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Operation Sahayata: Indian Armed Forces to the rescue

A heavy-lift IL-76 'Gajraj' being loaded with relief supplies

On Republic Day - January 26, 2001, a massive earthquake shook the Gujarat state of India. Measuring 7.9 on the Richter Scale and with its epicentre in the Rann of Kutch, the earthquake caused massive destruction in Bhuj and Ahmedabad. Tremors from the quake were felt in most parts of the country 1000's of kilometers away. Besides flattening almost all buildings in the area and killing thousands of civilians, the quake also caused severe damage to the Bhuj Air Force Base. The Indian Air Force sadly lost 30 servicemen and 65 family members of personnel.

More than 90 per cent of the buildings in Bhuj and most other affected towns in Kutch, had collapsed. The army hospital in Bhuj was too small to handle the stream of patients needing medical assistance with more than 45,000 people injured in Bhuj alone. Thousands of bodies lay decomposing under the debris in the region. The fear of an outbreak of epidemics caused mass exodus of the survivors from Kutch district to other parts of Gujarat and outside.

The Indian armed forces immediately swung into action on a war-footing, launching "Operation Sahayata", the largest ever relief operation to be undertaken in the world. A disaster control centre was set up at the air headquarters in New Delhi to coordinate the relief work. The IAF spearheaded the airlifting of supplies, while the Army provided the largest chunk of manpower to supervise distribution of relief.

Senior Army officers survey the destruction

On January 26th night, Army Chief General S. Padmanabhan ordered a division of the Desert Corps based near the Pakistani border in Gujarat, and troops engaged in an annual training exercise along the Indo-Pakistan border in neighboring Rajasthan state to join rescue operations. Army personnel mainly from Western Command and Southern Command were also pressed into operations. At many places they were on standby, waiting for the assessment to be made.

The Army set up a special operation cell at their headquarters in Bhuj. Also, a special disaster management control center was established at the Directorate General of Military Operations in the Army Headquarters in Delhi. Lt Gen N.C. Vij, the general officer commanding-in-chief of the army's southern command oversaw the relief operations.

The Navy sent two relief ships, besides a survey ship to determine the safety of the quake-hit Kandla channel. The Indian Coast Guards deployed two ships, four Donier aircraft and one helicopter besides a number of Coast Guard personnel. The earthquake had damaged an oil reservoir in Kutch causing an oil spillage, which it was feared could result in a major ecological disaster. The Coast Guard was mobilised to contain it.

IL-76 being loaded with equipment

The Defence Minister, Mr. George Fernandes and the IAF Chief, Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis rushed to Ahmedabad and Bhuj respectively, on Jan 27 for an on the spot assessment of the situation. They made an aerial reconnaissance of the quake-affected areas soon after their arrival to assess the damage caused by the quake to defense installations.

While the Bhuj air force station bore the brunt of the IAF's damages with buildings at the base suffering extensive damage. The Naliya and Jamnagar stations suffered minor damages but were fully functional. Bhuj is a frontline fighter plane base, where a squadron of the single engine Mig-21 fighters are stationed. The runway and fighter planes at Bhuj had not been damaged. The earthquake had, however, damaged power generation, navigation and communication facilities. More than 1,000 people resided at the Bhuj air force station including family members. Many of these casualties of IAF personnel and their family members occurred outside the air base where family members of IAF personnel were living in civilian accommodation.

Mi-17 helicopters

In the following two days, the IAF moved as many as seven IL-76, twenty-two AN-32s, five HS-748s, six Mi-8s, two Mi-17s, two Mi-26s and twelve Cheetah/Chetak helicopters into Bhuj & Jamnagar air bases. With a nodal command and control centre at Delhi, flights are being coordinated from the air bases in Delhi, Agra, Chandigarh, Amritsar, Pune and Chennai.

With relief material flying in from all corners of the world and casualties flying out, the Bhuj airfield became the busiest in the country. Between 75-80 landings per day was the norm for the first ten days after the earthquake with aircraft landing and taking off without a break. Within the first 24 hours of the tragedy, more than 30 sorties involving more than 150 flying hours were undertaken by 6 IL-76, 14 AN-32 and 5 Avro aircraft in round the clock operations to carry relief supplies, para medical and army personnel from all over the country. It led to the evacuation of more than 700 people from the quake-hit zone and the airlifting of over 3,000 tonnes of relief supplies.

Heavy-lift Mi-26 helicopter

Fifteen medium-lift Mi-7 and Mi-8 and 2 Mi-26s carried out operations from dawn to dusk and in addition 15 Cheetah/Chetak helicopters were put on standby for operations. The heavy-lift Mi-26 helicopters were pressed into service for carrying 50,000 blankets from Chandigarh and Amritsar to the victims. The Medium lift Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters airdropped food and relief materials to far-flung areas, which had no access, by road or rail.

The IL-76 "Gajraj" aircrafts lifted heavy engineering equipment(bulldozers & cranes), generator sets, mobile kitchens, field ambulances, tents, blankets, food and other supplies and did more than 90 sorties in only five days. The AN-32 medium-lift aircraft airlifted medical teams and airforce tentage from Kanpur, Chennai and Delhi. French doctors and sniffer dogs with handlers were also airlifted from Delhi to Bhuj.

Army personnel remove relief materials from the IL-76

Doctors and medicines were available in the earthquake-affected areas speedily. The problem was getting them to the injured. While the affected in Ahmedabad and most other areas in the Saurashtra region received necessary medical assistance in time, service was a shambles in the worst-hit Kutch district where the collapse of the civil hospital in the district headquarters of Bhuj burying more than 100 doctors, nurses and patients caused a total dislocation of the health services. With the panic-stricken injured refusing to go inside the few structures still standing, the medical teams from home and abroad rushed to Bhuj had to perform emergency operations in makeshift theatres in the open.

Even after the road link with Kutch was re-established with the repair of the Surajbari bridge, the doctors faced the problem of shortage of ambulances to shift the patients to hospitals outside the district. A special IAF plane ferried some emergency cases to the hospitals in Rajkot and Jamnagar and later the State Government stationed some 150 State transport buses to carry some 20,000 patients to the hospitals in different parts of the State and even to Mumbai and Pune. About 25,000 patients were treated locally.

Rescue workers taking away the injured

The army came to the aid of the quake victims by installing five 100-bed each field hospitals, while the Navy send two hospital ships with a total 500-bed capacity. The Red Cross also arranged for 500-bed hospital facilities. About 700 medical practitioners worked round-the-clock in the affected areas in Kutch district and some parts of the Saurashtra region with the support of more than 10,000 tonnes of medicines rushed from all corners of the world. The IMA vice president, Dr. Bipin Patel, said ``Everything is now streamlined and the medical teams are not facing any problem now as they were initially.'' The lack of coordination, however, often delayed treatment to the needy in some of the affected areas, particularly the towns other than Bhuj.

The Air Force, unmindful of its own loss of personnel suffered by the disaster, set up a Casualty Treatment Centre just outside the Station Sick Quarters to attend to the injured while the serious cases were dispatched to the Military Hospital. Teams of Doctors comprising of 3 Air Force surgeons and 9 medical assistants worked non-stop for 72 hours performing miracles in poor light and bad conditions to provide succor to the victims. The untiring zeal by the pilots of the IAF ensured that many lives were saved and for those that were not-so fortunate, it was ensured that the last rites were conducted with dignity.

a building damaged by the earthquake

The medical teams of the Army performed more than 10,000 surgeries, including 1700 major ones, at seven mobile hospital(field ambulances) and two static military hospitals. Relief operations by the Indian Navy continued with patients being admitted to the Naval ships turned hospital ships - INS Nirdeshak and INS Jamuna. CGS Vijaya had been converted into a floating hospital at Kandla Port and provided medical aid to a number of injured persons. It also assisted port authorities in manning essential services and rendering services to the civil authorities in rescue and supply of food provisions at Gandhidhram and Anjar. Another ship, CGS Veera carried food and clothing to Kandla Port.

In total, the transport and helicopter fleet of the Indian Air Force flew 1921 hours in more than 1200 sorties towards relief efforts, carrying 31589 tonnes of load and evacuating more than 10,150 persons from the affected areas. The expenditure incurred by the Air Force in these operations has been estimated at Rs 109 Crore.

The IAF Bhuj Memorial

On March 26, 2001, Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis inaugurated a memorial built for the 30 servicemen and 65 family members of IAF personnel who died in the earthquake. Erected at the Bhuj air force station the memorial consists of two collapsed concrete beams and a few concrete blocks strewn around a raised platform of black granite.

The memorial was unveiled by Air Chief Marshal Tipnis at a sombre ceremony near the IAF officers' mess in the morning. More than one lakh fifty thousand Air Force personnel spread over five hundred units simultaneously attended similar memorial services organised at all Air Force bases to pay homage. It had taken full two months for the IAF to pay tribute to its personnel who died in the devastating earthquake. There was hardly any time as the men in blue had to put their personal tragedies behind and jump immediately into the rescue operations.

Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis(center) with Air Marshal D.C. Dhayani(left) and Air Marshal V.K. Bhatia(right).

A two minutes silence was observed after which Air Chief Marshal Tipnis and Air Marshal V.K. Bhatia, the chief of South Western Air Command(SWAC) placed wreaths at the memorial and names of all 95 victims of the IAF family were read out. The last post was sounded and the gun-men reversed their arms as a mark of respect to their departed mates.

Officers bow their heads as a two minute silence is observed.

In his brief but touching address to the personnel Air Chief Marshal Tipnis said,``We really did not have time to grieve over our own loss, today we shed a silent tear and remember our men and their families who lost their lives.'' Tipnis said the history of Bhuj air force station was replete with acts of courage and valour and the challenges thrown up by the earthquake were no less than those thrown up by an operation during war.

He also paid tributes to the people of Kutch who displayed surprising calm and resilience in the wake of such a tragedy and said, ``While we are men in uniform and are trained to deal with such challenges, the common people also reacted like us in this crisis.'' The challenge today, he said, was to create ``an ideal air force station'' in Bhuj in the coming months.

Air Chief Marshal Tipnis views a photo gallery on the earthquake.

The IAF chief also said that since most of the living quarters and offices in the station had been destroyed in the quake, he had asked the defence minister to sanction a special allowance to personnel posted in Bhuj. He said the IAF would also take charge of children who had lost either of their parents in the tragedy and pay for their educational costs. He said a special sanction had been made for reconstruction of buildings and these would be ready in two years time.

Tipnis said in spite of the devastation, Bhuj station was operational from the first day itself and there were no security concerns because of the earthquake. In fact, other IAF officers said the Bhuj station, in spite of not having navigational aids, had handled nearly 1,000 sorties in the week after the earthquake and unloaded thousands of tonnes of relief material that poured in. ``Bhuj was perhaps the busiest airport anywhere in the world during the period.'' he said.

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