Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat on Saturday said a coordinated and collective effort led by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has helped in achieving success in providing support to the country in challenging times of the Covid-19 pandemic. He also informed that approximately 95 per cent of soldiers in the armed forces have been vaccinated with both doses of vaccine.
In an exclusive interview with CNN-News18’s Marya Shakil, General Rawat talked about preparations and operations being undertaken by the Armed Forces to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic in the country. Here are the excerpts from the interview:
Q: The Indian Armed Forces have joined hands to counter one of the deadliest pandemics we are facing. But the Disaster Management Act does not specifically specify a pandemic as an eventuality when the Army could be called in.
General Rawat: Under the present circumstances, the nation is facing the Covid 19 pandemic and all that it encompasses the Armed forces have hesitatingly stepped forward in supporting our nation and the people of our country. You have specifically referred to the Disaster Management Act of 2005 which does not refer to specific pandemics as a disaster but the fact remains, an issue of this nature that we are going through is no less than a disaster and therefore the Armed forces or any other organisation must step forward and support the government and our people in whatever way that is possible and this is exactly what we in the Armed forces have done.
In fact, I would further go on to state that the Ministry of Defence took the lead and whenever we found that the pandemic is about to spread and is turning disastrous, the Defence Minister took the call, got the act together, got all the secretaries and the service chief together and we have been having regular virtual conferences to decide on what we can do to prevent ourselves, to protect our people, to ensure that our frontline soldiers are protected and yet at the same time, how can we come out and support our veteran community and our civilian population. So, I think because we took an early lead and the coordinated efforts of the Ministry of Defence, we have been able to reach this far.
Q: Unfortunately, this virus is sparing no one. Do we have any figures on how it has affected our braves in all the three services i.e. the Army, IAF and the Navy? Also, what has been the armed forces response protocol?
General Rawat: We have divided the armed forces into three categories. One is the frontline soldiers, who are deployed on the borders and who have to be ever prepared for any kind of threat that may emerge. Second, are those people who are providing them support for the frontline soldiers to maintain their operational readiness and then third, of course, are the people who are in the rear areas, in the urban centres like Delhi, Pune, Kolkata and all these cities.
Now, the government made sure that we got priority for the vaccination and we have ensured that every soldier, sailor and airmen get his two doses in time and I can proudly say that approximately 95 per cent of our soldiers have been vaccinated with both the doses. The only people who have not got the second dose are those who got affected by the pandemic and therefore will get the second dose in due course. So, firstly we have ensured force protection, then the people who are supporting them, we made sure that they are completely kept in a, I would say a balloon so that they are not in contact with the frontline soldiers; the frontline soldiers have followed the protocol in letter and spirit. They have been quarantined whenever they go forward and have been quarantined when they come back from leave or any other kind of absence from the forward area. So this has prevented that from happening. But in the depth areas, urban centres like Delhi, Pune, Mumbai and all these other big cities, yes, some of our people have been affected, but let me assure you the effect has not been as drastic as it has affected the civilian population and I think that is because we do maintain a healthy lifestyle, physical training activity is part of our daily curriculum and I dare say over the past few years yoga has also become a part of our physical training curriculum, everywhere in the armed forces, along with that the kind of diet that the government gives us, so, therefore, you find that physical activity with a proper diet with yoga practices being followed our soldiers have not been affected in as much as the civilians. So we have been able to carry out force protection but that doesn’t mean that our soldiers have not been affected, they have been affected, I would not like to quote numbers here but suffice to say that is minuscule when you compare this to what the nation is facing.
Q: The three services have been extending helping hands to civilian and state governments in Covid-19 mitigation. What hiccups, if any, are our forces facing given the overwhelming numbers, resultant resource crunch and the duality of command?
General Rawat: We faced problems in the initial stages and that is because, quite frankly like all the other agencies in the nation we too did not expect the pandemic to spread in this manner and while our hospitals are fully capable of taking care of our serving soldiers and their families we found that even the veterans started looking at us, not only for their support but for their families and their dependents, so initially we got over them because we had hospitals caring for our own people then came the veteran of the families and then there was a large number of civilians who also wanted support from us. So, initially, we did not have adequate facilities, we had to then ginger-up our resources, we have got resources because for combat we do carry out, combat medical support plans which are prepared for conventional operations, so we had to activate the plans and once we got those plans activated and our hospitals were activated, we were able to match up to the requirements.
Yes, like all other people we don’t generate our own oxygen so we had to depend on oxygen supplies from civilian sources but we had easy means of transportation, so we were able to transport the oxygen requirements to our hospitals and ensure that the shortage of hospitals was kept to the minimum and therefore by adopting a holistic approach we were able to ensure that we were able to man the situation in a timely manner though in the initial stages we did have some problem.
Q: One of the shortfalls we are facing is the availability of trained medical professionals including doctors and nursing staff. The armed forces rushed to fill in this critical void by sending its medical professionals. This, many experts say, is proving a lifesaver.
General Rawat: I would say that this has been a good exercise for us. We do regularly carry out exercises to test our combat preparedness and combat medical support is a part of our medical preparedness. So this time because of the pandemic, we were able to mobilise all our resources and field hospitals. We did find some shortcoming vis-a-vis way in which we have to recall our reserve doctors, reserve medical staff and other lab technicians. And this is what we are supposed to do during our conventional operations. This pandemic has been a good exercise and we need to take advantage of this review, our SOPs wherever required. Thereafter be prepared for leading this kind of pandemic situation in future and at the same time be prepared for combat medical support. We should see this pandemic as an opportunity because we need medical combat support during war and the way we have worked this time, we have been very successful in it. We were able to carry out the quality as Defence Minister (Rajnath Singh) gave us the direction and we followed that. The CDS and DMA had a very clear charter, the defence team carried out all the operation in cooperation with the DRDO and we made sure that we carry out the entire thing holistically. A coordinated effort led by the Raksha Mantri has helped us in providing support to the nation and to our own people in the times of coronavirus.
Q: The IAF and the Navy have involved themselves in transporting critical medical equipment including oxygen, which we know has been a critical component in life-saving efforts. Can you give us some insight into these important logistical operations? The challenges and the lesson we have learnt?
General Rawat: The Indian Navy has got large ships that can carry very heavy tonnages, so anything that needs to be brought from abroad and which required heavy transportation facilities, the Indian Navy stepped in. At the same time, the island territories of Andaman and Lakshadweep also needed support. Oxygen concentrators, oxygen cylinders or heavy machines that have to be sent to the places, the Indian Navy again stepped in. Even on the shores if you have to transport some material from one shore to the other, the Indian Navy got the best support available to us for carrying heavy loads.
The Air Force has got transport aircraft that can carry very heavy loads and these aircraft are meant to carry heavy tanks and artillery guns into the warzone. They are easily available to carry heavy transportable equipment like oxygen tankers. We were able to mobilise the Air Force to get things faster from abroad in time. Even inside the country if we were to transport things from one place to other, we were able to integrate all the stakeholders be it Cabinet Secretariat or Union Health Ministry or Union Home Ministry we were able to integrate all. We have created a Covid-19 monitoring cell in the office of the armed forces medical services. We have also opened an air support cell in Palam airport. Also, if things are coming from abroad and they need to be transported then the Indian Army has been set into motion. Heavy carriers have been kept in place and they were moving things. So coordination was required for all the things that were coming from either sea or air for their subsequent transportation. The Indian Army stepped in where ever possible. It was a coordinated effort with which we were able to lift things from where they were arriving to transporting them to the place where they were needed in a timely manner.
Q: The defence forces and other para-military forces like the DRDO, the ITBP too havebeen at the forefront of this fight against Covid-19. The DRDO has been doing its best on the drug front and now we have one developed by them. The ITBP is running some of the best Covid-19 centres. Do you feel given our experience in Covid-19 mitigation, we should think of aligning them and streamlining these institution’s response in the future fight against any pandemic or natural exigency?
General Rawat: Yes, in the Ministry of Defence we adopted the whole of the Ministry approach and that is how you find that the DRDO, the defence production agencies whether it is the DPSU or the ordinance factories, everybody despite the problems of the Covid-19 have stepped forward and been able to meet the requirement of the nation. The DRDO, in particular, needs to be complimented for the way they developed the cryogenic oxygen generators which is an of the route of the light combat aircraft because for aircraft you have to generate oxygen. These are now being manufactured for providing oxygen to the hospitals and other facilities.
At the same time, the DPSU and ordnance factories have also stepped forward in manufacturing the oxygen concentrators and all the equipment that are required. I think that has been a very positive step. The armed forces along with the paramilitary forces, like the ITBP you rightly said have also created facilities for supporting the nation. I think this is a good lesson emerging from the pandemic and sometimes I think, every such problem leads to a solution in the future. So, I suppose lesson will be learned from the pandemic and the government will come out with a new approach on how to deal with such a pandemic. Maybe the DMA Act of 2005 will be further strengthened and the NDMA will be given further responsibilities if necessitated.
I think everybody needs to work together to make sure that we adopt the whole of government approach. The DRDO vaccine which is coming in, the medicine which they produced is a good step forward. They have always been working towards search and development. Not every search and development is always successful. But, I think sometimes they have been helpful and helped the nation in these difficult times. I think we need to compliment the DRDO and the scientist in the manner in which they have gone about doing things in supporting the nation.
Q: The origin of the novel coronavirus is still unclear. Now many scientists globally are saying that the theory that it was caused by a laboratory leak needs to be taken seriously until there is a rigorous data-led investigation that proves it otherwise. Do you agree? Is there a chance that it may be biological warfare? Do you feel by keeping the investigation opaque china is hurting itself?
General Rawat: I think we should not be making any guesses, it is incorrect to make guesses in such a situation. The international community has expressed some kind of concern. I think it would be best to leave that to the international community as we are also a part of that international community. Whatever comes from their finding should then be the deciding factor as to what led to the spread of this Covid-19 pandemic. But to carry out any estimates would not be correct. Therefore, we should leave it to the investigation that is going on and whatever comes out of the investigation should be then acceptable to all if it has emerged from a particular nation be it by fault or not both needs to taken into consideration to prevent any such spread in the future.