Neighbourhood First and Act East are the cornerstones of India’s foreign policy – both of which are relevant for BIMSTEC,”. These were the words of Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, speaking at the International Symposium for Growth and Development in BIMSTEC, hosted by the Institute for Socio Cultural Studies on Oct 25, 2021. Formed at a multilateral meeting in June 1997 as BIST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand – Economic Cooperation), the grouping expanded with Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan and the name was changed to BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) at the first Summit Meeting held in Bangkok in July 2004. BIMSTEC accounts for 22% of the global population – over 1.5 billion people – and has a combined economy of USD 2.7 trillion (GDP).
With the vitality and effectiveness of SAARC being diluted, India is now engaging BIMSTEC towards fructification of the cornerstone foreign policies as a prominent nation in South Asia’s geopolitics. The importance of maritime security along with littoral and continental neighbours and need to proactively address the Chinese influence in the region has also added a new dimension, propelling focus towards BIMSTEC. A brief perception survey conducted in 2018 amongst academics, former diplomats & journalists from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka resulted in the general impression that BIMSTEC was indeed the preferred mode for regional cooperation.
The USP of this grouping is that it has the potential to act as a bridge between South Asia and South East Asia. BIMSTEC invigorates regional cooperation in the Bay of Bengal region as also provides a platform for greater engagement with ASEAN. This was signalled by the Prime Minister of India when he invited BIMSTEC leaders for his second swearing in ceremony instead of the SAARC leaders that he had invited the first time.
BIMSTEC is best described as a sub-regional organisation that promotes economic development and mutual cooperation in “shared interests among member states”. These “shared interests” have been identified as 14 priority areas for cooperation with a member country taking lead for a specified area. India is the Lead Country for Environment and Disaster Management.
BIMSTEC Region and Disasters. The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is sometimes called the “World’s Hazard Belt” as it is naturally prone to disasters. Cyclones and droughts, earthquakes and tsunamis, floods and tidal surges are frequently recurring. According to data from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, 30% of all Natural disasters in Asia affect the BIMSTEC grouping. From 2015 to 2020 alone (without counting the COVID pandemic), over 1.28 billion people were affected resulting in damages of over USD 154 billion.
Although BIMSTEC was established 24 years ago, its initiatives for cooperation in disaster management are still nascent. The devastation by the 2004 Tsunami propelled the nations to wake up to the need for regional cooperation but the enthusiasm was short-lived. BIMSTEC was re-invigorated in 2016 when India held the BRICS-BIMSTEC Summit in Goa to boost India’s outreach in the region. During the “retreat” on the side-lines of the summit, BIMSTEC leaders encouraged closer cooperation in disaster management through joint exercises, sharing of information including early warning systems, adoption of preventive measures, joint action on relief and rehabilitation and capacity building.
Cooperation was formalised by the initiation of Joint Disaster Management Exercises (DMEx), which were to be an annual feature. Accordingly, BIMSTEC DMEx 2017 was held at New Delhi and thereafter DMEx 2020 was held at Puri (Odisha).
The exercises were well received by the delegations, but were more of a diplomatic show-and-tell than with any tangible gains or progress in institutionalising measures. It is appalling that 18 years after the first summit meeting and four years after the reinvigorating Goa retreat, only two ‘Annual’ Disaster Management exercises have been held, for a region plagued with disasters.
However, Thomas Lutken of the US based National Bureau for Asian Research (NBR), feels that in the current strategic atmosphere, the Bay of Bengal has emerged as an important theatre within the ‘Indo-Pacific’, and the BIMSTEC nations need to seek robust engagement with each other. The BIMSTEC sector on Disaster Management provides an opportunity for strengthening diplomatic relations through confidence-building mechanisms such as joint disaster preparedness exercises. The strategic atmosphere in the Bay of Bengal will be a sufficient stimulus to develop a regional apparatus for disaster management.
Need for a Regional Response to Disasters.
There is a clear case for regional cooperation for Disaster Management:-
- The occurrence and primary impact of disasters are often felt across national borders, and secondary and tertiary order impacts are definitely of regional concern.
- Nations in a region are diverse in terms of size, economy and capacity to cope with the disasters. There is also a diversity in capabilities with specific nations having developed expertise in Forecasting/Early Warning and in handling specific disasters. This level of diversity could be an opportunity for promoting regional cooperation on disaster response by sharing of information, experience and best practices.
- It would be more fruitful to coordinate relief efforts through a trusted regional mechanism than a single-country effort. Pooling of resources yield optimal results as regional mechanisms lay less pressure on a single nation and should generate a quicker response.
- Regional cooperation in “Building Back Better” would catalyse rebound and economic growth.
Asia is the most disaster-prone region on the planet due to a special combination of hydro-geological and meteorological factors. The littorals of the Bay of Bengal seem to have been particularly chosen to suffer nature’s wrath, which expose the developing countries to socio-economic vulnerability and risks. Changing climate patterns will further escalate the frequency and damage from future disasters, and hence there is an urgent need to develop a cohesive regional approach to reduce the impact of future disasters.
Managing complex regional risks cannot be done by any single agency, and requires trans-national efforts to lay the foundation of regional support. The complexity involves synchronisation of regional efforts for risk assessment, institutionalised forecasting and early warning systems and coordination/harmonisation of response plans. Thus, to achieve enhanced mutual understanding, honest capability appraisal & sharing of best practices so that the strengths of each of the nations can be effectively leveraged to assist others in a humanitarian crisis, there is a need to set up a regional organisational structure and apparatus.
For instance, India has a robust forecasting and early warning system for cyclones. The Indian Meteorological Department’s (IMD) Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre (RSMC) for Tropical Cyclones at New Delhi issues Tropical Weather Outlooks and Tropical Cyclone Advisories to countries in the WMO/ESCAP Panel region bordering the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, including Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand. India has already taken the initiative for addressing vulnerabilities by establishing the BIMSTEC Centre for Weather and Climate (BCWC), to provide Disaster Early Warnings and set up a link between BIMSTEC countries through Tsunami Early Warning Centre.
Similar expertise is available for other disasters with other countries in the region and need to be coordinated. A regional mechanism for forecasting and dissemination of warnings can also include inputs from expert groups or organisations from outside the BIMSTEC grouping.
Leveraging the Military.
In October 2021, a joint endeavour commenced between Bangladesh Armed Forces and the US Army to practice post-earthquake search and rescue techniques, in the latest Disaster Response Exercise and Exchange (DREE) series. The Royal Thai Armed Forces have been involved in most disaster response operations in the recent past and the MoD has issued comprehensive Guidelines on Civil – Military Coordination in Disaster Relief.
The UN urges that militaries should be used during humanitarian situations as a “last resort”, but this guideline is impracticable, especially in developing countries. In fact, in every nation in BIMSTEC, the Armed Forces play a stellar role as the ‘last resorts’. With limited resources during disasters, the military’s ability to quickly deploy, provide logistics and human resources, and their disciplined and committed approach has always been useful. It is imperative that the militaries of all nations be co-opted in the various HADR exercises at National and Regional levels and in the formulation of the institutional arrangements.
BIMSTEC must evolve and formalise institutional frameworks for transnational information dissemination, mobilisation of resources, interoperability, channels of communication & cooperation including Military coordination, so as to harmonise efforts of multiple stakeholders from transnational to local levels for containment, mitigation & response in the event of a disaster.
Necessary clearances and readiness of humanitarian support and relief material, teams and equipment must be worked out in the preparatory phase itself, after joint planning and institutionalisation of diplomatic and legal protocols for regional humanitarian response. Empowerment of personnel by creation of a pool of expertise in Disaster Management specific to the region can be undertaken at Centres of Excellence like the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) in India.
Contours of a BIMSTEC Regional Apparatus
For any response to move in an organised manner, away from bilateral or multilateral trappings to a truly regional paradigm, the first prerequisite is an Organisational Structure. The functional aspects that should be factored in while creating the structure are:-
- Rapid Bonding of Actors. The Disaster Management ‘Eco system’ has various agencies, departments and authorities that constitute a core network for implementing various disaster management related functions. Each of these have important roles in different facets. These agencies have differing work cultures and organisational ethos, but still must bond quickly and work together in a crisis scenario.
- Decision Making in a Chaotic Environment. In the regional context there is a need to expand the ‘circle of trust’ of all response agencies for intimate coordination during the turbulence and chaos of the response and recovery efforts. To achieve this, they must rapidly assess the situation, create capacities to respond, re-establish communications which are disrupted, and exploit “uncharacteristically flexible decision making”. Decision making becomes tougher since the limited information available is heterogenous, untimely and often fragmented. So the response organisation needs to effectively exploit meagre resources and assign response teams to specific sites with high probability of survivors.
- Meeting Quick Information Needs. Disaster management operations are information intensive activities because of the volatile and dynamic situation fraught with uncertainty, resulting in complex information requirements. The organizational structure serves as a framework when making decisions since it has bearing on the quality, completeness and timeliness of information received by the decision makers. It takes longer to process information and decisions through the several levels of a hierarchical structure. Disasters are associated with the quick development flat networks which are pivotal for shared awareness and collective decision making under ambiguous and chaotic disaster conditions.
- Moving Away from the Comfort Zone of a Hierarchy. Whether a remnant of the shared colonial past or the penchant of Asian Governments for feeling “In Charge“ of affairs, hierarchical structures abound at national and regional levels in all spheres of governance. These “Vertical” or “Tall” organisations embody inflexible, well-defined boundaries, rigid command and control arrangements and a top-down approach to task accomplishment, which have given good results in many fields. However, such structures have proved to be less effective in dynamic situations like Disasters. Interactive and collaborative structures characterised by less rigidity, more flexibility, and loose relationships in non-hierarchical structures give better results in disaster situations. Disaster Response is better served by ‘flatter’ organisational structures.
Challenges before BIMSTEC. However, behind the diplomatic speeches and future assurances given at summit level talks and seminars on the subject, the BIMSTEC group of nations have to overcome some challenges to achieve active participation for a regional disaster response.
- All the nations are developing nations and investment of time and effort in Disaster Management is not a priority for the respective constituencies. Motivation and maturity in the member nations needs to be generated to a common rallying point.
- In each member country, different agencies handle Disaster Management, with different structures, approaches, protocols and models. This disparate eco system will need to gel together in a regional context.
- A common vocabulary in the regional context is essential in all phases of disaster management – from rehabilitation to mitigation to early warning, but especially in the Response Phase, where every communication must be clearly understood and acted upon.
- There is the challenge of finding the line where regional support infringes perceived national jurisdictions- and avoiding trespassing on the sensitivities (cultural or otherwise) of specific nations. The common ground of agreement in a Humanitarian crisis scenario needs to be found and accepted.
- The BIMSTEC Secretariat is still nascent in its establishment, understaffed and seemingly unclear about its charter. It seems a chicken and egg situation – without a well-crafted charter and strategy, the staffing norms are ad-hoc, but without staff of requisite experience and expertise, the secretariat would remain sub-optimal. BIMSTEC ‘HQ’ needs to prepare its charter for long term vision and collaborations including Disaster Management. The draft charter apparently finalised in the Third BIMSTEC Permanent Working Committee Meeting in March 2020 would be adopted soon- and needs the Disaster Management apparatus to be envisioned. In her pivotal issue brief for the ORF, Sohoni Bose asserts that “Without a strong institutional base, BIMSTEC member-states will not be encouraged to provide adequate resources for crafting the kind of disaster management cooperation that is required”14
- Apart from the need for bolstering Human Resources, there is also the question of funding, and apportioning the initial and recurring expenditures.
The Way Ahead. The upcoming BIMSTEC Disaster Management Exercise in Pune, India, is a DMEx re-envisioned by PM Modi for “active participation” by all countries. It promises to be a large-scale exercise – for the first time the militaries are also involved along with disaster response agencies – to work out responses to Natural disasters in the backdrop of a pandemic. But more than just the tweaking of protocols and response procedures in a future COVID-19 like situation, the opportunity should be used to sow the seeds of an institutionalised regional apparatus for Disaster Response. The regional response apparatus must:
- Be facilitated to have shared situational awareness leading to a Common Operating Picture.
- Have effective inter-communications for early warning information, shared decisions and a common vocabulary & common protocol within the region.
- Be empowered to take quick and informed decisions to optimise resource allocation
- Have transnational institutional and legal frameworks to ease coordination of relief efforts in a dynamic, chaotic post disaster environment
- Be able to scale up or down depending on the magnitude of the disaster.
All the above requirements point towards a flat and modular structure and not a tall and hierarchical one, with clear interoperability protocols and channels of command for trans-border HADR operations as well as communications for On Site Operations Coordination between all countries. Efforts must be directed towards streamlining and synchronising relief mechanisms through a regional apparatus with a focus on the following.
- Flat organisational structure at BIMSTEC secretariat, duly empowered by respective nations to interact and solicit responses from their disaster management agencies.
- Modular brick system of assured relief material, manpower and equipment for scalability depending on the type and magnitude of disaster.
- Registration by aid agencies in the region and worldwide, for coordination of non-governmental efforts.
- Linking of enterprise resource planning softwares in all countries (as opposed to creation of a new one ) or mandated use of existing Free and Open Source Software solutions like SAHANA Eden.
- Preparation and vetting of clear protocols and legal sanctions for movement of relief materials and columns, including military effort, at short notice and across national boundaries. Common reception, coordination, direction and protection conventions and treaties must be evolved.
The ASEAN Model for regional disaster response can be loosely replicated by incorporation of their best practices, especially the creation of a pool of empowered experts from each country, identification of key capacities and expertise in each member country, swift real or virtual transportation and reconnaissance to disaster sites for gauging requirements and transmission of the same to respective member nations, setting up of a joint control centre and coordination of relief efforts that start flowing in.
The way ahead is to evolve a BIMSTEC structure for capability development and training, to have a regional pool of Disaster Management experts and to create institutional organisations and mechanisms, protocols and legal frameworks for mobilising resources for joint response to disasters. The Regional apparatus then evolved needs to be a flat and modular structure and not a tall/ hierarchical one for optimising disaster response.