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AVM Arjun Subramanium (Retd)

AVM Arjun Subramanium (Retd)

Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam is a retired fighter pilot from the IAF who has flown MiG-21s and Mirage-2000s. He is also a military historian, academic, strategic commentator and mentor. He has been a Visiting Fellow at Harvard and Oxford universities and Visiting Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Ashoka and Jindal Universities. He has lectured extensively at war colleges in India and the US and at a wide range of Universities and think tanks in the US and UK including Harvard, MIT, Georgetown University, Oxford, Carnegie Endowment, RUSI and IISS.

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    Brig Anand Thakur, Retd

    Dear Sir,

    Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) Disasters are caused by materials/agents that might be released due to some ‘Inadvertent Incident’ like an accident or a ‘Deliberate Action’ like a subversive activity by some miscreants. But in both the cases, a CBRN Eventuality has the potential to assume pandemic proportions. In fact amongst all the Disasters, probably only the CBRN ones possess this capacity to affect the entire globe, without respecting national boundaries. Uncontrollable and rapid spread of its adverse effect is what distinguishes it from other Disasters.

    A simple Inadvertent CBRN Incident like the Delhi’s Mayapuri Cobalt-60 Radiation Exposure Incidence of Apr 2010 had exposed the faults and weak links of our entire CBRN Response Mechanism. In this incident, it had become apparent that both, the community & the governance, were not fully equipped & prepared for meeting such situations. A threat to the life or property of Disaster affected population or to the relief providers from petty thieves and local looters always existed. But till very recently, this was never to the integrity of the Nation. The Police were able to take care of such low level threats. Probably for the first time, in the Disaster Management Operations during Kashmir Floods of 2015, the Security Forces were forced to carry armed weapons while providing relief, to simultaneously address two fronts– of Safe Evacuation, Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Support and of remaining vigilant to the constant threat of a terrorist intervention to their Disaster Support. It is an irony that they had to dedicate a Force to guard against terrorist and Anti National Elements (ANEs) for enabling smooth conduct of Disaster Relief Operations, even while their own families, houses & offices needed to be rescued. This is akin to a wartime situation where the Infantry provides security cover to the Combat Engineers for facilitating smooth execution of Bridging & Mine laying Operations.

    So, is a CBRN eventuality a war-like incident? Probably yes. A plausible threat of utilizing the CBRN agents by well organized ANEs & terrorist organizations, are based on immutable ideological principles and have significant financial backing, for pursuing their nefarious aim, does exist. The recent COVID19 Crisis of 2020 has clearly proved that the thin line between an ‘Inadvertent’ CBRN Emergency/Disaster and the ‘Deliberate’ use of a CBRN Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD), has further blurred. In the times to come, these two domains are sure to merge, giving rise to the Concept of the aggressor nation Engineering a CBRN Disaster in invisible battlespaces (wherein the target nation does not even know that it is under a CBRN attack). In this crisis, China is believed to have already waged such an ‘Invisible War’ to assert its economic power over the western developed nations.

    The Lacunae. A major lacuna in the way CBRN Disasters are managed is in the way the aspect of ‘Security’ is dwarfed by ‘Safety’. Security means putting in place procedures or measures designed to protect the population against harmful CBRN substances. These preventive measures include a combination of systems and practices put in place at laboratories, by border control, customs agents, agricultural and natural resource managers to prevent the spread of dangerous pathogens, toxins or radiological material. India has a robust legislative system to combat Safety issues, refined and strengthened over the last four decades. The National biosafety and bio-waste activities are governed by legislations through State Health Ministries and Environment Ministries (Pollution Control Boards). Under the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme, a network of public laboratories with biosafety practices and infrastructure is also being set up. But sadly, ‘Security’ still remains a stepbrother of ‘Safety’.

    The Way Ahead. A more active involvement of Armed Forces in the Management of CBRN Disasters is therefore an urgent need of the hour that the NDMA needs to recognise.

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