Green battalions

Retired army personnel, many of whom leave for work abroad, could instead be encouraged to work in reforestation projects at home

In late January, I visited the Doon Valley and the Mussoorie hills in Uttarakhand, India, with other journalists and environment professionals from the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region. On our way to Musoorie, we stopped at the headquarters of an army battalion, set up midway between Sahastradhara at the foothills of Mussoorrie and the Mussoorie town proper. What was surprising about this battalion was that it consisted of retired army personnel (some of whom were Nepalis) under the command of a lieutenant who was still in service. The battalion, called the 127 Infantry Battalion Eco Task Force, had been tasked with reforesting the surrounding hills that had been decimated by limestone mining, most of it illegal.

Until around 30 years ago, the hills surrounding us were barren, devoid of not just the trees, but also the top soil. In the 1950s, more than 100 limestone quarries had started digging into the hills. Although these quarries helped the paper, chemicals and sugarcane industries thrive in Uttar Pradesh (until 2000, Uttarakhand was not a separate state), the Doon Valley suffered from deforestation, erosion of soil, landslides, water scarcity (Sahastradhara, which means a thousand taps, was no longer true to its name) and reduction in agricultural production. The ecological impacts were worse—the forests lost the rich diverse forms of trees and animals they housed, and the temperatures too started rising. Some scientists back then called the damage to the valley a harbinger of what was to happen in the Himalayas and the Gangetic plains if their ecological balance was disturbed. Concerned with the environmental degradation in the area, the Supreme Court of India intervened in the 80s and in 1983, the eco battalion was formed. It was to serve two purposes—the Indian government decided that employing retired soldiers in re-foresting efforts would not only help the hills bounce back, but would also help the soldiers who had retired in their early 30s find a new way to make their livelihood.

The reforestation process was not easy. The army had to deal with a disgruntled forest department, who said that the officers were corrupt and had a low-efficiency work rate; and local communities would not cooperate if they saw no direct benefits from the projects. Still, the army persevered, planting saplings and ensuring their growth by monitoring them for two to five years before handing the forests back to the communities and the forest department. The results were right there for us to see as our bus climbed the hills.

The reforestation model adopted in Mussoorie could be something Nepal could learn from. Today, across Nepal, forests and shrubs cover only 5.83 million hectares of land—that is around 39.6 percent of the total land area. Back in the 1960s, 60 percent of Nepal’s landmass was covered in forests.

And to re-grow its trees, Nepal, just as India has done, can turn to its retired army personnel. Currently, active army personnel are mobilised to guard national parks protected by the state. Bhaskar Singh Karky, a resource economist at ICIMOD, says that the army’s presence has had a positive impact on the survival of the forests. “If we look at the old photographs of the hills, the land looks bare. With army barracks around the hills, patrolling movements have reduced illegal logging,” says Karky. “And I’m sure many of the hills can be reforested by mobilising the army.”

One particular area where its personnel, especially the retired ones, could be mobilised is in the conservation of the Chure Hills, which has been pushed to the brink of ecological disaster by reckless extraction and smuggling of sand and stones for construction purposes. The effects of these activities have already been felt downstream, the problem of water shortage being one of the most obvious. Much more needs to be done to protect the fragile hills; the involvement of locals in conservation efforts is one of them. But it could be worthwhile, says Karky, to utilise the army. “As has been seen in other areas, it is the mandate of the Department of Forest to manage forest resources, but a lot of the protection, anti-poaching and anti-logging work is done by the army,” says Karky.

Mobilising the army does come with its own set of challenges, as evidenced by the eco battalion’s struggles in the Mussoorie hills. The locals need to trust that the army personnel deployed will only help the locals in their reforestation efforts, not completely take over the forests. Man-hours provided by the army personnel could prove to be of immense help in areas where the men folk have left for work abroad.

There is also the allegation that the army itself exploits the forest resources it is supposed to protect. Army personnel have over the years been accused of blackmailing yarsagumba gatherers in Shey Phoksundo National Park.

But the Mussoorie hills have shown what can be achieved if the discipline that the army is famous for is put to right use.

When the Indian government formed its eco battalions, it did so with the notion that reforesting the hills would solve the unemployment problem among its young, but retired soldiers. The low -ranking soldiers in the Nepal Army retire after serving for 16 years. Say, that they enlist at 19. That means that when they retire, they are 35. Many such retirees head abroad to work as security guards. If they could be encouraged to stay back and help re-grow the forests, the hills here could be green again, and the retired personnel would be gainfully employed right at home too.

Published: 07-03-2015, The Kathmandu Post