The Army is not for building bridges

Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has triggered a political firestorm by announcing that the Indian Army has been called in to build foot overbridges at three suburban railway stations in Mumbai, including at Elphinstone Road where 23 people were killed in a stampede last month. The announcement was made following his visit to the Elphinstone Road station with Railway Minister Piyush Goyal and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Expectedly, it has evoked sharp reactions from Opposition parties. Congress leader and Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, a war veteran himself, and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah have attacked the government for using the Army to cover up its alleged failures. They and others have said, and rightly, that this is an admission of the incompetence of Railways and the civil administration.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has admitted that it is probably the “first time that the Army will come in to build in what could otherwise be called civil work”. The justification she offered is that the Elphinstone station tragedy was big enough to be considered a national catastrophe and it was necessary to avoid its recurrence in the country’s financial capital. The Railway ministry – which should take the blame for not rebuilding the bridge before the tragedy and now for conveniently escaping responsibility for doing so at least post-tragedy – reasoned that the Army was chosen due to its operational expertise and reputation in building roads and bridges. These justifications are untenable. Railways workshops are better equipped than Army workshops and its engineering cadre is known to act fast in emergencies.

Clearly, the Union and state governments did not think through why the Army had to be asked to build railway bridges nor the larger implications of doing so. The Army does construct bridges and roads along the borders and in remote and inaccessible areas and terrains, and it does a good job of it. But the purpose there is different. To call them to do the same in the middle of Mumbai is taking things a bit too far. From being tied up for decades fighting insurgencies to being called in frequently to carry the burden of rescue and relief operations during natural disasters, now the Army is being asked to clean up mountains after tourists and build foot overbridges at railway stations. The Army leadership should stand up for its identity, its reputation for professionalism and integrity. Most importantly, it must resist any course that can blunt its fighting capability. As former Army chief V P Malik said, the Army should be called in to aid the civil authority only in times of grave crisis, not to perform routine tasks of the civilian administration.

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