The Army’s Ecological Task Force is One Battalion You Should Hear About

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The government plans to deploy three battalions of a thousand men each to the banks of the Ganga. This is no military operation against insurgents, but part of the government’s ambitious Clean Ganga campaign, with the Ministry of Water Resources giving direction, funding and equipment to a civilian task force under military command. These are the Ecological Battalions of the Territorial Army.

The battalions will clean the banks of the Ganga at designated zones, which will be followed up by desalination, water purification and afforestation operations, supervised by specially trained engineers and scientists from the same. If this is the first time you heard of these Eco-troops, or the Territorial Army, it is not surprising for they’ve received oddly little press over the years.

The Territorial Army is the Indian Army’s civilian line of defence – a volunteer corp. of civilians who receive a minimal amount of military training every year alongside their normal jobs.The role of the TA is to relieve the regular Army from ‘static’ duties, as well as form part of a reserve force that can be mobilized during wartime. One branch of static duty is ecological restoration, and the Ecological Battalions lead the charge in this regard.

These eco-troops have done wonders in the places they’ve been deployed so far. They are usually involved in afforestation and eco-restoration programs, combating environmental degradation in areas affected by mining and desertification.

The first Ecological Task Force (also known as Ecological Battalion) was set up in 1982, after Indira Gandhi received inputs that the problem of unemployment among retired Jawans and of the need to check deforestation and soil erosion could be solved in a single stroke. The 127 Infantry Battalion was put to task on the Shivalik hills around Mussourie, where rampant mining had caused severe damage to the local ecosystem. The results were impressive, and the Shahjanpur Range where they worked enjoys a thick forest cover today.

Soon, Eco-Task Forces were set up in Rajasthan, Jammu & Kashmir, Nagaland as well as additional battalions in Uttarakhand. Oddly, these forces have not received much publicity, and information on their activities isn’t as transparent as it could be, with civilian press having the bulk of publications on their work.

It is worth noting that the proposals to raise Ecological Task Forces (ETF) usually come from the Army, and not civilian HQ. They usually advocate the use of ex-servicemen – who are often found wanting for employment post their stints in the Army. In June 2014, the Army proposed to raise 40 Ecological Battalions to rejuvenate the Ganga, against the three that have been approved for the same now. That the Army’s proposals are usually larger in ambition than the government’s points to a familiar disconnect between politicians unwilling to dispense with their resources, and a military ethos of having a job done well or not at all.

In a time where environmental issues are usually topics of debate rather than calls for action, the Army’s interest in setting up these task forces seems to be unmatched by political enthusiasm. An Army proposal to set up a task force in Orissa to plant up to one lakh trees a year was countered by the state government, who preferred that the force protected forest officials in the area from Maoists instead. The proposal came in the midst of opposition to the planned Posco steel project in Orissa, which the Army said would increase pollution. The Army’s proposal also suggested that the ETF receives the authority to prosecute anyone found cutting the trees they plant, and that five per cent of the costs be borne by local corporates.

Though only eight of these task forces are active in ecological restoration projects across the country now, there was once a proposal for a task force to be set up in every state. However, since the bulk of their funding comes from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, it is understandable that budgetary constraints will limit their abilities, especially when the latter has lost almost a quarter of its funding in this year’s Budget.

It’s good to know that the environment has some actual soldiers on its side today, especially at a time where it seems to be under attack from all directions.

Varun Ramesh

Image Source: The Viewspaper