Issue 55 - Article 9

Humanitarian space in India: why humanitarian agencies do not respond adequately to needs generated by internal armed conflict

October 2, 2012
Viren Falcao
An antenatal clinic in Semariya, Chhattisgarh

This article argues that internal armed conflicts in India do not receive adequate attention from humanitarian agencies in the country. It seeks to outline some of the dilemmas that humanitarian agencies operating in India encounter in attempting to secure humanitarian space, whilst also working in situations of armed conflict. This article understands humanitarian space to mean the ability of non-state actors to provide basic human requirements and assistance to populations in need, in a neutral and impartial manner. The article argues that these dilemmas arise partly on account of the manner in which many agencies have adapted their role to complement the Indian state, and also due to the chronic nature of the challenges the country faces (immediate humanitarian concerns requiring long-term developmental solutions). These factors have made it difficult for most humanitarian agencies in India to position themselves and their activities in areas of the country where there is internal armed conflict. There is an urgent need for debate among humanitarian agencies themselves, as well as with the government of India, to redefine their collective approach to populations in greatest need. The issues emerging from the Indian context are also pertinent to humanitarian agencies in other countries, which are involved in activities that go beyond providing life-saving humanitarian assistance.

Conflict and the state

The Indian state and its many institutions, including national, state and local governments and military forces, are by far the biggest responders to most emergencies in the country. The state has at its disposal significant capacity and resources to respond to the immediate lifesaving needs of populations affected by disasters. This it has demonstrated in responses to several disasters in the recent past, with civil society and humanitarian agencies playing a significant, yet largely complementary, role.

While this holds true for emergencies triggered by natural hazards, it is not necessarily the case in situations of internal armed conflict. Across several regions, the Indian state is confronting a number of armed groups, including Maoist insurgents, an armed struggle in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and several long-running insurgencies in the north-east of the country. In response to these threats, the state has severely curtailed civil liberties in affected areas. The response has been particularly troubling in one of the areas worst affected by the Maoist insurgency, the southern part of the state of Chhattisgarh. Armed vigilante groups (recently declared illegal by the Supreme Court of India) have been supported and promoted by the state government, and tribal communities in these areas are often caught in fighting between these groups and the Maoists.

The provision of humanitarian assistance in such situations is extremely challenging for non-governmental agencies. Despite the significant scale of humanitarian needs in areas affected by armed conflict, only a limited number of national and international NGOs are involved in responses in these areas. Several of these agencies restrict their activities to government-supported relief camps, and very few have a presence in areas actually affected by armed conflict. Agencies and groups that have attempted to provide humanitarian assistance in these areas have encountered difficulties and have been viewed with extreme suspicion by sections of the Indian state. Kristin E. Solberg, ‘Health Crisis Amid the Maoist Insurgency in India’, The Lancet, vol. 371, issue 9,621, 19 April 2008; Sujeet Kumar, ‘Indian Police Accuse MSF and ICRC of Treating Maoist Insurgents’, Reuters Alertnet, 21 January 2011,

The scale of the response to situations of armed conflict stands in stark contrast to responses by humanitarian agencies in disaster-affected areas. In addition to the state response, assistance following flash floods in the district of Leh in August 2010, which killed 192 people and affected thousands more, involved at least 23 national and international agencies, as well as local NGOs, the private sector, individuals and groups. In contrast, only a handful of humanitarian agencies are responding to the immediate needs of conflict-affected people in Chhattisgarh, where 171 civilians, 172 members of the security forces and an unspecified number of Maoists were killed in 2010, and an estimated 100,000 people were displaced between mid-2009 and mid-2010. Most of these agencies limit their operations to state-sponsored relief camps and do not go to conflict sites. As a party to the conflict, the Indian state is not best placed to respond in these areas.

Challenges and dilemmas

The role of the Indian state and the chronic nature of humanitarian needs across India go some way to explaining the challenges facing humanitarian agencies in the country. The Indian state and its institutions guarantee Indian citizens all basic entitlements (though they may not always be able to do this satisfactorily in practice). As such, most humanitarian agencies in the country have oriented their approaches away from service delivery, and towards increased advocacy to ensure that the Indian state is held accountable to its people. This requires them to engage with arms of the state, and take positions that cannot be strictly defined as neutral. This approach has significant implications for humanitarian agencies in areas of internal armed conflict that involve the state.

The second challenge facing humanitarian agencies in India is that the country’s humanitarian problems are chronic in nature, and require a long-term, ‘developmental’ response, and close coordination with the Indian state. Consider two instances: the crisis of malnutrition that affects children across the country; and activities in the area of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), which seek to address the significant vulnerabilities of communities to a range of hazards. Despite rapid economic growth, malnutrition levels among children in India have remained persistently high. According to the latest available government estimates, a staggering 45% of children below the age of three in the country are stunted, 23% show signs of wasting, 40% are underweight and close to 80% are anaemic. Few would disagree with the assertion that such levels of malnutrition constitute an emergency. Given the scale and nature of the problem, civil society groups (including several humanitarian agencies) have adopted a strategy of public advocacy – working with the government to guarantee access to a universal public distribution system for foodgrains. A bill guaranteeing the ‘Right to Food’, pushed to a significant extent by civil society groups including a number of humanitarian agencies, is currently being debated in the national parliament.

In the state of Chhattisgarh, with a population of around 20 million, the nutritional crisis is even more acute (53% of children below three are stunted, 24% show signs of wasting, 48% are underweight and 81% are anaemic). Given that the state is in the midst of an armed conflict, engagement with the state – one of the parties to the conflict – limits the ability of humanitarian agencies to negotiate humanitarian space and address both the issue of malnourishment, and the needs of communities affected by the conflict. Cases such as Chhattisgarh, which is rich in mineral resources, also involve complex issues relating to land rights involving the state, corporations and tribal groups that have lived there for centuries.

Large parts of India are at significant risk from geological and hydrometeorological hazards, and most humanitarian agencies have also recognised the need to incorporate DRR efforts into their programmes. DRR is typically seen in India as part of the mandate of the emergency divisions of humanitarian agencies. In order to sustain these efforts, agencies must align their DRR efforts with other development initiatives of the government. This requires agencies to work closely with local, state and national governments. This too poses a significant challenge in some parts of India, such as Kashmir, which is highly vulnerable to hazards (as seen during the earthquake of 2005) but is also experiencing an armed struggle that has claimed thousands of lives over the past 20 years. The existence of significant pockets of support for the Kashmiri separatist movement among the local population makes the provision of humanitarian aid by any agency seen as being too closely aligned with the Indian state extremely challenging.


The challenge for humanitarian agencies in India is thus one of reconciling the need to remain neutral in order to secure access in a situation of internal armed conflict, while engaging the Indian state and attempting to ensure that it provides its citizens with their entitlements. The involvement of most humanitarian agencies in activities that require significant engagement with the state constrains their ability to adhere to positions of strict neutrality, which would be required to secure access and guarantee their safety in situations of armed conflict.

The need for neutral and independent humanitarian action in areas of armed conflict in India is evident. This requires further acknowledgement both from humanitarian agencies themselves, and from the government of India at the national, state and district levels. Attempting to build and widen a consensus between agencies and the state around the provision of life-saving assistance such as emergency medical facilities could be a possible starting point for a dialogue on this issue. For their part, humanitarian agencies need to develop a consensus on the issue among themselves, as well as demonstrating both the willingness and the ability to provide humanitarian assistance in a neutral, impartial and independent manner. In doing so, however, they will be forced to confront and address the issues and dilemmas outlined above.

Viren Falcao is an independent consultant.


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