Rising to the Challenge
Panchalee Thakur

Rising to the Challenge
This special cover story on disaster management features a rescue operation, a rehabilitation project, crisis management at a family event, and PMI's Project Management Methodology for Post Disaster Reconstruction


Sun-baked, parched farmlands in Maharashtra and Telangana, inundated streets of Chennai and Srinagar, and houses reduced to a rubble in many parts of neighboring Nepal are some visuals from 2015 that will remain in the minds of Indians as powerful reminders of the vulnerability of human beings in the face of natural disasters. According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, in 2015, India recorded 19 natural disasters and was the third most disaster hit country. With climate change experts forecasting a higher incidence of disasters in the years ahead, governments and aid organizations face the daunting task of carrying out frequent rescue, relief, and rehabilitation work. However, often these efforts make poor utilization of resources and result in a shoddy outcome because of non-standardized procedures while responding to a crisis, poor execution of rescue and relief operations, and insufficient monitoring of rehabilitation projects.

Manage India speaks to the Indian Army and Indian Air Force to understand the procedures that the Indian armed forces followed in Operation Maitri, the rescue and relief mission it launched after the Nepal earthquake in April 2015 that won India praise and admiration for quick and effective response. We focus on a rehabilitation project launched by PMI Chennai Chapter after the devastating floods in Tamil Nadu in December 2015. Also featured is the crisis management by a senior project practitioner for his daughter's wedding during the Chennai floods.

Neighbor Reaches Out in Times of Need
Within 15 minutes of a powerful earthquake hitting Nepal close to noon on 25 April, the Indian armed forces, along with the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), had set in motion a rescue and relief mission to the neighboring country. By that afternoon, 10 NDRF teams comprising 450 personnel had reached Nepal. By midnight, the Army had deployed a senior officer to Kathmandu to coordinate the efforts.

The Indian Army deployed 400 personnel, 18 medical teams, and five teams from the engineer task force. The IAF provided about 90 personnel for the sorties and 30 for medical assistance. The Indian Army's Everest expedition team, which was at the Everest base camp when the earthquake struck, rescued a number of mountaineers who were struck by an avalanche that was triggered by the quake.

The Difficulties Awaiting Rescue Teams

  • Disruption of telecommunication networks
  • Overcrowding at Kathmandu airport
  • The sheer scale of the disaster, with a large number to be people to be found and/or helped
  • Inaccessibility of far-flung areas because of blocked roads and collapsed bridges
  • Providing shelter to thousands of those rescued who did not want to go back to their damaged houses
  • A large number of Indians to be evacuated
  • Shortage of food, water, and essential drugs

Factors that Helped in Quick, Effective Action

High-level decision-making, roles clearly defined
As soon as news about the earthquake had broken out, the Indian defence forces got into the act to organize a rescue and relief mission. The Chief of Army Staff, General Dalbir Singh, got in touch with his Nepalese counterpart and took a status update. The Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), which is the nodal agency of the Ministry of Defence, organized a meeting with the Indian Army, IAF, NDRF, and the ministry of external affairs.

IDS nominated a top-ranking officer of the Gorkha Regiment, Major General J.S. Sandhu, AVSM, VSM, as the joint task force commander. His role was to assist the Nepal Army and coordinate the Indian search and rescue operation. Major General Sandhu reached Kathmandu by midnight of 25 April to take over his responsibility.

The operations branch at Air Headquarters also nominated a contingent commander, who would be the IAF mission team leader, and provided him the resources he needed to conduct the operation. This person was tasked with the responsibility to utilize IAF resources for the operation and coordinate among various agencies for the mission. The IAF chalked out a plan on the aircraft and helicopters it needed to deploy, and within four hours of the earthquake, the first aircraft was airborne from the Hindon air base in Ghaziabad for Kathmandu.

Established procedures, clear chain of command
Col. Rohan Anand, public relations officer, Indian Army, said its response was based on established procedures, experience, and inputs from the field. "The Indian Army established command and control centers in Kathmandu and Pokhara under a major general and a brigadier, respectively. These centers carried out day-to-day assessments of the situation on the ground and interfaced with the Nepalese Army to plan relief and rescue effort, assessed the requirement of additional teams, ensured that relief reached the deserving, and that there was no duplication of effort," said Col Anand.

The Indian Army's first engineering task force reached Kathmandu within 24 hours, medical teams and additional engineering personnel reached in the next 24 hours, and helicopters from the IAF and Indian Army reached Kathmandu and Pokhara, respectively, within 48 hours. On the request of the Nepalese Army, they sent additional engineering teams to Kathmandu later. Relief material for construction of temporary shelters was also sent.

The command and control centers had representatives from the IAF. Seven officers of the Indian Army and two from the IAF assisted Major General Sandhu.

Extensive training and experience
Said the IAF spokesperson, "Military officers are exposed to management techniques and methods as part of routine training during their careers. This training prepares them to handle a variety of situations during operations. We consider factors such as seniority, experience, and area-wise extent of operations at the time of detailing a contingent commander for missions."

The same is true of the Indian Army, which is often called to assist in rescue missions during natural calamities in India.

Alternative communication channels
With disruption of the telecommunication network in Nepal, the Indian armed forces relied largely on satellite phones in the initial days. A satellite link was established between the Nepal Army Headquarters and the Indian Army Military Operations Directorate. Later, a satellite terminal was established in Kathmandu for seamless flow of voice and data.

The IAF spokesperson added, "The information flow is always minimal in the beginning as it takes time to assess the extent of damage. In the absence of an effective communication network, the IAF launching base in Kathmandu used routine feedback from helicopter pilots who were operating in far flung areas as the primary source of information. Plans were kept flexible to accommodate emergent requirements."

For smooth and effective operations, the contingent commanders for the Army and the IAF were in constant touch with the top leadership of the Nepalese Army who was spearheading the rescue and relief operations.

By the end of Operation Maitri, the Indian rescue teams flew 2,223 sorties, moved about 11,200 people to safety, and transported and dropped about 1,700 tonnes of relief material. The Indian Army provided medical assistance to 4,831 injured, which included 300 surgeries. The IAF treated another 932 people in its field hospital. The engineer task force of the Indian Army cleared over 16.5 km of track, over 11,477 cubic metres of debris, helped to re-construct 55 houses/shelters, and recovered several bodies.

Know the Basics of PMI's Project Management Methodology for Post Disaster Reconstruction

In response to the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004, PMI collaborated with international relief agencies to develop the PMI's Project Management Methodology for Post Disaster Reconstruction, also known as the Post Disaster Rebuild Methodology (PDRM). PDRM is a global rebuild methodology that contains a checklist and a comprehensive set of templates.

The PDRM checklist has a series of statements/questions for a project manager which details his/her appropriate response, a project management process reference, and the required templates. The rebuild project manager chooses templates to suit his/her needs.

Some of these checklist questions are: What is the problem that is to be solved and why do I care about it? How will I know that all the resources will be available when needed? What will I do if needed resources (human and material) are not available?

By answering the first question, the project manager will be able to draw up the project charter. By answering the next two questions, he/she will be able to ensure proper reporting to the stakeholders, schedules based on milestones, budgets, risks, resources and workaround planning. The suggested templates for this question are a communications plan, cost estimating, staffing, risk management, procurement and resource planning, cost tracking, scheduling, workaround planning, and results.

How PDRM helps
By applying the tested tools of project management to post-disaster situations, the PDRM methodology helps in the following ways:

  1. Provides a resource for organizations or individuals with or without formal project management training.
  2. A case scenario-based course accompanies the training for agencies in relief operations.
  3. Local follow-up support through PMI's 150,000 worldwide members in 150 countries.
  4. The structure provides organizations the flexibility of using either the entire set of processes or selected processes to complement their current work methodology.
  5. Ease of use through checklists; guidance through the various processes and templates.
  6. A train-the-trainer presentation of up to six hours or a comprehensive 18 hours based on the customer disaster/crises scenario.

PMI Chennai Chapter Shows the Way
In the true spirit of volunteering and community service, PMI India Chennai Chapter (PMICC) identified three schools that had suffered significant damage during the December flood for rehabilitation, of which work has been completed in two schools. The beneficiaries are Ashok Nagar Girls Higher Secondary School and the Chennai High School in Kotturpuram. Work in the third school, the Chennai High School in Teynampet, is currently underway.

Prasannaa Sampathkumar, secretary, PMICC, said, "Soon after the flood, our members approached schools in the most impacted Chennai and Cuddalore districts in order to evaluate the damage and identify immediate requirements. We finalized on the Ashok Nagar Girls Higher Secondary School as our first project as part of PMICC Chennai Flood Rehabilitation Program." The other two schools were taken up in the second phase.

The Ashok Nagar school has 100 classrooms and a total strength of over 3,500 students. Several of its classrooms were under 6-8 feet of water during the flood, leading to damage to the floors, furniture, books, stationary, and electrical fittings.

Once the school produced its list of requirements, chapter volunteers, led by Sriram Raghavan, vice-president, certification, conducted an independent assessment and verified the requirements on 12 December. The school immediately needed repair or replacement of black boards, light fittings and ceiling fans, painting of classroom furniture, other carpentry work, and a new water filter plant.

On 18 December, the team finalized the scope of immediate requirements as blackboard painting, painting of classroom furniture, and the fixing of lights and other electrical fittings in five classrooms. The team crashed the project schedule and completed the work during the one-week school holiday during Christmas and New Year. Chapter volunteers Koushik Srinivasan, Syed Razik, and R.N. Pradeepkumar, along with Mr. Raghavan, took care of the coordination among the school, chapter, and vendors identified for the works.

For Chennai High School, Kotturpuram, the chapter has helped with audio headsets for the computer lab, lights fixtures, steel storage units, and ground restoration. The chapter board is now assessing the requirements for the Teynampet school. Funds for the projects have come from collections from chapter members and corporates. The chapter has so far received Rs. 1.75 lakh, following a call for support that the chapter board had made during a special session on 26 December.

The chapter has also committed to supporting the Ashok Nagar school for some of its long-term requirements such as dustfree boards, tube lights, desks, chairs and notice board.

Chapter president, P. Ramasubramaniam, said, "We want to create long-term value through education related projects. It aligns best with the chapter's and PMI's overall vision. We are now identifying future projects to bring into this scope."

Crisis Management at an Indian Wedding
A daughter's wedding is a big day in one's life, and for our daughter's wedding, my wife, Subhashini Rao and I decided to put in our best efforts in its planning. As a certified Project Management Professional (PMP)®, I decided to follow all copybook processes of project management in the wedding planning. This included a Work Breakdown Structure, scheduling, resource planning, risk management, and procurement. Our project management was put to the test when we faced the unplanned risk of heavy rains inundating Chennai.

When Chennai came to a grinding halt after heavy rains in the first week of December, many weddings were postponed. But with careful planning, we managed to pull off our daughter's wedding on 6-7 December.

We had put in place a good plan for the transportation and accommodation of guests. We didn't leave out any rituals or ceremonies. We also managed satisfactory service for most services including decoration of the venue, beautician for the bride, and food quality.

Some Observation

  • It pays to be ‘un-smart' – Ironically, the so-called "efficient" private institutions such as banks, radio cabs, and other private service providers did not work, except for auto-rickshaws. The State Bank of India was one of the few functioning banks. People who kept cash at home managed better than those who depended on ATMs.
  • Be ready for surprises – Chennai is known for the acrimonious behavior of auto-rickshaw drivers. During this crisis, auto-rickshaws were the only vehicles that plied on the road and surprisingly, the drivers did not exploit the situation by over charging.
  • Bringing the worst or best in people – The true indicator of capability or intent comes out in a crisis situation. We found how some people, contractors,and organizations went out of their way to accommodate, while others refused.
  • Management and leadership styles – Within our own team of family members, some stepped up and took charge of a situation, some were good in high-level planning but hardly managed execution, and some were good in following instructions and executed given tasks.

Our Learning

  • Form a core group for quick decision-making which meets often, many times during the day on an adhoc basis.
  • Review fall back plans including alternate vendors and resource persons.
  • Consider options of must-have, good-to-have, and nice-to-have to prioritize requirements.
  • Practice ‘managing by walking around' since technology and systems may not be working.
  • Planning is the backbone that helps in crisis management during the execution phase.
  • Considering at least three vendors for material or services is not just for price comparison but also beneficial for risk management as these service providers can be your fallback option.

The principal prerequisite in managing such projects is meticulous planning. Planning need not be done by anticipating a crisis. Instead, practice project planning in a routine course more rigorously. The change management component of crisis management would be more informal here as the time for decisionmaking and implementation period are short. It is also critical to maintain flexibility and agility in handling a project in a crisis situation. Another critical factor that helped us pull through the wedding was collaboration between the bride's and groom's side.

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