The recent proposal to involve the Indian Army to build the Elphinstone footbridge in Mumbai has been criticised widely. Retired service officers have urged the Defence Minister to review the decision, since it entails lowering the dignity and image of the Army, considered one of the finest fighting forces throughout the world. Punjab Chief Minister, Captain Amarinder Singh, who is a veteran of the 1965 war with Pakistan, and a leading military historian, has observed that India should never repeat the mistakes of the late 1950s, when Major General B.M. Kaul had obtained permission from the then Defence Minister, V.K. Krishna Menon, to use the uniformed personnel for building barracks and putting them on jobs that were not meant to be performed by soldiers. Therefore, any attempt to downgrade the status of the jawans cannot be condoned at any cost.
On another note, the use of the Army for a civilian project in India’s financial capital clearly indicates that the state government and the Ministry of Railways were incapable of dealing with the task on hand. Indian Railways was always hailed as an exceptional organ of the government, and its execution of projects was granted extraordinary ratings. In many regions, while state governments or the Centre contributed to the completion of projects near railway networks, the final touches of construction on sensitive portions would always be the handiwork of the Railways. The high quality standards were its hallmark, and it is evident that the same certification can no longer be provided to it, given the recent spate of accidents on account of the callous and casual approach of the authorities. By deputing the Army to enter the civilian arena is proof enough that the government no longer considers the Railways to be a competent agency to deliver the goods.
There could be a valid argument that the Army has assisted the civil authorities in the completion of several significant missions; on the eve of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi a footbridge had collapsed, and the Army was recruited to save the day by erecting a new one in no time. At that point the deployment of the Army was to bail out the nation, which was hosting the prestigious and momentous event. It is another story that things went askew due to colossal corruption of the concerned authorities and despite promises to bring the guilty to book, successive governments at the Centre have done nothing in this direction. The Shunglu Committee, appointed by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had redlined many actions that entailed unjustified expenditure and the misuse of government funds towards sub-standard work. The present dispensation has been sitting on the report and has not done sufficient follow-ups to fix responsibility and identify the culprits.
The Army, on a regular basis, comes to the rescue of civil authorities in times of natural calamities. In fact, the Armed Forces, the Air Force and the Navy included, have always been there to lend a helping hand. Their presence is reassuring, and their approach to rescue operations is clinical, professional and purely result-driven. These, however, are extraordinary situations and the defence personnel are involved in providing relief, which is beyond the scope of any other department or agency. The Army had been inducted even during acute communal developments, such as what happened in 1984 in the aftermath of the gory assassination of Indira Gandhi. The Delhi police and the civil administration had failed in preventing the massacre of innocent Sikhs and it was only after the Army was summoned that the situation was brought under control.
However, the proposal to construct the Elphinstone bridge by the Army is something altogether different. The avoidable tragedy, which claimed many lives, was on account of the Railways not being able to address the problem. The civil administration, too, came under fire for taking inadequate measures to rebuild the bridge, with full sight of the fact that a major mishap was waiting to happen.
In present times, the Armed Forces have been gearing up to meet every challenge posed by the enemies of the country. The Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, has repeatedly been reiterating that our soldiers had the capacity and tenacity to fight a two-front war, while the Air Chief, B.S. Dhanoa, has noted that in the event of a confrontation with China, “we would certainly give it a bloody nose”. In this kind of surcharged atmosphere, where be the need to divert the defence resources to assignments which should ordinarily be handled by the civil government? After the country’s humiliation in the 1962 war, it was discovered that many of the ordnance factories were manufacturing shoes and thermos flasks. In other words, the state of preparedness was nearly non-existent, and despite this scenario, the jawans and officers readily laid down their lives in the line of duty.
Fortunately, the welfare of the Armed Forces is high on the priority ladder of the Prime Minister. During Deepavali, he made time to meet with the jawans in Gurez and the visit was aimed at ensuring that their morale remained at high-mast. Narendra Modi, has, in the past, been to several outposts as well, so as to show his solidarity with the soldiers who guard the country in difficult circumstances. Going by this, the natural corollary would be that he should issue clear instructions that no ministry could initiate activities that lower the pride and dignity of our soldiers. Between us.