On the other hand, India also attempted to assist Nepal in its overall post-disaster reconstruction efforts over the long term. For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the Indian Air Force (IAF) responded to the earthquakes by deploying its Medium Lift Helicopters, (MLH) in severely affected areas with Nepal like the Nepalese capital Kathmandu, and other cities and towns like Aloghat, Chautara, Charikot, Dhading, Lukla, Trishuli among others.6
The Indian Army also operated 13 helicopters between Kathmandu and Pokhara to provide relief while the National Disaster Reaction Force (NDRF) and its 500+ personnel provided immediate relief to the afflicted and affected.7 In fact, under the rubric of Operation Maitri, India covered the length and breadth of Nepal while assisting civilian populations during this operation and saving more than 5000 lives. Nepal’s importance in Indian foreign policy priorities can be gauged from the fact that Operation Maitriwas amongst the biggest humanitarian assistance efforts ever undertaken by India.8
In the long term, India assisted Nepal by engaging in the construction of large-scale critical civilian infrastructure projects. For instance, India played a key role in rebuilding schools and educational institutional in the aftermath of the earthquakes. Such initiatives fostered goodwill towards India among the Nepalese people.10
Similarly, India has also led rescue efforts to evacuate Nepalese nationals from different crisis ridden and politically volatile regions. Operation Ajay that was recently launched to facilitate the return of Indian nationals from Israel amidst the ongoing Israel-Hamas crisis saw India rescuing two Nepali nationals as well.9 An operation of similar magnitude was undertaken by India in the past as well when Nepalese nationals were stranded in Yemen. Under the rubric of Operation Raahat, India had facilitated the return of fifteen Nepalese nationals from war torn Yemen in 2015.11
These humanitarian assistance operations have had an enduring impact on Indian foreign policy facilitating positive ties between India and partner countries.
They have enabled India to assist local populations in foreign States and enhanced India’s credibility at the international level. These operations have also enhanced India’s diplomatic ties with beneficiary countries. In the case of India’s neighbourhood, the success of HADR operations has enabled India to project itself as a responsible power that functions in accordance with the rules based international order, providing relief and assistance to its neighbourhood as and when required.
Such humanitarian assistance operations also translate into goodwill for the Indian State and its people as Indian Agencies engage with the local populations especially in the neighbourhood. These operations promote Indian values of care and compassion beyond Indian shores.
Indian success in conducting HADR operations in Nepal demonstrates the potential for its emulation in other countries thereby increasing India’s good neighbourly approach and overall reliability and trustworthiness within its immediate neighbourhood and beyond.
(Exclusive to NatStrat)
Dr Mikhailo Samus