These warriors lead the way in greening degraded land; but they need more support

Uttarakhand government should encourage the greening efforts of the Indian Army soldiers and other such groups; financial support and timely payment of their dues are equally crucial

By Prem Bahukhandi
Published: Tuesday 28 February 2023
The significance of ecological restoration has become more apparent recently due to the danger of global warming and climate change. Photo: 127 Eco TA.
The significance of ecological restoration has become more apparent recently due to the danger of global warming and climate change. Photo: 127 Eco TA. The significance of ecological restoration has become more apparent recently due to the danger of global warming and climate change. Photo: 127 Eco TA.

The Indian Army has long been hailed as heroes for their contributions in times of crisis, be it natural disasters or epidemics. However, the army’s role in eco-restoration is less well-known but equally significant. The Army’s Eco Task Force (ETF) has been instrumental in restoring degraded land and preserving biodiversity in the country, with a considerable focus on afforestation activities.

Also read: Himalayan plunder: Nature-friendly & participatory initiatives are the only hope for recovery, says Madhav Gadgil

One of the earliest examples of the army’s involvement in ecological restoration can be traced back to the early 1980s when the Shivalik Range faced significant ecological damage due to illegal limestone mining and unorganised mining activities.

To address this challenge, the Government of India raised 127 Infantry Battalion (Territorial Army) Garhwal Rifles with the dual aim of resettlement of veterans and ecology regeneration.

It has successfully restored Shivaliks, which does not need any evidence but can be seen with the naked eye. It managed to reclaim a mining area of nearly 2,500 hectares through massive afforestation, rigorous watershed management and the construction of soil conservation structures.

ETF-127 has tackled recurring landslides and rugged terrain (sometimes at the height of nearly 2,500 metres) and human activities in the form of grazing, fires and damage to fencing by the villagers. The ‘green warriors,’ as they have begun to be known, restored those parts of Mussoorie that had seen negligible vegetation.

Today, ETF battalions have extended their working area, planted approximately 68.8 million saplings and covered an area of 72,741 hectares of land, with a 75 to 80 per cent survival rate.

Also read: Himalayan plunder: Ecology changing for the worse due to loss of forest cover, drying springs

The ETF has earned due recognition for its exemplary contribution to ecology and has been bestowed with various national and state-level awards. However, the significance of ETF’s contribution to ecological restoration can be understated, especially in the context of climate change and global warming.

Land degradation is a global issue affecting millions of people’s lives, livelihoods and living conditions worldwide. In 2011, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Government of Germany launched the Bonn Challenge to address this issue.

The goal was to restore 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded land by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030. India was the first Asian country to join this challenge and pledged to restore 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030, committing to a Land Degradation Neutral (LDN) World by 2030, as outlined in Sustainable Development Goals.

Restoring the productivity and ecosystem services of 26 million hectares of degraded land, including vulnerable lands, will require adopting a ‘landscape restoration approach’.

The ETF in the Shivaliks and other areas has received national and state-level awards for its success in ecological restoration, making it an excellent model for restoration efforts. However, the ETF’s funding remains an issue.

Also read: Himalayan Plunder: Balanced tourism critical

The army has proposed a joint financing approach of 70 per cent from the Centre, 25 per cent from the state, and five per cent from the corporate sector in the district. Despite this, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has been hesitant to fund such projects due to their cost, even though other agencies may not be capable of accomplishing what the ETF can do in severely damaged and geographically challenged areas.

Improving coordination between the ETF and the forest department is necessary. The latter has technical expertise in land restoration, afforestation and other related activities that could benefit untrained ETFs. 

However, considering the ETF their competitor, the forest downline leadership is often hesitant or non-cooperative. Despite this, the plan to establish ETF units in every state to address the alarming rate of eco-degradation must be taken on a war footing, though it has yet to materialise.

Nevertheless, there is hope that the central government’s proposal to establish 40 units of 40,000 personnel to restore the damaged ecosystem along the Ganga river (Namami Gange) will contribute to achieving India’s LDN goals by 2030.

Some 120.4 million hectares (Mha) of land in the country is degraded or wasteland due to deforestation and eco-destruction, according to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the Department of Space.

Reports indicate that approximately 38 per cent of the land area in Uttarakhand (around 1.07 Mha) is degraded forest. With the army’s ETF task force leading the way in eco-restoration, there is hope that India will achieve its LDN goals by 2030 and contribute to a sustainable future for the country. The significance of ecological restoration has become more apparent recently due to the danger of global warming and climate change.

Ecological soldiers are a competent and qualified group of individuals with the necessary skills to tackle various environmental challenges. However, unfortunately, the Uttarakhand government is not providing them with sufficient opportunities to showcase their abilities, despite their request for degraded lands for restoration work. The Uttarakhand forest department has also not been cooperative in this regard.

Also read: Save Himalayan ecology: Learnings from Turkey-Syria quake & Joshimath crisis

Given the approaching forest fire season, these ecological soldiers could also be utilised as forest firefighters. Not only has forest fire become a recurring and common phenomenon, but its frequency has also increased in recent years.

Uttarakhand witnessed about 22,000 forest fire incidents between November 2020 and June 2021, whereas the previous fire season, between November 2019 and June 2020, saw only about 800 incidents, according to media reports.

Nevertheless, there has been some progress, as the ETF has recently been given work in the Devidhar hills of Yamkeshwar Block in Pauri Garhwal. This opportunity will enable them to demonstrate their expertise and contribute to the ecological well-being of the region.

It is crucial to recognise the importance of ecological restoration and conservation in protecting the environment and mitigating the adverse effects of environmental degradation.

Providing more opportunities and resources for groups such as ecological soldiers to carry out restoration work will improve the region’s environmental health and create employment opportunities for people dependent on nature and natural resources.

Therefore, the government of Uttarakhand should support and encourage the efforts of the ecological soldiers and other such groups, providing them with more opportunities to contribute to the restoration and conservation of the region’s ecological balance. Financial support and timely payment of their dues are equally crucial for the success of any project.

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