Current General Studies Magazine (February 2017)
General Studies - III "Security Based Article" (India’s
Despite extensive experience in conducting evacuation operations of its citizens
abroad, India still needs to institutionalise best practices
On January 26, 1986, as New Delhi celebrated its Republic Day, South Yemen was
being engulfed in a civil war that threatened the lives of thousands of
foreigners living there. While Britain, France and the Soviet Union coordinated
to jointly evacuate their nationals, the 850 Indians in the country were forced
to wait for several more days until New Delhi finally managed to convince a
merchant ship to pick them up.
Fast forward almost 30 years, to April 2015, when Yemen was on fire once again.
This time, however, the Indian government successfully conducted Operation
Raahat to evacuate almost 5,000 Indians and nearly 1,000 citizens from 41 other
countries. Besides Air India aircraft, the Indian Navy deployed vessels, and the
Indian Air Force C-17 Globemasters for strategic airlift. Such unprecedented
efforts and resources reflect New Delhi’s new drive to protect the lives and
assets of its citizens abroad in times of crisis.
The increasing size and complexity of the diaspora requires the government to
expand capacity and improve procedures. More than 11 million Indians now reside
abroad and 20 million travel internationally every year. As political
instability rattles the West Asian region, which hosts more than seven million
Indians, the government can no longer rely on heroic efforts by individual
officials or quick-fix solutions.
First, the government will need to build on its rich experience in conducting
more than 30 evacuation operations since the 1950s. Studying India’s history,
best practices and lessons learned will help institutionalise them and avoid the
need to reinvent the wheel every time a crisis erupts. By supporting
policy-oriented research at universities and think tanks to document the memory
of senior officials, the government would also facilitate the transmission of
their expertise to younger officials.
Preparing a manual
Second, the government must avoid the jugaad approach. Every evacuation case is
unique, given the specific nature and location of the crisis, but this should
not preclude an analytical attempt to formulate a blueprint that lists core
tasks for all operations. An inter-ministerial committee should prepare a manual
with guidelines that establish a clear chain of command and division of
competencies; identify regional support bases, assembly points and routes for
evacuation; develop country-specific warden systems to communicate with
expatriates; and establish evacuation priority and embarkation criteria.
Third, India’s diplomatic cadre must be given specific training to operate in
hostile environments. As a senior government official told me, when it comes to
operating in complex theatres, “practice and preparedness make perfection”.
To achieve this, the government could instruct the police or army to train
Indian Foreign Service probationers to operate in war zones; conduct frequent
evacuation simulations and emergency drills; and create rapid reaction teams of
Indian security personnel to be deployed to protect diplomatic staff and
Fourth, the success of future operations will also rely on New Delhi’s
willingness to work together with friendly governments. India will have to
invest in cooperative frameworks that facilitate coordination among countries
that have large expatriate populations in West Asia, in particular Nepal,
Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and among leading powers with evacuation capacity in
the Indian Ocean region.
Fifth, the government will have to assign a greater role to its armed forces, in
particular by strengthening the Navy and Air Force’s capacity to operate in
tandem with civilian authorities. It should, for example, direct the military to
develop a non-combatant evacuation (NEO) doctrine, designate the Integrated
Defence Staff as the nodal organisation to improve inter-services and
civil-military coordination, direct the services to conduct more multilateral
NEO exercises, and adapt military modernisation plans to increase capacity for
out-of-area deployment and evacuation.
Sixth, to minimise redundancies, the government must institutionalise a
permanent inter-ministerial coordinating mechanism for emergency evacuations,
incentivise inter-agency cross-posting of officials dealing with diaspora
affairs, and encourage State governments to create regional contingency plans.
Seventh, to avoid cost inflation and delays, the government must establish a
permanent civil reserve air fleet that pools aircraft from all Indian airlines
based on pre-established requisition and reimbursement procedures.
Eighth, the government will have to invest in new technologies to better monitor
the diaspora’s profile and mobility. This can be achieved by encouraging more
diplomatic missions to provide online consular registration forms, developing an
online registration system for overseas travellers, utilising social media, and
by making the Aadhaar card compulsory to facilitate biometric identity
verification and reduce identity fraud during evacuation.
Finally, the government must expand efforts to manage public opinion and be able
to conduct a quiet diplomacy that is crucial to safely extricate Overseas
Indians from conflict zones. To reduce domestic pressures, it should embed media
representatives more frequently in such missions, reassure the diaspora by
ensuring that high-level political representatives are personally engaged, and
avoid raising expectations by clearly distinguishing Indian citizens from people
of Indian origin.
India has extensive experience in conducting evacuation operations, but to
secure the lives and assets of Indians abroad, the government must avoid an ad
hoc approach and seek to institutionalise best practices, bolster diplomatic and
military capabilities, and improve coordination.