A big debate has sparked off after the announcement made by India’s Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis in Mumbai on Tuesday jointly that three foot-over bridges at railway stations in Mumbai will be built speedily in the next three months by the Indian Army. The opinions expressed by Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and many others on social media against this decision have gone viral as many insisted that Army should be only used during a war and not for such civil works.
“What next, will the Army be asked to fill road potholes in Mumbai,” is the question one Congress leader asked on social media. The question is whether an illustrious organisation like the Indian Army should be asked to get into normal or routine construction works which can be done by any other organisation like the Railways.
In many cases, the Railways have done a commendable job of building tracks back to normal when they have been destroyed in floods or because of the derailment. If bureaucratic hurdles such as tedious tender process and other issues are removed, the Railways can do that kind of a quick job in case of Mumbai bridges too, why is there a need of bringing the Indian Army to do this civilian work?
In 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. But the move to commission soldiers for the construction of a bridge that was long overdue has been described by many as a ‘bad precedent’.
Among critics of the move is Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, a former Army officer. Last year, the Army built a floating bridge on Yamuna river for Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s ‘Art of Living’ event that was controversial because of environmental violations. This year, soldiers were called in to keep an eye on those throwing waste into Ganga river and to clean up tourist garbage in high altitude areas.
It is true that Mumbai desperately needs new and safer bridges. On September 29, the deadly stampede took place when an unusually large crowd tried to cross the old, narrow bridge connecting two of the busiest stations in Mumbai - the Elphinstone Road and Parel stations. But the job could be done by the Railways too.
“The Army ‘has its role at the borders’ but it was roped in because of the urgency,” claimed Sitharaman. “I wanted to know the Army’s view. We know that the Army rushes to places where there are natural disasters...This is probably for the first time the Army was asked to come in to build what could otherwise be called civil work, but the Elphinstone Road tragedy was so big,” the Defence Minister said, adding that the Army was ‘happy to help’ and contribute to nation building.
Tuesday’s announcement by union minister and state chief minister are an insult to Indian Railways.
The Army is many times called to participate in rescue and relief work in disaster situations. So, during floods in Assam or during some major cyclone in a city like Chennai, if the Army is called for help, it is a perfectly legitimate decision. But asking the Army to do routine construction work only because it has to be done speedily is completely unjustified and wrong.