On 27 May 1951, over seventy years ago, the Indian Navy (IN) was presented the President’s Colour. There was a historical context to this. On 26 Jan 1950, when India became a Republic, the prefix ‘Royal’ was dropped from the Indian Navy and the King’s Colour awarded previously to all three services and their component units were laid up in the Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun.
However, resultantly, the Sovereign’s Colour that is displayed on ceremonial occasions and parades to build troop morale was no longer available. Thus, the Government of India decided to present the Colour to the Indian Navy, the first amongst the three services to be so honoured, in keeping with the British tradition of Navy being the Senior Service.
Then Lt (later Vice Admiral) MP Awati, received the Colour on behalf of the Indian Navy, from President Rajendra Prasad, in a grand ceremony, at the Brabourne Stadium, in Mumbai.
Since then, the other two Services and many subordinate formations such as Commands, Fleets, Regiments, Air Squadrons, Training Institutions and other units of the three Armed Forces have been presented the President’s Colour in recognition of their service to the nation.
Thus, today, seventy years later, it is a good time to evaluate the growth of the Indian Navy and its contributions across a range of national activities, especially as it has been virtually co-terminus with the growth of our Republic.
The Armed Forces are, but naturally, expected to deliver on the defence and security front and the Indian Navy has done so handsomely over the last seven decades. As the nation’s principal instrument in the maritime domain, the Navy has also contributed in the spheres of constabulary and maintaining good order at sea. Further, because of the essentially multilateral nature of oceans, the Navy has also been the lead agency in our defence diplomacy missions.
Over and above this, one area where the Navy has been quietly doing a lot and built considerable expertise is in the field of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). Over the years, our ability to respond with alacrity to a range of HADR requirements within the country and in the wider Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has earned us many equities. While the inherent flexible nature of Navies enables this multi-tasking, the excellent training and humanware in our service make for successful outcomes in such endeavours.
Here, it needs emphasis that rendering HADR is an enshrined tradition within the Navy. In fact, as early as Sep 1949, the then HMIS Delhi took the lead in extinguishing a fire in the British East Indies Headquarters at Trincomalee (Sri Lanka) and also manning the wireless telegraph office at that critical juncture earning the then Royal Indian Navy much gratitude from the CinC of the East Indies Squadron.
Since then under different names such as ‘aid to civil authority’ or ‘rescue missions’ in times of accidents, fire or flooding or ‘restoration of services’ or ‘diving assistance’ in rivers and dams, the Navy has played a significant hand in varied HADR missions.
However, the Tsunami of 2004, wherein the Indian Navy earned global acclaim for its prompt response and assistance in the region, also taught us many lessons. The Navy, thereafter, built up institutionalized mechanisms which were undergirded by doctrinal frameworks in its approach to HADR.
It recognized that between the desire to help and actual delivery of assistance there is a whole world of ‘capacities and capabilities’ which it has assiduously tried to build over the subsequent years. This attribute has manifested itself in the Navy’s significant, if somewhat understated, role in fighting the Covid pandemic even while maintaining our combat worthiness given the fragile security situation in the neighbourhood.
Combating the First Wave
The Covid-19 pandemic brought to fore unprecedented challenges for the entire nation including the Services. The challenges to the Navy were at multiple levels. At the base it was about keeping the service and community safe from the pandemic; however, since the Navy’s entire structure of warfighting and daily functioning depends upon team work and camaraderie, which, in turn, is contingent upon physical togetherness and close proximity in a ship, submarine, air station or other units, there were tremendous conceptual challenges as well.
Tactile gestures are integral to the Armed Forces - playing games together, a shabaash, a handshake, a shoulder over the arm of a shipmate, a hug, engender bonhomie and team spirit. To move away from those paradigms needed mental and emotional adjustment. And, all of this, at a time when the Navy had to remain in a constant state of alertness in view of the volatile border situation, the Galwan incident and other related issues.
Simultaneously, considering its resources and organizational strengths, the Navy also hoisted the signal that it had to be at the forefront of fighting the pandemic, assist the national cause wholeheartedly and remain fully committed to contribute in all possible ways.
In the first wave of Covid the Indian Navy launched Operation ‘Samudra Setu’ (Sea Bridge) for the repatriation of our stranded citizens. In this operation, that lasted over 55 days, IN Ships Jalashwa, Airavat, Shardul and Magar traversed more than 23,000 km by sea and brought back nearly 4000 citizens. The operation was a herculean task. Given the need for physical distancing, the ships had to create specially demarcated areas for quarantine, clinic and the passengers stationing area.
Ensuring crew separation from passengers, availability of women staff for female passengers, provision of lodging, boarding, recreation, medical assistance while ensuring strict protocols, cleaning and sanitation of crowded spaces, liaison with host nations, updating documentation, speedy and smooth embarkation and disembarkation, were the many challenges the ships had to cope with and take in stride.
In parallel, the Navy established quarantine facilities in Mumbai and Visakhapatnam for the evacuees who were detected with symptoms so as to curtail the spread resulting from the repatriation mission. These were manned by a team of naval personnel and medical professionals.
Many countries including Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros and Seychelles had requested India for assistance in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and India responded with ‘Mission Sagar’ which entailed deploying INS Kesari with 600 tons of food to Maldives while sending medical personnel and medicines to other countries.
A special consignment of Ayurvedic medicines was also sent to Mauritius. The mission which took 49 days and traversed 14000 km, was significant in highlighting our friendly relations with these countries during trying times.
The Navy also contributed in creating small but significant innovations such as the ‘Portable Multi-feed Oxygen Manifold (MOM)’ that enabled one Oxygen Bottle to supply six patients concurrently, development of low cost handheld IR based temperature sensor for undertaking screening of large number of personnel at entry gates to dockyards and naval areas, designing high quality PPE kits for mass production and such like.
Fighting the Second Wave
This year we experienced the second wave of Covid-19 and its mutant; a deadlier version killing thousands. Once again, IN joined the nation’s effort to curb the transmission and help those in need. In April this year, when the extraordinary surge of the pandemic put tremendous pressure on country’s health infrastructure, the Indian Navy launched Operation ‘Samudra Setu 2’ to augment the national mission for meeting medical oxygen requirements.
Nine Indian Navy warships from all three Naval Commands were extensively deployed for shipment of Liquid Medical Oxygen (LMO) and associated medical equipment from friendly foreign countries across the expanse of the Indian Ocean Region.
The first such consignment of two 27 Metric Tonnes (MT) Liquid Oxygen containers was brought in by INS Talwar from Bahrain to New Mangalore on 05 May whilst the next batch comprising IN ships Kolkata, Kochi, Tabar and Trikand arrived on 10 May at Managlore/Mumbai, carrying nine 27 ton Oxygen containers, over 1800 oxygen cylinders and other medical stores from Qatar and Kuwait.
The consignment carried by INS Trikand, from Qatar, is part of the French mission “Oxygen Solidarity Bridge” to support India’s fight against COVID-19 pandemic. The Indo-French initiative, is likely to result in shipping of over 600 MT LMO to India over the next two months which would play a major role in supplying oxygen to the patients in need.
Meanwhile, on the Eastern seaboard, INS Airavat arrived at Visakhapatnam on 10 May carrying eight cryogenic containers with a capacity of 20 tons each, 3650 oxygen cylinders, 10,000 Rapid Antigen Test kits and other vital medical supplies from Singapore.
India’s only Landing Platform Dock (LPD) INS Jalashwa, pulled out of maintenance and pressed for national duty, arrived in India on 23 May, bringing the largest consignment - 300 MT - of LMO to India in addition to 3600 Oxygen cylinders, ventilators and empty cryogenic containers from Brunei and Singapore.
This was followed by INS Shardul bringing in 210 MT LMO and 1200 Oxygen cylinders on 25 May and INS Airavat departing from Vietnam the same day.
As of today, Indian Naval ships have delivered 910 MT of LMO, more than 12,000 Oxygen Cylinders, and a large number of COVID relief material/medical supplies from Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Brunei and Singapore to various Indian ports. That this is high priority work for the Navy is evident from the fact that more such turnaround missions are planned in the ensuing days.
The Navy has also contributed in the welfare and care of people in our distant island territories by deploying ships and aircraft to transfer essential medical supplies like oxygen cylinders, Rapid Antigen Detection test kits, PPE, masks and other items to Lakshadweep & Minicoy (L&M) Islands and Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) Islands. This operation continues till date as part of ‘Oxygen Express’ for delivery of COVID essentials and to undertake urgent movement of critical patients to/from these islands.
The Eastern Naval Command, in coordination with State Government, is also providing assistance in operating, maintaining and auditing oxygen plants in hospitals across Andhra Pradesh (AP). Technical experts from Naval Dockyard, Visakhapatnam, achieved a major breakthrough in repairing two large Oxygen Plants at Nellore and Shri Kalahasthi (near Tirupati) enabling a big boost to the Oxygen Supply in Andhra Pradesh.
These plants had been non-functional for a long time - six years in case of the Nellore plant - and naval teams worked around the clock in ensuring that the output was of medical grade oxygen standard.
To add another feather to the cap, the Diving School, of the Southern Naval Command designed an ‘Oxygen Recycling System’ (ORS) to remedy the ongoing oxygen shortages. The ORS has been conceptualized and designed by a young navy officer, Lieutenant Commander Mayank Sharma. The system's design has been patented and an application has been filed for the same.
The ORS is designed to extend the life of the existing medical Oxygen cylinders by up to four times, based on the fact that only a small percentage of Oxygen inhaled by a patient is actually absorbed by the lungs, the rest being exhaled into the atmosphere along with carbon-dioxide (CO2) produced by the body.
This exhaled Oxygen can be re-used, provided the CO2 is removed. To accomplish this, the ORS added a second pipe to the patient’s existing Oxygen mask, which sucks out the air exhaled by a patient using a low-pressure motor.
The overall cost of the ORS prototype has been capped at Rs. 10,000/- enabling an anticipated saving of Rs 3,000 per day, per set, due to the recycling of Oxygen. This breakthrough will substantially enhance the existing Oxygen capacity in the country and the ORS can also be used to extend the life of O2 cylinders used by mountaineers/soldiers at High Altitude, for HADR operations and onboard naval ships and submarines.
Indian Navy is also reaching out to civil administration with Area Commanders maintaining close liaison with Chief Secretaries and District Collectors to provide support for movement of essential medicines and supplies to the COVID affected areas, provision of oxygen to civil hospitals, setting up of community kitchens for the needy and other technical help as may be necessitated.
Existing spare capacity of COVID beds are being extended to civil administration at various naval hospitals and oxygen manifolds are being used to expand number of beds. Till date, 111 ICU beds and 450 non-ICU beds have been earmarked for use by Civilian Administration in various naval hospitals in Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Port Blair.
Further, more than 200 personnel from Indian Navy have been deputed for duties at COVID hospitals established at New Delhi, Patna, Ahmedabad and Kavaratti Island for providing aid to civil population. Additionally, about 200 Battle Field Nursing Assistants (BFNAs) have been trained and kept ready for deployment. 62 BFNAs out of this have been already deployed at Ahmedabad.
In addition, 75 Nursing Assistants are being trained per week to augment the support staff. The Navy’s medical fraternity - doctors, nurses, paramedics and ward staff - have been at the forefront braving this difficult situation while also ensuring that the regular, but by no means easy, task of looking after other medical requirements of the armed forces personnel and their families are met.
In other measures, Station Commands are organizing community kitchens for daily wagers and poor communities whilst the naval women fraternity under the aegis of Naval Wives Welfare Association (NWWA) is undertaking doorstep delivery of essential supplies to affected naval families. NWWA has already pitched in with manufacturing of in-house masks, donating essentials to the needy and spreading awareness within the community and beyond.
Facilities have been set up inside some naval premises to provide basic healthcare, essential items and rations to migrant laborers in order to discourage their return home, which could lead to further transmission of the virus. Some other measures taken by the men and women in white, in various stations, during both phases of Covid, included food and essentials distribution and medical aid to daily wagers, low income families, contract workers and others hard hit by the pandemic.
Further, NCC cadets of Naval Wing, above 18 years are being mobilised as part of national effort to tackle the second wave. On the radar horizon are other measures to provide support and assistance to the extended naval community especially DSC personnel, Defence Civilians and Ex-Servicemen and for outlying naval units to adopt a rural village in their area and render them full assistance.
Indian Navy and its Swift Response to Cyclone Tauktae
Even as Indian Navy was involved in a slew of pandemic mitigation measures, the super cyclone Tauktae threatened widespread destruction and danger to lives. The Navy was once more pressed into action and undertook several rescue/relief missions. Specialist teams sprung into action, relying on a steady stream of real-time information from Naval Headquarters and the Imagery Analysis Centre (IMAC) located in Gurugram. Four stranded crew of Indian flagged Tug ‘Coromondel Supporter IX’ were rescued by a helicopter off Mangalore, on 17 May.
In Mumbai, 11 Indian Navy Diving Teams, 12 Flood Rescue Teams and many medical teams were also deployed or designated for immediate response. To enable immediate assistance various ships were stationed along the Western seaboard as standby with relief material. Navy’s Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft was deployed for continuously broadcasting cyclone warnings to fishermen and help prevent any mishaps and casualties.
Relief and rescue operations by naval teams were also undertaken at Kerala. Three diving teams along with along with Quick Reaction Teams from Southern Naval Command were deployed at Chellanam (Kochi) for providing assistance to the locals who were stranded due to flooding.
These teams ferried food, water and provisions to the relief camp, which was inaccessible by vehicles due to heavy water logging. Stranded people were ferried in Gemini rubber craft from their houses to relief camps on higher ground at Ernakulam and Chellanam. The Naval team also provided water and essentials to the Cortina hospital, Chellanam which was completely inaccessible due to water logging.
But more was to come as the storm intensified. Acting on further requests, INS Kochi was swiftly deployed to rescue adrift Barge 'P305', in Bombay High area, with 261 personnel onboard while INS Kolkata was deployed to render assistance to barge 'Gal Constructor', stricken off Mumbai, with 137 people onboard.
Indian Navy relentlessly undertook Search and Rescue (SAR) operations which were intensified when Accommodation Barge P-305, unfortunately, sank on 17 May, 35 miles off Mumbai. A tug Varaprada with 13 crew members which had gone to assist Gal Constructor also sank.
From 17 to 25 May, the Indian Navy has led out one of the biggest SAR operations despite challenging circumstances, torrid seas and extremely unfavorable weather conditions. All 137 personnel on Gal Constructor have been rescued. Of the 261 people on P 305 and 13 on Varaprada, 188 survivors were picked up, 70 mortal remains were recovered at sea and 16 mortal remains were recovered along the coast. INS Makar a survey vessel located the wrecks of both barge P 305 and Varaprada.
Diving was carried by specialized teams on the sunken wreck of Barge P305 to ascertain no mortal remain there. By accounting for all personnel the Navy led SAR mission has either rescued or brought closure to families. It also needs emphasis that locating wrecks goes beyond the realm of SAR into Salvage.
This mammoth SAR Operation involved nine IN Ships - Kochi, Kolkata, Teg, Talwar, Beas, Betwa, Subhadra, Makar, Tarasa, many small Intermediate Support Vessels (ISVs) and nine naval aircraft - 3 P8I maritime surveillance aircraft and 2 each ALH, Seaking, Chetak helicopters.
The total area searched in this effort is approximately 10000 sq nm. Handling ships, boats and helicopters in extreme weather posed great challenges but they brought to fore the high levels of professionalism and commitment displayed by all the naval personnel involved.
Cyclone Yaas and the Indian Naval Deployment
The Indian Navy was still suturing the fresh wounds caused by Cyclone Tauktae when it was once again called into action by another Cyclone, this time on the East Coast. Trouble was brewing in the name of Cyclone Yaas, severely impacting West Bengal and Odisha. The Navy immediately deployed seven teams from Visakhapatnam to render much needed assistance.
INS Chilka, near Bhubhaneshwar geared up and made all necessary arrangements in close liaison with State Government agencies under the supervision of Headquarters Eastern Naval Command. The teams comprising two Diving and five Flood Relief Teams (FRTs) were stationed to undertake relief operations at three different locations - Digha, Fraserganj and Diamond Harbour in West Bengal.
The Cylone hit fishing villages of Gokulur, Taliboral, Sirsapoda, Haripur, Bathrismania, Bodhigadiya, Nadchowk, Baulabani, Badadio, Balramgadi, and Dassipur, were provided with over 1500 cooked meals; made possible through the community kitchens set up by the Navy.
Packed meals were also distributed with the assistance of the local Sarpanchs on two-wheelers due to roads being rendered largely inaccessible to four-wheelers. Another 400 packets of food and nearly 300 clothing packets were also distributed at Kassafal gram panchayat and Talasari village with the help of local Ex-servicemen (ESM).
The Navy's capacity for prompt action was evident in the quick tempo of transition from naval exercise Varuna, to relief operations for Cyclone Tauktae to those for Cyclone Yaas. And all this was done while concurrently remaining at the forefront of the nation’s fight against the pandemic.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 virus produced many large and unexpected challenges for the world at large and India was no exception. While the Government responded by ushering in several measures to meet and mitigate the effects of the pandemic, the Indian Navy has played a significant contributory role.
The initiatives taken by the Navy to help the nation fight both the waves are laudable. A series of technical innovations, repatriation missions, setting up hospitals and quarantine facilities, distributing food, and other ventures have provided a measure of relief and respite in the ongoing dire situation. Above all, its gigantic effort in ferrying oxygen from all over the world has, possibly, saved many lives.
A classic illustration of the Navy’s flexibility and versatility is provided by the multi-faceted deployment of both the Western and Eastern Fleets in the past few weeks. Ships of the Western Fleet took part in Exercise Varuna with the French Navy from 25 to 27 April in the Gulf of Oman, thereafter visited Bahrain, Doha and Kuwait to load LMO and other supplies as also carry out other defence diplomacy missions, returned to India around 10 May to disembark the cargo and were involved from 17 May to 25 May for Tauktae SAR mission.
Shortly, they will head back to bring more LMO and medical supplies as well as attend to other operational requirements. Similarly, ships from the Eastern Fleet ferried LMO and Covid supplies from South East Asian countries even as ENC tackled relief operations for Cyclone Yaas with alacrity.
The Navy remains combat-ready, mission capable and in full readiness to partake in the national endeavour to fight the pandemic. It has truly responded to the adage of being ‘a navy that dares and a navy that cares’.
(This article is an expanded version of an article published by 'The Daily Guardian' and has been published with due permission. The authors are associated with the Naval History Project. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the editorial views on Mission Victory India)