The eco units of the TA are waging nature’s war against human aggression
The story may not be entirely true, but it has become part of the folklore in the hills of Mussourie. In the early Eighties the lime quarries had completely denuded the hill leaving them bare with only rocks and sand. When the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi planned to visit the area, the panic-stricken miners painted the denuded patches green to give the impression of the forest cover. But the Prime Minister got suspicious and ordered a closer inspection which exposed the foolish cover-up. What happened to the erring miners is not important. The important thing is that the Prime Minister heeded the advice of Dr Norman Borlough, a leading agricultural scientist, and decided to hand over the task of arresting the effect of mining and greening of the hills to the army. The idea was that only the uniform would be able to instil fear of law in the hearts of the poachers and illegal miners. Besides, given the training and their work ethos, the army would be able to achieve results faster.
The transition, however, was not easy. The army protested, as afforestation seemed more like a gardener’s job, not something the gun-toting soldiers were trained or mentally prepared for. Finally, a meeting point was found and the army agreed to raise Ecological Task Force (ETF) on the lines of the TA by reemploying ex-servicemen in the age group of 35 to 50. In the beginning only one, 127 Infantry battalion (TA), affiliated with Garhwal Rifles, was raised in 1982 in the record time of 45 days. The following year 128 Infantry battalion (TA) Rajputana Rifles was raised in Bikaner. 129 Infantry battalion (TA) Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry, 130 Infantry battalion (TA) Kumaon Regiment and 132 Infantry battalion (TA) Rajput Regiment were raised subsequently. The task of the ETFs is to maintain the ecological balance, through concerted afforestation, soil conservation and water harvesting. Raised on the home and hearth concept, all ETF men are ex-servicemen belonging to the area. Hence, they not only understand the topography and geography of the area they are also emotionally committed to it. The officers’, however, are serving Infantry officers on deputation to the TA.
The ETF began by treating selected portions destroyed by incessant mining in the total area of 440 hectares in Mussourie hills. Subsequently, medicinal, fruit and other trees and herbs were planted on the hills, sometimes at the incline of 70 to 80 degree on loose soil which made work very difficult. Even after the plantation is one sector is over, the ETF retains the control for maintenance for nearly three years to ensure that the trees grow strong before handing it over to the local population or the forest department. In most cases, the average survival rate of the trees has been 80 per cent. Today, most of the area is covered with thick forest. For those who have frequently travelled to the Garhwal region, the transformation has been mind-boggling. Excessive mining, cutting down of forests for agricultural purposes, unchecked grazing by cattle, clearing of vegetation for human settlement, recurring forest fires, population pressure etc., had wreaked unprecedented environmental havoc in the area. Add to that the overall impact of global warming, erosion of river banks, shrinking of glaciers, decreasing rainfall, and the devastation was complete. By early Eighties there were 26 mines in the Mussourie hills, many of them illegal. The hills had become patchy and dry. The temperature had started rising, the flora and fauna had started disappearing. The seasonal snowfall stopped in the hills and the temperature in the Doon valley rose to over 40 degree centigrade. This was an ecological disaster waiting to happen till the Eco Task Force stepped in. And the results started showing in a decade’s time, when the weather conditions were reversed through balanced vegetation, plantation of trees, soil and water conservation. The forest cover has increased considerably with corresponding increase in the flora and fauna. “The Mussourie Hills got their first snowfall in 1997 after nearly two decades,” says Lt Col P.S. Rathore, Commanding Officer, 127 Infantry Battalion TA (Eco) Garhwal Rifles. “Since then there has been a steady increase in snowfall with last year being the heaviest. Not only that, the temperature in the Doon Valley has consistently been coming down. While till 10 years ago it used to touch 40 degrees in summer, now it hardly ever goes beyond 35. Once again, after many years, the evenings are pleasant.” Little wonder, the unit boasts of Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puruskar, apart from the Doon Ratna Award.
The Mussourie hills miracle is not an isolated case. The Eco TA has been doing exemplary work in all the areas that they are deployed in, right from Samba in Jammu and Kashmir to Sri Mohangarh in Rajasthan, Pithoragarh in Kumaon and Bhati Mines in Delhi. The bleak stretches of desert in Rajasthan have been converted into lush greenbelts. Moreover, the ETF has tried to arrest the desertification of the area. Yet, their greatest achievement is not only in the greening of the terrain and reversing of the ecology but in creating awareness about environment among the local people and getting them to make their own contribution. And in this respect the uniform of the TA has come in handy, as the TA men command greater respect. Being from the same area, they also win over the trust of the local people more comfortably. “We have been holding meetings with the local people, conducting lectures in schools and colleges and organising Van Mahotsavs to create awareness. Moreover, apart from working in close coordination with the forest department, we have also involved the National Cadet Corps (NCC) in our work,” says Col Rathore. Apart from afforestation, the ETF is also involved in water harvesting and prevention of soil erosion by using such mechanisms as gully plugging to arrest the flow of water so that excessive soil is not washed away; gabion check dam to control the direction of water and balli and cutta crates to prevent soil erosion.
Given that the task of the Eco TA is primarily ecological and that they are manned by ex-servicemen (who apart from drawing their pension also draw a salary from TA), these units are completely different from other units in so far as training and equipment is concerned. Not only they remain embodied for eight months in a year, they come back to the same unit after a four-month break, which works something like a four months long annual leave. Besides, they don’t have any ATCs nor are they provided with weapons. The only exception here is the 129 J&K Light Infantry TA which operates in the Samba sector of Jammu. Given their area of operation, insurgency and proximity to the border, the J&K Light TA unit has been provided with personal weapons for security. The regular army unit also provides them with a security cover.
Despite the apparent success of the TA units in the five sectors where they are deployed, it is a surprising that the government has not thought of raising more battalions in other parts of the country, especially since the ecological challenge is turning out to be increasingly daunting. “For proper ecological balance,” says Col Rathore, “33 per cent of the landmass in a country should be forest area. At the time of Independence, 30 per cent of our landmass was forest, which is constantly depleting. Today, only 10 per cent is under the forest cover. Some people give the figure of 19 per cent, but it is incorrect because in this figure they include tea plantations and eucalyptus trees.” Col Rathore says that raising of new ETFs can be considered in states like Rajasthan (Aravalli hills and Mount Abu area) Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab.
Moreover, according to Gen. Shankar Roychowdhury, TA should also be put to wildlife protection as in Kenya and Nepal where the army has done remarkable work. “We must create forest protection battalions and depute them in various sanctuaries to curtail poaching, especially in the Kazhiranga Sanctuary and the forests straddling Karnataka and Tamil Nadu where sandalwood brigand Veerappan continues to be a menace,” he says.
Till such time, the government can only strengthen the Eco TA units by ensuring that the morale of the officers remains as high as the men who take very easily to their new roles. One officer, ruing his new job profile (from combat to ecology), says, “Usually, those who seem to have run their course in the regular infantry unit are sent to Eco TA. It seems like a cushy job, but in reality, it is end of the road as far as the military career is concerned.” Given that the troops comprise ex-servicemen, it would probably be in keeping with the nature of the job if retired officers are reemployed in ETF, instead of deputing serving ones. Despite these few sore points, one cannot underplay the work of the Eco TA units, considering that the next big threat to the world could come from the wounded Nature.
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