NEW DELHI: Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement of Army would be involved in building Footover Bridge at Mumbai’s Elphinstone Road train station has provoked massive criticism from the military fraternity.
Soon after announcement by the minister, the top officials from the Bombay Engineering Group, popularly known as Bombay Sappers in the army circle, carried out the reconnaissance of the site and it is expected to submit detailed project report to the state government as well the railway authority in next few days.
But the decision to involve army has not gone well with the military including serving as well as retired. As the Serving army officials tightlipped due to Service Rules, veterans decided to bat for them and came out openly to speak on their behalf.
Lt. General Mohinder Puri, former Deputy Chief of the Army, who has fought the Kargil War, was amused with the decision. “Army resources should be used judicially. Unless there is an emergency, I don’t appreciate idea of the using Army in civilian works,” Lt. Gen Puri (Retd) told Express.
Major General GD Bakshi (Retd) came out more strongly by saying that Army should never be used in civil works unless and until there is some national level disaster or emergency and even for that we have NDRF and other disaster management force.
“ Army is an instrument to be used as last resort and should not be used as first resort. Army has always come to the fore, even before being asked in case of natural calamity. But, here , when we have full complete machinery of railways and state authority, question of using should not have arisen at all.”
Hitting out more strongly on the government, Lt. General HS Panag (Retd) says it shows ‘inefficiency’ on the part of the government. “Using army for such a petty civilian task clearly shows that government is abdicating from its responsibility. State has become ‘inefficient’ that army has been given menial task like placing mats for a yoga event and now building foot over bridge.”
Former northern army commander Lt. Gen Ata Hasnain also tweeted that “Learnt Army engrs will be building footbridge at Elphinstone station. With current hostile civ mil relationship bound to generate controversy. In an emergency like CWG situation it could be justified. But as brought out by many here the Railways has a construction dept of its own.”
Debate was triggered by Capt Amrinder Singh, who compared the move what Lt. General BM Kaul did with 4th Div before 1962 war with China, when he asked armymen to build houses.
“Army’s job is to train for war and protect the country’s borders, not to build bridges and clean the roads,” said Captain Amarinder. Observing that these kind of acts led to severe downgradation of the defence services then, Captain Amarinder warned that the Army would end up suffering similar lowering of its status if the defence ministry does not withdraw its decision to use the armed forces for building civilian bridges in Mumbai.
Former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah also 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.”
Later in the day, railway ministry came out with series of tweets by defending government’s decision of employing army for construction of bridge. “ In India there are many Examples of Army operations & use during civilian crisis. Army, BRO and GREF have Strong operational expertise in building roads and bridges construction. 1st of its kind of Joint effort wherein the Army & Rlys will participate in a construction work aimed to fulfill the need of commuters.”
Last year, the Army built a floating bridge on the river Yamuna for Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's "Art of Living" event that was controversial because of environmental violations.
Even in the year 2010, when Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games, the army stepped in and rebuilt in record time a bridge that had suddenly crashed near a key stadium.
In both instances, the move to commission soldiers for the construction of civilian work described by many as a "bad precedent".