The Army is the last resort, not the first go-to agency

The practice of using the army for sundry jobs such as building bridges is fraught with dangerous consequences for our democracy

Photo by Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

NR Mohanty

On October 31, the Maharashtra Chief Minister, along with the Union Railway Minister and the Defence Minister, visited the site of the stampede at the Elphinstone Road Railway Station in Mumbai and announced that the Army would be entrusted the task to build the bridge there. For the record, the proposal to build the foot over-bridge (FOB) has been hanging fire with the Railway ministry for almost two years.

What does the decision convey? The message is clear: that the civilian workforce, the big engineers drawing fat salaries from either the Maharashtra government or the Railway Ministry, are simply incapable of meeting the challenge to fix a bridge.

The Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who is a former Army officer, put it squarely when he said: This decision is “an admission of the failure of the government and the Indian Railways.”

Remember, the then Railway Minister, Suresh Prabhu, had sanctioned the replacement of the FOB there in 2015 itself but it continued to remain tied up in the bureaucratic red tape until the tragedy occurred this September in which 23 people lost their lives. It was a sad commentary that the Railways woke up to float the tender for the pending FOB a few hours after the calamity shook the nation.

A question was then raised as to why the Maharashtra government did not undertake the construction of the over-bridge which Mumbaikars used in such large numbers. Wasn’t it that the blame for the tragedy also lay at the doors of the Maharashtra government? Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had then dismissed this charge saying that it was the exclusive responsibility of the Railway Ministry as Elphinstone Bridge was a railway property.

Now that both the Railway Ministry and the Maharashtra government have abandoned their responsibility for a civilian project and handed it over to the Army to execute, what does it say about our civilian authority? Incompetence or lackadaisical attitude or both?

Should Army be the answer in every sphere of our life where the civilian authorities have shown gross ineptitude in carrying out their assigned task? Should the armed forces be asked to execute projects which should more appropriately be done by the government agencies or through the private commercial operators? This is one of the questions a caller asked when a television channel on Tuesday night asked for the viewers’ reaction to this development.

A panelist, a former Army officer, asked if the Indian Army then would be asked to fix potholes. There was another extreme view: if the time has come to ask the Army to take over the governance of the country as the civilian authorities appear singularly unequal to the challenge.

No doubt these are cynical views but it must be remembered that a shared feeling of frustration and disgust with the civilian authority is behind such cynicism.

The Indian Army has been called many times in the past to come to the aid of the civilian authorities; but that is mostly during natural calamities such as floods or earthquakes for rescue and relief operations. In such emergencies, the Army’s involvement is called for as they have niche capabilities to do the work better and faster.

But then is construction of the Elphinstone bridge such an emergency that the Army must be called in to use its extraordinary skills? The Elphinstone tragedy on September 29 was man-made; it happened just because of the laid-back attitude and apathy of the ministers and officials to the concerns of the common man. Now these worthies want to pass the buck to the Army.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had the following explanation: “We know that the Army rushes to places where there are natural disasters … This is probably for the first time the Army was asked to come in to build what could otherwise be called civil work, but the Elphinstone tragedy was so big.”

Well, bigger tragedies have taken place in the past and are most likely to happen in the future as well. Will the defence minister rush in the Army to lay the railway lines the next time a train derailment leads to a bigger toll than the Elphinstone one? Should the government then make the norm that the routine work of construction and maintenance would be done by the railways, or any government department for that matter, and the Army would oversee the post-tragedy build-up?

Then isn’t the TV viewer’s question quite relevant: many people, more than those who lost their lives in the Elphinstone tragedy, die across the country because of the potholes and the governments have just not been able to carry out their assigned task. Shouldn’t then the Army be asked to use their expertise and fill the potholes and save lives?

Aren’t we then making a mockery of the Army as an institution? We know how much the armed forces can do when needed; they can save lives, protect people and safeguard our way of life. But the first principle is that the Army should be mobilised to do a civilian job only as a last resort. As Omar Abdullah tweeted: “The army was to be a measure of last resort to be called upon in extreme emergency. Now it seems like it’s the 1st number on the speed dial”.

Perhaps it was the biggest insult to the institution of Indian Army when it was asked by the government to build a floating bridge on the river Yamuna last year for an event by a controversial godman, despite the fact that the National Green Tribunal had raised major environmental concerns about the event.

We need to ask this basic question: have we been so overwhelmed by endemic civilian disorder that that emergency measures are required to protect people and is it that only the institution of Army is capable of setting the house in order?

We need to probe further. Is it so that the civilian authority has lost its legitimacy and lost its right to rule as it has begun to turn to the Army for routine engagements?

We need to seek right answers for these questions in the larger interest of our democracy.

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