The Good Samaritan Sovereign: India's "Neighbourhood First Pilicy" - Providing Humanitarian Assistance And Disaster Relief

India is steadily emerging as a regional power and net security provider in the Indo-Pacific/South East Asia region. Under its Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) policy, the Development Partnership Administration (DPA) division of the Ministry of External Affairs has been set up to co-ordinate external HADR with the Ministry of Defence and other organisation.
July 04, 2024 | 09:26

Special emphasis has been laid on shifting the focus from a relief-centric approach to a multi-prong approach including prevention, preparedness, mitigation, response, relief and rehabilitation. Efforts to maintain HADR initiative is also reflected in the annual Union Budgets since 2011-12, which has allotted Rs. 4883.56 Crore fund for “Aid for Disaster Relief” for countries under the “Grants and Loans to Foreign Governments” head this year.

India’s bilateral assistance to countries

India, under its “Neighbour First” policy, takes a special, pro-active role as a first responder during natural disasters that impact its neighbouring countries. This is best reflected in is aid assistance to eight of its neighbouring countries i.e. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Maldives, Sri-Lanka and Myanmar.

In the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, UN officials acknowledged India’s role as a first responder to regional crisis. During “Operation Maitri” in 2015 in Nepal in the backdrop of an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, India’s rescue team arrived in Kathmandu within six hours, equipped with relief workers, medical aid, and heavy earth-moving equipment. The Indian Air Force (“IAF”) transported medical teams, relief supplies, food, water, and heavy machinery. Helicopters were used to deploy rescue and medical teams and deliver relief materials to remote areas, as well as to evacuate casualties. Additionally, India established a 45-bed hospital and three field hospitals, staffed with 18 medical teams from the Indian Army, to support casualty evacuation and provide medical assistance to the affected population. A total support of Rs. 400 Crore from contributions of both NGOs and government was administered. India has also readily lent help to hostile countries like China during the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan by earmarking US $ 5 million to China for its relief activities.

A common theme in most aid reliefs administered by India is the nation’s emphasis on respecting the sovereignty of the affected nation. India is focuses on providing assistance on the priority basis of the affected nation and only “on requests” made to the government. India has also shown low resistance in deploying military-administered aid over civil aid, despite various other countries’ reluctance in using military. In 2016, India extended 50 tonnes of relief material to Sri Lanka during Cyclone Roanu through INS Sutlej and INS Sunayna and a C-17 aircraft. Similarly, in the 2015 Nepal earthquake, 10,000 blankets, 1,000 tense and other material like food, medical supplies, water etc. were shipped by 13 military aircraft. External relief may also be administered at the first instance by State governments because of their proximity, cultural and political reasons with the disaster area. However, despite emphasis on defence assets, the involvement both military and non-state is usually seen on a large-scale basis. These non-state actors may include NGOs and organisations with religious affiliations and cross border ethnic linkages. For example, during the 2017 cyclone in Kachin, Myanmar, organisations like the Young Mizo Association in Mizoram contributed to the rehabilitation of affected Zo communities across border.

It is estimated that use of military and defence fleets, while being more costly and sensitive, ensures that bulk of relief material is administered quickly and efficiently. Additionally, many civil and private aid organisations are unequipped to either manage the air customs compliances for the relief materials or any fund transfer for cash relief. During the 2023 earthquake in Turkey, India launched a comprehensive relief operation “Operation Dost” whereby search and rescue teams, medical personnel and relief materials were promptly dispatched. “Operation Karuna” launched to aid Myanmar and parts of Bangladesh after Cyclone Sitrang in March 2023 also noted the use of military in the form of naval ships for carrying emergency relief materials such as food and medicine formed a part of the operation. The use of military resources significantly expedited the relief administration.

Efforts to Increase Regional Response as opposed to bilateral response to natural disasters

India’s disaster response and aid policy has been noted for its limited focus on bilateral aid. However, during the 2015 Nepal earthquake, both China and India responded quickly by dispatching search-and-rescue teams and delivering emergency supplies. Their co-operative leadership also extended into post-earthquake reconstruction; China likely leveraged its “One Belt One Road” in addition to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to finance rebuilding initiative while India pledged $1 billion in forms of grants and loans to address the regions vulnerabilities to floods, earthquakes and tsunamis. Despite the tensioned relations between the nations, both countries carried their relief operations alongside each other in the Kathmandu Valley, resulting in a cohesive and targeted action.

Additionally, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, India also proposed the establishment of a SAARC Emergency Fund and pledged US$10 million to coordinate relief efforts in the Indian Ocean region. This initiative received initial interest, with all SAARC countries agreeing to contribute. However, since its inception, the majority of initiatives under the fund have been led by India, providing aid to other member countries. Notably, the fund is not operationalized under the SAARC Secretariat, effectively making it an Indian initiative.

In recent times, India has increased its advocacy for a regional co-ordinated response mechanism to HADR. Under the SAGAR Initiative (Security and Growth for All in the Region) that aims to promote and enhance maritime security, economic growth, and cooperative relationships in the Indian Ocean region, India launched a multi-agency HADR exercise “Samanvay 2022” in Agra in November 2022. Through Samanvay 2022, it aimed to formulate a joint approach in tackling natural disasters by leveraging diverse capabilities of participating nations as well as new technology. The exercise included representatives from ASEAN nations, domestic and regional stakeholders in connection with disaster management such as the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), Defence Research and Development Organisation, Indian Air Force, India Meteorological Department etc.

Additionally, India conducted the Annual Joint HADR Exercise (“AJHE”) – CHAKRAVAT 2023, whereby eight partner nations participated to enhance regional preparedness and response capabilities. India is also a signatory to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030) (“Sendai Framework”), which was adopted at the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in March 2015. This framework aims to enhance disaster resilience among all stakeholders and significantly reduce the loss of lives and assets. The Sendai Framework was inspired by the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005-2015), to which India was a signatory. The Hyogo Framework was a globally adopted initiative aimed at reducing disaster-related losses in terms of lives, economic assets, and environmental resources of communities and nations. Additionally, the International Disaster Response Laws (IDRL) Guidelines also aim to mitigate the vulnerability and suffering of individuals impacted by natural and technological disasters. However, India’s voluntary actions of aid and assistance have to be balanced with its own internal security considerations and cannot be considered as undertaking any future obligation to provide support to or accept refugees from countries which are adversely affected by climate change like Pakistan and Bangladesh.


India's multifaceted approach to HADR has positioned it as a pivotal regional player, a leader of the global south and a notable Samaritan championing humanitarian efforts in times of vulnerability. Through initiatives like the SAGAR and adherence to international frameworks such as the Sendai Framework and IDRL Guidelines, India administers aid not just in an independent state capacity but also for regional resilience. By leveraging military and non-state actors, India is ensuring rapid and effective disaster response while respecting the sovereignty of affected nations. As India's HADR capabilities continue to evolve, its role in fostering collaborative regional disaster preparedness and response will be crucial in mitigating the impacts of natural and technological disasters across the Indo-Pacific and South East Asia regions.

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