Indian Generals Blast Government for Withholding Life-Saving Army Aid From Its Own People
Former top army officials are calling out the Indian government for holding back life-saving military resources needed to tackle the current crisis.
NEW DELHI—With India ravaged by an unprecedented second wave of the COVID-19 virus—and its health-care system on its knees—some public health and former military officials are voicing outrage over the government’s apparent refusal to use the full force of the army to assist with the crisis.
“The army is not being utilized to the fullest extent,” even though it has “tremendous capacities” to ease the current disaster, Deependra Singh Hooda, former chief of the Indian army’s strategic northern command, told The Daily Beast.
For weeks experts have been pleading with the government, urging it to rope in the military to help with a health crisis never before seen in India’s modern history.
Earlier this month, the deputy chief minister of the country’s capital, Delhi—which is facing the worst COVID situation in India—asked the defense minister to lend the services of the armed forces to help it set up and run COVID-19 health facilities. But the request was turned down, even after the local government reached out to Delhi’s high court, which claimed that Indian forces were stretched.
While the army has set up a few hospitals and provided limited supplies of oxygen, most forces remain uninvolved even as the country’s health-care system is on the brink of collapse. India’s armed forces have around 13,000 officers who are medical professionals and an additional 100,000 medical support staff, whose expertise could save countless lives.
“We are going through an emergency situation. The network and infrastructure of the armed forces need to be leveraged,” public health expert Anant Bhan told The Daily Beast. “It will minimize the loss of life.”
The demand is being echoed after the top U.S. public health official, Dr. Anthony Fauci, suggested last week that India should marshal all of its resources, including the armed forces, to handle the situation.
For India, the army may be the last resort. On Wednesday, 4,205 Indians died of the virus, and 348,421 tested positive for COVID, pushing the total number of confirmed cases so far in the country to 2.5 million. The total death count climbed to 25,8351—which experts say is a massive undercount. Hospitals in the country have been running at capacity for weeks, and hundreds of people have died because they did not get oxygen in time.
The downward spiral is showing no signs of plateauing anytime soon, with new variants toting up the intensity of India’s second wave, and the prospect of a third wave that is likely to follow. The virus is also rapidly engulfing India’s rural areas—home to 65 percent of the country's population—where health-care systems are even worse than in the already overwhelmed cities.
“This is the first time we have gotten into a situation like this,” General Ved Prakash Malik, former Indian army chief, told The Daily Beast. “There is scope for the civil administration to use the services of armed forces. Other than the medical services, engineering services can be utilized to set up quick infrastructure.”
Even though most of India’s population is still struggling to get a first dose, India’s 1.5 million armed personnel were first to be vaccinated. This is one of the reasons why experts are pressing the demand that their services should be utilized quickly.
“The army is trained to deal with such situations,” said General Hooda, “We have seen in the past, whenever there has been a crisis, you call the army to [help]. Not only are they trained, but they are very well equipped to handle the crisis.”
Hooda says that the focus of the government has been mostly on utilizing the health services of the armed forces, but there’s much more it could do. “The army has tremendous engineering skills to build infrastructure,” he said. “If you need to build infrastructure, like hospitals, and other medical facilities in rural areas, the army can do it as quickly as possible.”
Experts also blame the lack of coordination amongst civil authorities for worsening the crisis in the country, and say that it has created tremendous panic and stress among the public. One of the key areas, which most of the health officials and former military commanders agree on, is the need for a centralized communication system so that essential medical supplies are transported and utilized efficiently.
“For communications, the army can set up war rooms and certain expertise of the commanders who manage these war rooms can help immensely,” said General Malik, who was head of the Indian army during the war with Pakistan in 1999.
General Hooda agrees.
“Some emergency links can be set up with a dedicated emergency centre… we have the Indian-wide Movement Control Organisation (MCO), which is used in wars to mobilize and track the military,” said Hooda, adding that that MCO could be utilized to keep track of essential resources like oxygen tankers. Besides engineering and communications, a large fleet of armed forces could also be employed for the transportation of medical supplies.
“The armed forces have the capacity to create 100 field hospitals with 100 beds each,” Harcharanjit Singh Panag, a former lieutenant in Indian army, wrote for The Print. “With the help of private doctors, medical students and additional medical equipment, many more temporary facilities can be made operational in a short span of time. It is these resources which can be superimposed on the civilian hospitals to take on the overload.”
Some believe that India is not using the services of the military because it would be an embarrassment for the civil government—an acknowledgment that they haven’t been able to handle the situation. Another reason cited is tensions at India’s borders with China and Pakistan, making authorities reluctant to transfer troops stationed there.
“If the army is brought in it would be somewhat of an admission that [the civilian government] is not able to do this,” General Hooda said. “Second is, there is also talk that we need force preservation [at our] borders.”
Last year, the Indian army cancelled its border exercise in Ladakh due to the first wave of the novel coronavirus. But around the same time, violent skirmishes took place when Chinese troops reportedly intruded into Indian land. Both countries reinforced their positions with tens of thousands of troops, and an altercation ensued, killing 20 Indians and an unknown number of Chinese nationals.
Given the intensity of the crisis, it’s clear to much of India that there is no other option but to bring in the armed forces if the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to quickly take control of the situation.
“The fact is, when you are facing a sort of national emergency, this idea of force preservation needs to be put on the backburner, ” Hooda said. “Once the army comes in, if nothing else, it could bring some degree of hope for people.”