Environmental Concerns

 

s stated earlier, there is a vast pool of retired ex-servicemen in India. It was therefore decided to utilise this valuable resource to form Ecological Territorial Army Battalions (Eco TA Bns) of tough, hardy and disciplined ex-servicemen to carry out difficult eco tasks in the desert and the mountainous areas of India. This unique concept addresses three major problems especially in developing countries: that of the preservation of the environment, a second line force for specific defence tasks, and the welfare and rehabilitation of ex-servicemen. Presently there are five Eco TA Bns in existence raised at the behest of the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Ministry of Rural Areas Employment, mutually funded by the State Government and the concerned Ministries, deployed in Dehradun (Himalayan foothills), Shri Mohangarh (the desert), Samba, Pithoragarh and Gwalior. The men for these units are recruited from ex-servicemen from that region so that they have a vested interest in their environmental activities. There is a proposal to raise one such Eco TA Unit in each State of the Union, once the fiscal problems are resolved.

The organisation of these units is task-oriented. The Assistant Director General of the Territorial Army is responsible for the manpower requirements, equipment and linked details. The TA Directorate also acts as a coordinator between the Ministries concerned and the Eco TA Units. A nucleus staff is provided by the regular Army and consists of the Commanding Officer, Second in Command, Adjutant and Quarter Master and a small number of Junior Commissioned Officers and Other Ranks for the purpose of professional command, control and effective administration. The workforce consists exclusively of ex-servicemen. The strength of each company/sub-unit is based on the labour force required for the eco project. Such sub-units are made administratively self-contained for independent deployment. The organisation is based on the brick system that enables additional sub-units to be added on an as required basis.

Eco TA Units may be entrusted with the following tasks:

Prevention of soil erosion, especially in the higher reaches
Construction of bunds/walls
Afforestation
Horticulture and nurseries
Irrigation channels
Digging pits for tree plantations
Seed collection of endemic plants
Construction of check dams and water harvesting
Water management
Reclamation of areas mined

Eco TA Bns have been used with success in preventing desertification, soil erosion, afforestation, and in conducting training programmes in environmental education and awareness for the locals.

Achievements of the Armed Forces in this Productive Venture

The Indian Armed Forces have in fact achieved much in this field. Here are a few examples or success stories of projects executed successfully at the macro, sub-macro and micro levels.

Southern Army Command has undertaken a massive tree plantation drive of endemic varieties in stations like Bhuj, Kota and Khadki near Pune. It has conducted workshops and seminars in many of its stations, involving Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) as well. It has exploited the use of solar cookers by popularising them among troops' families through subsidised sales in Army canteens. Central Army Command has conducted workshops in Lucknow, the famous Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, the Shivpuri Nature Reserve, and has undertaken tree planting and protection on a large scale in the hilly areas of the Command and the Sariska Project Tiger Sanctuary. Northern Command has held a successful workshop, with participants including NGOs and the Kashmir State Forest Department in the Dachigam Sanctuary highlighting the importance of protecting the Hangal (Kashmir stag) and the Himalayan brown bear. In Ladakh its formations have protected the endangered black neck crane, the Ovis Ammon and the Himalayan ibex. Its troops have also been told about the equally endangered snow leopard and to report sightings. Army Officers are being appointed Honorary Wildlife Wardens in the State. Eastern Command has held Nature camps for groups of all ages in various parts of its jurisdiction where the Royal Bengal Tiger, the Great Indian Rhino and other endangered mammals are found.

Its major achievement recently was during the massive floods in north-east India where the water levels in the Kaziranga Sanctuary rose by eight feet. To save the endangered species found there, an Engineer Regiment, as part of its training, constructed 10 platforms within the confines of this renowned sanctuary well over the flood water line, at a height where these species could take refuge from drowning. What is important is that this effort was achieved on a no cost basis as part of training. The same Engineer Regiment also constructed a well-designed lookout point for visitors.

In Kota, at the south-eastern end of the Rajasthan Desert, the division located there under a dedicated conservation-oriented divisional commander, Major General Baljit Singh, undertook the greening of the 800 acres of degraded training area according to a well-structured plan employing the three formations under his command, providing shade to troops training there in the hot sun and encouraging the return of animal and bird species. Four Nature trails were also constructed/developed within the Cantonment for All Ranks, their families, schools and locals as well. This enterprising division used solar energy to bake the bread requirements in the Station and to distil water for topping up vehicle batteries. Innovative methods were tried to use solar cookers atop vehicles to cook fresh food while a convoy was on a long move. This General Officer rose to become Lieutenant General and, later, Trustee of WWF ?India.

A Miracle of Restoration

The Mechanised Infantry Regimental Centre at Ahmednagar on the Deccan Plateau, which is in the rain shadow, was allotted 800 hectares of waste land by the Government for restoration. It was at one stage home to the famous black buck and the Great Indian Bustard. Because of degradation of the habitat, both species had vanished. The area allotted has seven villages. The enterprising Lieutenant Colonel placed in charge of the project, through methodical planning and interacting with the seven villages, has succeeded in restoring this area to which black buck and 10 Great Indian Bustards have returned to the grasslands created, causing the Forest Department to locate a Forest Ranger in situ to monitor these endangered birds. In a drought-prone area, water harvesting of the early morning dew using bunds and the use of windmills to operate tube wells have proved successful. Each village headman has a nursery under him in which villagers grow seedlings/saplings of endemic plants for afforestation in the project area. This is a classic example of how the Army can effectively cooperate with the Ministries concerned and the locals to produce enviable results. The predator-prey relation has been restored and today even wolves can be seen in Project MIRC GREEN.

At the micro level one cannot but reflect on the work of a normal (not Eco) TA Battalion in Kolhapur, Maharashtra. It was the work of this small unit that set the ball rolling for me to propagate the use of the Armed Forces in the environmental field. Thanks to a Commanding Officer blessed with green fingers and a deputy from an agricultural background, in four successive monsoons they planted over 4,00,000 trees on the bare rolling hills in the unit area. And what is more important they obtained ready and material cooperation from the people of the town, the Forest Department and the local golfers who chipped in by providing the barbed wire security fence. The town Mayor provided funds for a tube well that was set up in record time. The Forest Department provided saplings and set up a nursery within the unit lines under the supervision of one of its officers. Contour bunding ensured that there was no run-off of scarce water. The citizens and schoolchild-ren chipped in and, thanks to the efforts of the local National Cadet Corps Unit, a Nature trail was developed along one of the sloping hillsides in which three tanks were constructed to collect rainwater. Soon the whole scenario changed and all the bird and animal species that had vanished returned to this restored habitat. The Commanding Officer received the Army Chief's Commendation Card and the Unit a silver trophy from the locals.

The other two Services have not lagged behind. The Navy has greened its naval bases and prohibited the use of polluting polythene bags in their locations. They are also monitoring the mangroves along the coastal areas and oil spills. The responsibility of overseeing the fabulous Chilka Lake sanctuary on the east coast has been entrusted to the Naval Head of the establishment located there. Vice Admiral Manohar Awati, a retired officer, is a very active member of conservation groups like the Bombay Natural History Society. The Air Force carries out a unique conservation task by monitoring degradation of remote inaccessible areas, like the Ladakh Himalayas, from the skies. A Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is in force where transport pilots flying over inaccessible and remote valleys are required to report any sightings of endangered species such as the elusive snow leopard. One pilot reported the presence of what seemed peculiar to him, double humped camels. This was duly reported to the Zoological Survey of India and it transpired, after careful research, that these feral Bactrian camels were descended from those used by Marco Polo along the famed silk route!

Air Force bases being high security zones are a safe haven for a number of species so much so that some of them have had to be translocated. Air Chief Marshal I.H. Latif, a former Air Chief, was an active Trustee of WWF ?India and used his Air Force connections to carry out aerial seeding in a watershed in the Western Ghats. He even encouraged village children to collect seeds of local species and arranged to pay them by weight. These then were used for aerial seeding.

Retired Army Officers have been at the forefront of environmental protection activities. The first President of WWF ?India was erstwhile Army Chief General P. P. Kumaramangalam. Two successive Secretaries of WWF India had Army backgrounds. Major NGOs dealing with the environment have Army Officers on their Committees and four of them who have contributed tangibly are Colonel Guru Ratan Singh in Madhya Pradesh and Colonels Shivaji Mohite, M.T. Rao and Suresh Patil in Mahableshwar/Pune.

Many have viewed this role of the Armed Forces with scepticism. In fact after the talk on the BBC's Overseas Service, one of their reporters, Roger Harrabin, was asked to check on this issue. I arranged for him to spend eight hours with the Division in Kota and to meet Major General Baljit Singh. On his return he called me up from London to say that subsequent to his visit he was of the opinion that I had underestimated the Army's splendid efforts in this field. Later, Professor Ewan Anderson, Department of Geography from Durham University, felt that he would like to do a survey. Army HQ clearances were sought and obtained and both of us visited as many as 12 Army Stations in various eco-systems to check on the ground or in situ what the Army was doing in this field. At the conclusion of this visit Professor Anderson compiled a report entitled "The Indian Army, A Personal Perspective" that confirmed conclusively that the Indian Army was in fact deeply involved in environmental protection and restoration.

What Other Armed Forces are Doing

Other Armies are also involved in this productive task. The British Army produces a magazine, Sanctuary, detailing the work it is doing in this field; for example, how it interacts with local bodies in the management of defence lands. The Venezuelan National Guard is tasked to protect the country's rich natural resources and forests. The Brazilian Army has replicated a part of the Amazonian Jungle in Manuas, complete with specimens of flora and fauna of the Amazonian forests as a training aid for troops deployed in the protection of its rich natural wealth. Bulgarian conscripts are required to plant two trees each in a soldiers' forest and to care for them during their conscript service. The Royal Nepal Army helps monitor and clear pollution in the higher reaches of the Himalayas. The Vietnamese Army painstakingly plants trees by hand on areas degraded by Agent Orange. Some 30 countries have pledged their support to this cause to a University in Hawaii that is documenting case studies of the use of the Military in environmental protection.

Conclusion

The potential of the Military in environmental protection and restoration cannot be underestimated. In all parts of the globe, the Military is a cognizable force socially, and to some extent economically, though this potential has yet to be fully exploited globally. The Military's efforts prove beyond doubt that they are not wanton destructors of Nature but have a unique non-violent and productive role to play in the well-being of the environment, creating social and security patterns founded on cooperation and not confrontation. In fact, the Military can be deployed profitably for protection, regeneration, scientific research, monitoring underwater degradation, measuring radiation levels and managing defence lands.

There can be little doubt that swords can be converted to ploughshares and rifles to rakes with one caveat without blunting the cutting edge of the sword.

 

 

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