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Army at the Elphinstone bridge: The other side of the debate

  • The Army should be deployed for resolving civic issues only during an emergency.
  • The Army has been there during every natural calamity.
  • However, state forces and administrative departments should ensure that their involvement is restricted for a greater cause.
Army in Elphinstone bridge The other side of the story
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Enough is being said on the government's move to involve the Army  to help rebuild the Elphinstone bridge. But, all these have been one-sided discussions on what the Army is supposed to be doing instead of involving itself in civic activities.

The fact that the Railway Ministry and the PWD department have failed in ensuring the safety of the citizens is one thing, but what they choose to do in future so that such incidents do not get repeated is another.

As Parliamentarian Rajeev Chandrasekhar rightly points out in his article 'Call in the Army when all else fails, not to do the railways’ and PWD’s job', involving the Army has both negatives and the positives. Engaging the Army for civic constructions would mean jeopardising the national security to some extent since the Army's attention and labour would be divided. But this also meaning engaging the Army for civil emergencies during peace time. Something that the defence forces have been doing time and again, the Parliamentarian observed. From floods to earthquakes, the Army has pitched in every possible way.

So when does the Army really come into the scene?

MP Chandrasekhar says that it is but logical to say that a combat-trained organisation should not be deployed in civil situations too often. But then there are times when the Army must be deployed, he notes. One when the state mechanisms fail to cope with a situation, second when something needs to be addressed on emergency. 

The Elphinstone bridge comes under the purview of the richest municipal corporation, i.e., the BMC. The state government of Maharashtra too has huge resources as does its Public Works Department. The Railways too is financially strong and there is no dearth of labour in the department, which boasts of 1.3 million employees. The department also has dedicated projects and construction capability. So, what is really the logic of involving the Army?

Perhaps nowhere, unless we consider the fact that the bridge is a lifeline for the office goers in Mumbai and reducing the pressure on the solo bridge is a matter of exigency. In other words, the new over-bridges have to be built on war footings and rapid solutions cannot be expected from the railways, the PWD and the BMC (owing to the bureaucratic interventions and protocols). Hence, the need for the Army.

The divided force

Army veterans and retired officers have reasons to debate the involvement of the defence forces in civic activities, especially when their OROP experience with the government left a bad taste in the mouth. However, it should not be forgotten that the Army's agenda is to serve the nation and its people, despite the differences it may have with the government. 

The issues have been addressed, true, but what overpowered the conscience of the Army and the state administrative forces was their slogan "When all else fails, call the armed forces". And the Army heard the state's cry for help and responded, in coherence to its pledge for duty in times of adversity.

But, that is not a permanent solution. Indeed, the Army cannot be expected to respond to every call for help, especially when we have a volatile border on all sides. Chandrasekhar points out that the internal administration should ensure that such issues are addressed internally and effectively. And if that requires revamping the infrastructure and uplifting the state forces, so be it. So, that the Army is left to do what is does best- secure the borders. 

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