BEHIND Commanding Officer Lt Col C P Singh Deo at the headquarters of the 127 Infantry Battalion in Dehradun, detailed maps and information sheets mark out the area in Mussoorie where his battalion operates.
But the 127 Infantry Battalion (Eco) has nothing to do with war; the "boys", as Col Singh Deo calls his men, are anywhere between the age of 35 and 50, well beyond their fighting prime. After they retired from the army, they were re-employed by the 127 Infantry Battalion "Eco Task Force" (ETF) to fight environmental degradation.
The environment programmes of the army so far include recent efforts by the Eco Cell of the Quarter Master General's Branch to develop wastelands belonging to the army, and aboriculture and bio-diversity conservation on army cantonments, besides the Eco Task Forces of the Territorial Army. But while the former is still in its early stages, the latter are a centre of controversy, with the forest department accusing.
In the late '70s, the government was faced with the problem of unemployment among jawans who retired while they were still in their early 30s, way before the conventional retiring age. The idea to set up ETFs came from Dr Norman Burlough, an agronomist from the Wheat and Maize Centre, Mexico. Employing ex-servicemen to stop the deforestation and soil erosion taking place in the Himalayas, suggested Dr Burlough while putting forward the idea to Indira Gandhi, would also deal with the problem of unemployment among them.
Since 1983, 4 such ETFs have been set up for afforestation work -- the 127 Infantry Battalion (Eco) operating in Mussoorie set up in April 1983, the 128 Inf Bn (Eco) near Bikaner established in September 1983, the 129 Inf Bn in Kathua near Jammu, and the recent 130 Inf Bn in Pithoragarh, Kumaon, established in April this year.
With 70,000 disciplined personnel discharged from the army every year, the ex-servicemen could constitute a mighty force. But while the concept of the ETFs holds a lot of potential, the present system is certainly not geared towards achieving it fully. Only about 1,500 ex-servicemen have been reemployed so far, and they have worked on less than 1,000 hectares.
These task forces are involved in plantation work, soil conservation through the construction of plug dams in the Himalayas and sand dune stabilisation in the desert. They have a core of few officers from the regular army incharge of administration, and a force of re-recruited ex-servicemen who provide the labour.
The ETFs report directly to the Territorial Army although their complete costs, including the salaries of the officers who are on the rolls of the army, are refunded to the defence budget by the ministry of environment and forests.
The ETFs are beset by the same problems plaguing regeneration efforts across the country -- no research into the kind of work needed, no scientific evaluation of the work done, and an approach which leads to hostility from local people. Moreover, the ETFs and the state forest departments, which provide them with saplings and other material costs, are constantly at loggerheads.
When the first Task Force, the 127 Infantry Battalion (Eco) was established in the Mussoorie hills, their primary task was limestone mine reclamation work. The 127 Inf Bn undertook treatment of 19 out of 25 closed mines in the area. Sturdy shrubs and grasses were first planted on the rocky face of mined areas to form a layer of compost and topsoil through the decomposition of their leaves, after which trees were planted and Gambion check dams constructed to prevent further soil erosion.
In its initial years, the ETF made several mistakes like planting the wrong species in the wrong area -- pine and deodar which would do well on the higher slopes, for example, were grown near the foothills, and their survival rates were fairly low. Naik Nandan Singh, who has been with the Mussoorie battalion since it was raised in 1983, says that in the initial stages, the forest department deliberately taught them wrong techniques. "It was only after some of us went to the Forest Research Institute for training a few years ago that we found out what we had been doing wrong," says Singh.
The Bikaner and Mussoorie units also claim that they had problems with the forest department's saplings. At Bikaner, Lt Col GL Yadav, the Commanding Officer of 128 Inf Bn, says that the forest department often sabotaged their work by providing them sub-standard saplings which were not strong enough to survive once planted. And the Mussoorie unit claims that the saplings are often delivered late in the planting season, wasting precious days of the monsoon. The units have now started setting up their own nurseries.
"They have only started consulting us since 1992," retorts Srikant Chandola, Mussoorie district forest officer. Further, he says, "Plantation is not their job," he says. "And over the last 10 or 11 years they have been here, they have not done any serious regeneration work. We could only call what they're doing enrichment, because they have planted in areas where the forest department has already worked."
Chandola's attitude is typical of most forest departments that have ETFs operating in their area. Arun Saxena, the Assistant Conservator of Forests, Bikaner, calls the 128 Eco Bn a "white elephant". "They are only providing the labour component," says Saxena. "Anybody can do that. But they use up a phenomenal sum of money." And the survival rates of the saplings, he claims, are about equal for both organisations.
A direct comparison with the forest department's afforestation budget does make the ETFs look extravagant. While Chandola claims that their plantation cost per hectare is a mere Rs 8,000, the ETF at Mussoorie spent 4 times that amount in 1989-90, when their cost of planting was as much as Rs 32,613 per ha. In the words of the Assistant Inspector General (Forests), Ajay Kumar, the ETFs were "fleecing" the ministry.
"Their actual contribution is miniscule -- the 4 units have worked on only 1,000 hectares out of the 1.6 to 1.8 million hectares that have afforestation projects," says Kumar." But the concept of the Eco Task Forces has become so high profile that nobody dares to do away with them. They take up a small area, and spend 3 to 4 years on it. The forest department cannot afford to do that. Besides, the ETFs are run like regular army units, and some of the things that they were charging us for were just not justified. The units maintain arsenals, for example, and the ministry would have to pay the salaries of the 5 to 10 men who were on constant duty guarding them."
There is also heartburn about the amount of money the ETFs gobble. "The forest department projects are massively under-funded," says Kumar. "The ETFs corner all the funds and the publicity, so there is bound to be trouble with the forest departments."
Army officials justify the high costs. "The output of a jawan is easily twice that of a normal labourer," says Lt Col Yadav. Also, says Col CP Singh Deo, the forest department is not taking their establishment costs into account, whereas the amount quoted by the army includes salaries, transportation and infrastructure.
After the forest departments communicated their grouse to the Centre, however, the MEF insisted that the ETFs cut costs. A new system of "disembodiment" brought down the annual budget of three ETFs from Rs 4.5 crore to Rs 1.80 crore. Under this system, the ex-servicemen are sent off on leave without pay for 3 months every year, from October to December.
But there is faint irritation at the scheme. "We join the Task Force because we have no other means of sustenance after we retire," says Sepoy Narain Singh, who has been with the Mussoorie Bn for the last 12 years. "But how do they expect us to survive without a salary for 3 months in a year? We can't find another job for such a short period. Some of us may have fields to cultivate at home, but the time when we're needed to work on the land is also the time when we're needed to do plantation work here."
Moreover, says Naik Madhav Singh, most of the plants they grow during the monsoon die because nobody is there to water them during the 3 months that the disembodiment takes place. The Commanding Officer of the Bikaner Unit, Lt Col G L Yadav, claims that survival rates have gone down from 70 to 80 per cent before the disembodiment to 50 per cent.
Because the forest departments run shy of handing over land to ETFs, the 127 Inf Bn did done a lot of plantation work on private land when it was working in the Kiarkuli region; it has had to practically wrest land from the forest department for their present project in the Aglar catchment. About 33 per cent of the land they have afforested is private land, which the landowners denude at will for profit.
Once the saplings are planted, the army protects and waters them for about 2 years, after which they are handed over to the forest departments. At Bikaner, where the Task Force is involved in sand dune stabilisation work and afforestation along the Rajasthan Canal, the jawans claim that most of the tree die once the army moves out because they do not receive adequate protection.
Partly because they have had to persuade villagers to allow plantation on village land, the Battalion at Mussoorie has learnt the hard way that afforestation needs cooperation from the local people. The Battalion now plans to set up nurseries for the local people, and then buy the saplings from them.
Col Singh Deo is trying to persuade the villages in the Aglar catchment to form their own van panchayats to protect the trees once they have been planted. He feels that the ETFs need to involve some local NGOs to work with the people.
Their task is somewhat compounded by the nature of their organisation. Jhapai Singh, the pradhan of Bail village in the Aglar catchment area, where the 127 Eco Bn has recently started reforestation work, admits that when the army first came to the area, they were afraid that their land would be taken away from them. The women, in particular, were hostile towards the 127 Inf Bn, since restrictions were imposed on firewood collection and grazing. But as the ETF changed its strategy and regenerated patches of grass for controlled cutting, the people learnt to trust them.
Naran Singh, also from Bail village, exchanged 3 bighas of crop land for 4 bighas of not so fertile land and handed it over to the army for planting fruit trees. They not only provided him with the saplings and the labour, but also put up a fence to keep cattle away.
Col Singh Deo emphasises the need to involve researchers. "Some experts have to be dovetailed into helping us with this work. So far, we have had to do everything by trial and error," he says. There is very little feedback on how successful the ETFs have really been. While research may be a problem with the ETFs, the Eco Cell has recently started a Biodiversity Conservation programme for army lands with help from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). Researchers have been identified to evaluate certain cantonments.
With funds from the National Wasteland Development Board, the Eco Cell also has 6 projects underway to green field firing ranges and other refractory sites in Deolali, Ahmednagar, K K Ranges, Manesar, Pithoragarh and Dighi Camp. The Eco Cell has an environmental education programme for all ranks, but it works desultorily. At the Indian Military Academy, it is clear that for most army personnel, knowledge of environmental affairs is limited to the basic. "We have a few nature trips and lectures," admits Lt General JC Pant, commandant. "Other than that, some of our cadets are more informed than others, and they teach each other when they interact."
Unfortunately, the army's image as being sensitive to the environment, it has often been accused of being insensitive to the environment -- overusing natural resources like petroleum and firewood, and upsetting ecosystems in the course of routine army exercises and manoeuvres.
Several army cantonments are located in hill stations and what was once densely forested area. As these cantonments continue to expand, more and more forest land continues to give way to army infrastructure. In Wellington in the Nilgiris, for example, ugly multistoreyed buildings have eaten away into once-wooded hillsides, and more buildings continue to come up in order to house the officers who come to study at the Defence Services Staff College there.
But any grouse about the army's land-eating habits hits the dirt in the face of one phrase: "The defence of the nation." The army says that the locations of these cantonments and firing ranges are strategic, and they cannot be shifted.
In contrast to this obduracy is the US's Environmental Protection Agency: under its orders, the US army spent $ 18 billion for environmental cleanup at military bases in 1988. The latest estimate is about $30 billion, besides which military installations are fined for violations of environmental laws. The money comes out of the operations and maintenance budget of the army.
In the absence of such an agency in India, the onus is on the army to prove its environmental credentials on its own.
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