Reclaiming our Natural Heritage: What Role can the Ecological Task Force Play?


Large swathes of India’s natural landscape have been lost to developmental and related activities. According to latest figures, since 1980, more than 15,000 square kilometres of forests have been diverted for over 27,000 industrial projects, mainly in mining, defence and hydroelectricity generation. 

Presently, only 21.54 percent of the country’s geographic area is covered by forests, 24.16 percent if tree cover is also accounted for. The Indian Government has a long way to go to bring 33 percent of the country’s geographical area under forest cover, a target which is also tied to its goal of creating additional carbon sink for 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030, as stipulated in its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

In such a scenario, India needs a more concerted and disciplined effort to reclaim our natural heritage by involving all stakeholders, including the Ecological Task Force (ETF) that has been commended for its afforestation/reforestation activities in various parts of the country. 

The Success Stories of the Ecological Task Force

ETF units have existed in India since 1982, yet not many people are aware of their contributions to environmental conservation, protection and preservation.

In the early 1980s, severe environmental degradation in the Himalayas, mainly in the Shivalik Ranges, worried environmentalists in the region. Norman Borlaug, famously known as “the father of the Green Revolution”, was alarmed by the degree of deforestation in the region owing to illegal limestone mining. He urged Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, to involve the armed forces in restoring the ranges due to the urgency and nature of the problem. 

The world’s reportedly first ecological unit of the Territorial Army, the Ecological Task Force (ETF), was thus formed under the Eco-Development Forces (EDF) scheme of the Ministry of Defence. ETFs could “execute specific ecology-related projects with a military-like work culture and commitment,” by enrolling (and thus, rehabilitating) ex-servicemen from the region and training them in environmental activities through the respective State Forest Departments. Currently, nine ETF battalions are operating in Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Assam and Maharashtra, besides a Composite ETF for National Mission for Clean Ganga in Prayagraj, formerly Allahabad. 

ETFs have been credited with many successes across the country. The 127th Infantry Battalion, set up in Dehradun in 1982, reclaimed a mining area of nearly 2,500 hectares through massive afforestation, watershed management, and construction of soil conservation structures. ETF 127 has had to tackle not only recurring landslides and gruelling terrain (sometimes at a height of above 8,000 feet) but also human interventions in the form of grazing, fires, and damage to fencing by the villagers. The “Green Warriors,” as they began to be called, have received many honours and awards including, the Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar (1992), CII Green Award (2007), and the Earth Care Award (2012) for the Badrivan Experimental Plantation of Mana Project among others. 

Similarly, ETF 132 – deployed in Bhatti area, located on the Southern Ridge of the Aravalli Ranges on the Delhi-Haryana border and destroyed by illegal mining – restored more than 6000 hectares of degraded land by planting 1.3 million trees, creating 70 water bodies, bio-fencing area into sub plots and constructing tracks for water tankers. ETF 132 is credited with increasing water tables and rainfall from 12 days in 2005 to 72 days in 2013 as well as re-introducing wildlife and avifauna in the area (including in the adjoining Asola Wildlife Sanctuary). 

In Jaisalmer-Mohangarh, Rajasthan, ETF 128 contributes to sand dune stabilisation and afforestation, thus checking desertification in the region. In Assam, ETF 134 has been working on introducing “seed balls” technology and a participatory model involving locals in the plantation drive to boost afforestation in less amount of time and to ensure that the process is inclusive. This could help mitigate cynicism surrounding the engagement of ‘men in uniform’ in such exercises, a sentiment that exists in states such as Assam.    

What Role can the ETF Play in Securing India’s Environmental Landscape? 

The latest addition of an ETF battalion in the drought-hit region of Marathwada, Maharashtra in 2017 highlights its potential role in preserving India’s natural heritage. One of the main causes for recurring droughts in this region has been loss of green cover, and the Government of Maharashtra felt that the only way it could be enhanced on a war footing would be to involve ETF in this exercise. Beyond Marathwada, several parts of India are currently reeling under a severe water crisis, partly owing to deforestation reducing rainfall and depleting water tables. 

Air pollution is yet another scourge that urban India has been battling without much success. The Asola-Bhatti wildlife sanctuary, in fact, acts as a ‘green lung’ in the periphery of the National Capital Territory (Delhi). ETF units can be deployed alongside other civilian agencies to improve green cover; their experience in dealing with challenging landscapes and severe forms of degradation, a targets-and-timetables approach, and the use of available resources can be utilised to find solutions to air pollution and water crises, besides other environmental problems in the country. 

Moreover, the Paris climate agreement does not clearly exempt the militaries from the commitments laid out in it by various countries (as NDCs). As voracious consumers of energy and thus, major polluters, militaries across the world must bolster their environmental stewardship agenda in order to help achieve the climate goals set by the international community. In India, the afforestation/reforestation programmes carried out by ETFs have contributed significantly to climate change mitigation through the creation of carbon sinks. ETFs emphasise the role of the armed forces in advancing India’s climate goals, especially through the National Mission for a Green India – one among the eight missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change.

A Call for a National Solution that Includes the Military 

By raising ETFs, India has pioneered the deployment of the military for the purpose of ecological conservation and preservation. This successful experiment remains a unique yet underutilised selling point that could be showcased to the rest of the world as a classic case of civil-military cooperation and coordination, and a model that could be emulated in other countries. Even though the environment  is within the domain of civilian governance, the Indian Government and several state governments have been open to deploying ETFs outside military lands, because of the civil administration’s inability to carry out demanding environmental tasks in ecologically challenging terrain by itself. One of the biggest challenges has been the lack of finances to raise and maintain the ETFs, which needs to be overcome through creation of enabling policies – institutionalisation and/or mainstreaming of their role in environmental issues – that promote such initiatives.

India, a massive country with a large amount of resources and with the second largest population in the world, has tended to tread the path of irreversible land degradation. To prevent this, every segment of the population including the military, which is also one of the largest landholders in the country, needs to be a part of the solution. As Major General Eustace D’Souza, a former Indian Army officer stated in his work recognising the efforts of ETFs, Swords into Ploughshares, “Swords can be turned into ploughshares and rifles to rakes, without blunting the cutting edge of the sword.”

Dr Dhanasree Jayaram

Dr Dhanasree Jayaram is Co-Coordinator at the Centre for Climate Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.


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