Even as India is paying tribute to the armed forces and the amazing resilience with which they drove Pakistan out of Kargil in 1999, it is pertinent to remind civilians how much else the armed forces does in peacetime as well. From disaster relief to riot control in cities when all else fails to peacekeeping worldwide, among other really significant tasks they perform. However, what most people don’t know about is the truly remarkable job the forces do in environment and ecology.
Most of us who have been to Army, Navy or Air Force cantonments marvel at the cleanliness and orderly way the roads, pavements, homes and green areas are kept. The moment one comes out of the cantonments into towns and cities of India, one sees mounds of garbage, rampant illegal construction, filthy little by- lanes and stray cows, dogs all mingling with a mass of humanity. This is the way it seems towns have been planned for decades or more aptly un-planned.
On a visit to a cantonment in Rajasthan, I found that even in a desert area, the landscaped greenery, the lake and the cleanliness of this army area was like an oasis amidst stark barrenness.
When I remarked to the garrison commander, Gen. Bipin Bakshi that I have only seen such pristine water bodies abroad and asked him how they had achieved this, he said it was a reservoir for water supply that is for drinking, as well as for all domestic needs and they kept it clean by sheer discipline. This is a given for the armed forces. Nobody is allowed to dump garbage, or litter, or use the water for washing clothes etc. Even boating is restricted.
“A comprehensive arboriculture plan is in place in all cantonments, which now use treated water from sewage plants managed by the army as also rain water harvesting schemes that have been meticulously put in place over the years to provide a lush green environment,” he said.
Then he told me about the Territorial Army Ecological battalions that are actually working on cleaning up the environment, reforestation, soil conservation, desalinization in many states of India and now has been invited by the BJP government to raise four fresh battalions that will aid Narendra Modi’s Ganga rejuvenation plan. Each battalion will consist of 700/800 men including a Commanding Officer and a core cadre from the regular army while the bulk of the force will be Territorial Army personnel.
I was curious as even though it seemed a natural fit for men disciplined in cleanliness this was not something I had heard off. Apparently, the army has several eco task forces across the country and has been recognized for its services. Over the years, due to extensive mining the Mussoorie hills had been denuded. The eco-territorial army was asked to reforest the hillsides. In 2013, the Director of the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun, P Bhojvaid congratulated them saying, “The eco-battalions of (the) Territorial Army are doing a commendable job on afforestation of degraded and disturbed sites in Uttarakhand, especially in the Mussoorie hills.”
Besides reclaiming 25 mines in the Dehra Dun-Mussoorie area the eco battalions planted more than two crore tree saplings and undertook cleaning of water bodies and rainwater harvesting.
In 2005, the Himachal Pradesh government in partnership with the army raised an ecological green force for reforestation of denuded areas in the state after seeing how successful the eco-army was in making the barren Bhatti mines in Delhi green and lush. The silt from denuded slopes was affecting the hydroelectric dam in Himachal and causing frequent power outages resulting in crores of rupees being wasted.
To put a check on the spread of the Thar desert in Rajasthan, 128 Infantry Battalion (TA) Ecological was raised on September 1, 1983, at the Rajputana Rifles Regimental Centre. This included a “desert campaign” which resulted in the greening of the left bank of the Indira Gandhi Canal. The unit also developed a lake in Amarpura, which started attracting migratory birds and the Rajasthan Government decided to form a bird sanctuary and develop the area as a tourist spot.
The Territorial Army Ecological battalions are a joint venture between the Defence Ministry and Ministry of Environment. Considering the landslides and ecological disasters taking place in quite a few of our mountainous areas such initiatives can save lives, livelihoods and reverse climate change if undertaken on a war footing. And why restrict this very qualified force to only eco -sensitive areas, wouldn’t we all like New Delhi to be more clean and pristine? Perhaps the Delhi government and the Center should create an eco- army battalion for the capital city and really make it a world class clean city. But would politics allow it?
The Armed Forces is uniquely qualified in so many ways. It is a pity the public knows so little about how much they do even in peacetime. It is not war alone that makes them the most dedicated and disciplined arm of the nation.