Saturday, October 8, 2005

Battling for green cover

The Army has strengthened its forces to wage a battle against deforestation and ecological degradation. Himachal Pradesh is the sixth and the latest state to join the Territorial Army in its go-green drive. Vijay Mohan reports

The barren Bhatti mines area
(Top) The barren Bhatti mines area in Delhi before the Territorial Army converted it into (right) a lush green stretch.

The joint venture of the Himachal Pradesh Government and the Army to raise an ecological task force (ETF) of the Territorial Army (TA) for taking up massive afforestation in the hill state is yet another step forward by the "Greening Army of the World". The Terriers, as TA personnel are known, would be tackling ecological degradation and reviving flora and fauna in areas devastated by human activities.

COMBATING EROSION: Jawans building check dams
COMBATING EROSION: Jawans building check dams

The ETF, perhaps the only one of its kind in the world, is already engaged in greening the Thar desert in Rajasthan, rehabilitating Mussoorie mines in Uttaranchal, saving the Shivaliks from turning into a stone desert and converting barren expanses of mines near Delhi into lush green forests.

The concept of ecological battalions was initiated in 1980 by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It was then planned that each state would have at least one ecological battalion, but so far only five have been raised, with another one in the offing.

The objective of the Ecological Task Force is to undertake speedy ecological restoration of the degraded areas and inhospitable and difficult terrain by deploying local ex-servicemen.

During a visit to the Bhatti mines in Delhi, which were reclaimed by the TA, the GOC-in-C, Western Command, Lt Gen S. Pattabhiraman, had said that checking environmental degradation was becoming increasingly important as loss of forest cover was not only adversely affecting ecology and bio-diversity but also leading to global warming and climatic imbalances.

Guns and greens

The work of the Ecological Task Force, the only one of its kind branch in the world, was highly appreciated during the International Conference on Military Environment Protection, held in Beijing last year.

As many as 101 delegates from 49 countries, including the US, the UK, Germany, China, France, Latin America and East Asia, attended the conference.

During the conference it emerged that while the other countries were thinking in terms of military environment protection in their cantonments and nearby areas, it was only the Indian Territorial Army which was executing tasks to restore the eco-system of the whole nation.

The repeated shutting down of hydel power plants in HP due to the presence of heavy silt in rivers points a finger at the soil erosion resulting from deforestation. This has not only resulted in low-power output, affecting supply to industrial as well as domestic consumers, but also caused losses worth hundreds of crores of rupees to the power-generating organisations.

The ETF, apart from serving the cause of environment, provides opportunities for the rehabilitation of ex-servicemen. The ETF is a joint venture of the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Environment and Forests and the state government concerned to undertake ecological restoration work in selected areas.

The tasks listed out for eco units include afforestation; stabilisation of sand dunes; watershed management; soil and water conservation; checking encroachments, poaching and mining; pasture and wasteland development; preserving and conserving wildlife; and other restoration works. "We execute specific ecology-related projects with a military-like work culture and commitment," says Brig G.S. Dhillon, Commander of the Western Command TA Group based at Chandigarh.

Birth of green force

Alarmed at the severe eco-degradation taking place in the Shivaliks, the well-known agro-economist, Dr Norman Borlough, had advised Indira Gandhi to involve military personnel to tackle the problem on a war footing. As the regular Army could not be pulled out from its operational commitments, it was decided that the Territorial Army would be raised for the purpose by enrolling ex-servicemen from the region concerned.

This gave birth to the first ETF, the 127 Infantry Battalion (TA) Ecological, which was raised at Lansdowne on December 1, 1982, and affiliated with the Garhwal Rifles. The unit successfully achieved results in afforestation and soil conservation in Shahjahanpur Range, near Saharanpur, and the region today has a thick forest cover. Thereafter, the unit took up another challenging task at the Mussoorie Micro Catchment Development Area.

ALL FOR GREENFIELDS: Troops constructing a water channel
constructing a water channel

Saplings beings transported to the project area in Garhwal.
LONG MARCH: Saplings beings transported to the project area in Garhwal. ó Photos courtsey: Western Command Territorial Army Group

The Supreme Court, on learning about the unitís achievements, had directed that the unit be asked to prevent illegal mining and carry out reclamation of the mines in the area. The project, undertaken from 1985 to 1994, has had a far-reaching effect on the ecological upgradation of areas in and around Mussoorie.

To put a check on the spread of the Thar desert in Rajasthan, 128 Infantry Battalion (TA) Ecological was raised on September 1, 1983, at the Rajputana Rifles Regimental Centre in Delhi. Its "desert campaign" included greening the left bank of the Indira Gandhi Canal. The unit also developed a lake in Amarpura, which started attracting migratory birds and the Rajasthan Government decided to form a bird sanctuary and develop the area as a tourist spot.

To take on ecological tasks in Jammu and Kashmir and also to provide job opportunities to ex-servicemen in the state, 129 Eco Battalion was raised at the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry Regimental Centre in Srinagar on June 29, 1988. The tasks undertaken by it include treatment of catchment areas and watersheds in Samba and afforestation work in the Bahu Jindra mountain ranges.

Protecting the ecology of the Himalayas in the Kumaon region is the task of 130 Eco Battalion, affiliated with the Kumaon Regiment. Since its raising in 1994, it has planted over 55 lakh saplings.

The TAís youngest ETF, the 132 Eco Battalion, was raised in Delhi on October 9, 2000. It has brought out amazing changes in the ecology pattern of the southern ridges of the Aravallis on the outskirts of the Capital. From barren expanses of extensively mined and degraded area, the ridge, known as the Bhatti mines, is now a lush green forest area

Role of states

Till 1900, this area was a natural wildlife sanctuary, with flora and fauna flourishing everywhere. The growth of Delhi had a direct impact on the forested area and the abundance of mineralised quartzite (Badarpur bajree) made the area a sought-after quarry for construction in Delhi for more than 50 years.

This reduced the forest cover and wildlife in hundreds of acres of land, lowered the watertable and exerted biotic pressure on the existing scanty vegetation. Though mining in that area was banned by the Delhi Government in 1991, illegal quarrying continued. It was after the ETF was raised and deployed that things were brought under control. The area is now being developed as a wildlife sanctuary.

Officers and junior commissioned officers for these units are drawn from the regular Army as well as the Territorial Army, while the other ranks comprise ex-servicemen selected from the nearby areas. A small number of civilians are also hired.

The Forest Department of the state also has a well-defined part in this go-green exercise. It has to identify and provide land for plantation; supply fencing material, seeds, saplings and manure; and make arrangements for watering plants and anti-termite treatment. Accommodation for the unit, provision of drinking water, electricity, telephone connections and other administrative requirements of the Army personnel are the forest departmentís responsibility. It must also provide technical advice to the eco units.

Armyís brief

The responsibilities of the TA include preparation of the ground, which includes digging pits and erecting perimeter fences; planting saplings and watering plants; watch and ward of the plantation area; and developing indigenous nursery, herbal plantation and water bodies.

The task before the TA is not easy and it faces several constraints while executing its tasks. Its biggest job is looking after the plants and ensuring a high survival rate. "You canít just plant saplings and go away, leaving them to the mercy of the elements, animals and the local population," said Col S.K. Pareek, Commanding Officer of the 132 Ecological Battalion. "They have to be nurtured and protected till a high degree of survival is ensured. We also have to maintain a vigil over the area," he added.

Checking encroachment and human interference is a major task. Scarcity of water during summer months, erratic and meagre rainfall, diversity of terrain, adverse climactic conditions, and damage to plants by animals, rodents and termites are some other constraints.

To ensure a high survival rate for saplings, innovative methods are developed by commanders. For instance, earthen pots with minute holes are filled with water and buried up to the necks. The water gradually seeps into the earth and it may not be required to water plants individually for several days.

Over the last decade, besides reclaiming 25 mines in the Dehra Dun-Mussoorie area, over two crore saplings have been planted by the ETF. Water bodies and rainwater harvesting techniques have also been developed in the areas marked for rejuvenation. "Besides planting species native to a particular area, we also go in for herbal plants, fruit trees and ornamental plants," divulged Colonel Pareek. A herbal garden with 24 medicinal species native to the Aravallis has been developed by the 132 Eco Battalion in collaboration with Delhi University.

After seeing the success of the 132 ETF, the Delhi Government has extended its term for another three years. On the Delhi Governmentís suggestion, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) has raised an ecological TA company to carry out compensatory plantation in Delhi. About 90,000 saplings will be planted under this project and the expenditure incurred will be paid by the NHAI.

The 133 Battalion, being raised in Himachal Pradesh, would be the first TA unit to be established in the state. It is also the second TA ecological unit to be totally funded by a state government. The other eco battalions are dependant on funding from the Central Government. "Funding the battalion is a bold and welcome step by Himachal Pradesh," Brigadier Dhillon said. "State governments should come forward to raise ecological units as it is the states themselves which benefit in socio-economic terms," he added.

A proposal to raise an eco battalion in Punjab for preserving the fragile ecology of the Harike wetlands is pending for a long time. In an earlier project, the Western Command had undertaken a massive project to remove hyacinth and other wild plants, which were posing a threat to the ecology and the very existence of wetlands.