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The potential of the military in environmental protection: India

E. D'Souza

Eustace D'Souza is a retired major-general of the Indian Army. He is an adviser to Earth Ethics Inc., Seminole, Florida, USA; a consultant with the Centre for International Peacebuilding, London; a member of the International Association of Retired Generals and Admirals, London; and a member of the Bombay Natural History Society. He is also a former Secretary-General of the World Wide Fund For Nature-India, a former regional councillor for East Asia and a former member of the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi.

In almost all parts of the world today, the military are a recognizable force politically, socially and, to some extent, economically. It is not generally realized, however, that the military have a positive role to play in protecting and restoring our degraded environment. On the contrary, there are many who feel that they are only capable of wanton destruction of wildlife and nature. This is not so, as this article will demonstrate. Indeed, the military have a unique non-violent and productive role to play in protecting the environment, creating security and social patterns founded on cooperation and not on confrontation.

Traditionally, the role of the military is to defend the integrity of the country's international borders from external aggression and to ensure internal peace. After the Second World War, two more dimensions were added: international peacekeeping and disaster relief. But it is an accepted fact that today the greatest threat to our blue planet is galloping environmental degradation resulting, inter alia, from the greenhouse effect, the piercing of the ozone layer, deforestation, pollution of water and land resources, acid rain and rampant consumerism. In fact, violent conflicts often stem from environmental conditions under which the more deprived people are condemned to live.

This article, based on the observations and experiences of the author during 35 years of military service and 19 years of continuing involvement thereafter, suggests how "swords can be turned into ploughshares and rifles to rakes, without blunting the cutting edge of the sword". The article asserts that a fifth dimension should now be introduced to the military's role, that of environmental protection and restoration. This assertion is coherent with a recommendation made by the International Association of Retired Generals and Admirals to the Secretary-General of the United Nations at the association's April 1993 meeting in London.


The military are eminently suited for the important and productive task of protecting the endangered environment and ensuring its regeneration where necessary. The military the world over are well placed to undertake this new role but the Indian military have a number of advantages in this regard:


Prior to the Second World War the Indian Army encouraged shikar (game shooting) by infantry personnel as a way to develop stalking and shooting skills, although this activity was controlled by game laws. During the war, however, service weapons and ammunition were readily available and wildlife protection rules could not be strictly enforced. This led to large-scale illegal hunting. Moreover, the felling of trees for defence works and the construction of new railway lines took their toll on India's forest wealth. After the end of the war, this destruction of wildlife and habitat by the military continued for some years, especially in central India.

When Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru became Prime Minister in 1947, his love for wildlife and nature caused the brakes to be applied, albeit gently, to illegal hunting and cutting of trees. But the transition was slow. When Indira Gandhi became prime minister in 1966, the brakes were applied with force. The Indian Wildlife Act was introduced and applied strenuously. An army colonel faced a court martial for shooting a barking deer in the forests of central India.

It was during this period that the military became increasingly conscious of their role in wildlife protection. General P.P. Kumaramangalam, on retirement as army chief, was elected President of the World Wildlife Fund-India (WWF-India) during its formative stages, and numerous other officers, both while in service and after retirement, took leading roles in wildlife and environmental protection.

The author itself, after retirement, served as Secretary-General of WWF-India for several years in the early 1980s. Because of his ongoing association with the army from 1942, he decided to use this connection to create increasing environmental awareness in the force. But the size of the army being what it is, he felt that it would be too large a task to make the initial thrust on an all-India basis. He therefore decided to address himself to the cadets of the National Defence Academy in Pune, at the formative stage, as well as to the middle-level officers at the prestigious Defence Services Staff College in Wellington (Nilgiris), South India, all of whom are potential decision-makers.

At the National Defence Academy, awareness-creating programmes were introduced through audiovisual presentations, talks and films. Cadets were encouraged to participate in WWF-India's Nature Club Camps during their mid-term breaks. Permission was granted for WWF-India, and later the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), to conduct a ten-day holiday leadership camp for aspiring nature club leaders from all over the country. Another innovation was to make "Operation Greenhorn" (a long march to test endurance) much more interesting by guiding cadets on how to appreciate nature.

Thanks to a succession of five conservation-oriented commandants of the Defence Services Staff College, every course of Officer Students (400 to 500 participants including 30 to 40 foreign officers and their families) is exposed to a two-hour presentation (by the author) on conservation and wildlife. After the 1994 presentation, a Thai Air Force Officer requested more information on the role of the military for the Thai Armed Forces.

Similar presentations have been made by the author at the College of Combat, the Infantry School and the Military College of Telecom Engineering in Mhow, central India; the School of Artillery, Deolali; the Armoured Corps Centre and School and the Mechanized Infantry Centre, Ahmednagar; and army units and formations in several locations throughout the country.


As a result of the awareness-raising and of the untiring commitment of an increasing number of dynamic military leaders, over time many successful projects have been introduced. The examples presented in the following paragraphs, all observed by the author, provide clear evidence of the military's potential in environmental conservation and protection.

Central command level

Army headquarters, under the direction of General B.C. Joshi, has organized an 18-month programme in the Greater Himalayas which will end in October 1995. It is a multidimensional, multinational programme which encompasses adventure and ecology through such sports as hang-gliding, white-water rafting, hot-air ballooning and trekking on foot and with animal transport. Participants in every event are required to report on the status of endangered species, deforestation, pollution and environmental degradation. The response has been enthusiastic.

The Army Environmental Cell organizes an annual three-day Army Environmental Meeting, attended by representatives from all five Army Commands, the Navy and Air Force, the Territorial Army, the Border Roads and the Environmental Ministry of the Government of India, as well as suitable resource persons from the BNHS, WWF-India and other non-governmental environmental organizations. The meeting reviews the progress made, the problems faced and the measures to be adopted.

Northern Army Command organized a workshop in the Dachigam Nature Reserve, home of the Himalayan black and brown bear and the Kashmir stag (hangul). The State Forest Department has appointed army officers as honorary wildlife wardens.

Central Command has conducted workshops in Lucknow, at the world-renowned bird sanctuary at Keoldeo Ghana and the Shivpuri Nature Reserve. Tree planting on a major scale has been undertaken in hilly areas and near the wildlife sanctuary of Sariska.

Eastern Army Command has conducted two workshops, one in the Buxar Tiger Reserve with the assistance of WWF-India's West Bengal Branch and one in Siliguri at the foothills of the Sikkim Himalayas. It has undertaken a massive reforestation programme in Siliguri and on the mountain slopes of Sikkim to prevent soil erosion and landslides. Recently, it conducted a nature camp for children in the Lachen/Lachung Valleys of northern Sikkim. It has instructed local artillery units to suspend firing on the ranges in the Torsa River area when the annual elephant migration takes place, to ensure a safe passage for these feral herds.

Southern Command has conducted workshops at the National Defence Academy. It has undertaken the greening of the large depot in Pulgaon and has introduced measures to attract and protect wildlife. Twinning arrangements have been undertaken between army units and small villages in the Thar Desert to demonstrate the importance of water and fodder management, the proper use of village grazing grounds and the benefits of solar energy. Major instalments in the Command such as the College of Military Energy outside Pune and the Madras Engineering Group at Bangalore are being encouraged to green their large areas.

Eco territorial army battalions

Realizing the vast trained and disciplined human resource in personnel who have retired at a fairly young age, the government, in consultation with the Ministries of Defence and the Environment, has begun to utilize this resource by raising Eco Territorial Army Battalions for exclusive use in environmental protection. The three existing units are deployed to prevent desertification in the degraded areas of the Himalayan foothills; between Dehra Dun and Mussoorie in the Siwalik hills; in the hills in the extreme northwest; and along the Ganga canal in Rajasthan. They have been eminently successful in the construction of bunds and check dams; the prevention of soil erosion; the use of alternate means of renewable energy, including solar cookers and gobar (cow dung) gas plants; security; the introduction of anti-pollution measures, especially for water; creating environmental awareness among local people; and tree planting on a massive scale (over ten million trees in the past decade).

There is a proposal to raise one Eco Territorial Army Battalion in each state of the Union. The recruits would be selected exclusively from ex service personnel of that state so that they would have a vested interest in their activities. The question is who will meet the budgetary requirements (the three existing units are funded by the Ministry of the Environment); the thinking is, the state concerned.

Divisional level

The Abhera Arboriculture Project in Kotah

Kotah, the site of the headquarters of an infantry division

Kotah, the site of the headquarters of an infantry division, is a fast-growing industrial town and rail junction situated in the southeastern fringes of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. It is an arid area washed by the waters of the impounded, high-banked Chambal River. The 325 ha allotted to the division as a training area were devoid of forest cover, making training during the searingly hot summers a major problem.

The commanding officer decided to launch the Abhera Arboriculture Project using his own troops for the purpose. The first step was to ensure security from humans and cattle. The engineers, as part of their training, erected a barbed wire perimeter fence but, since cattle could force their way through, infantry pioneers constructed a 2 m stone wall outside the fence using locally available stone. Seedlings of indigenous species were obtained from the State Forest Department. One corner of prime land was allotted to a local non-governmental organization (NGO) for the propagation of gene species of important indigenous plants. The only entrance into the area was placed under constant surveillance. In the first phase, 10 000 trees were planted.

Although the Chambal River flowed alongside the project area, water needed to be pumped up to a water tank from where it could be gravity-fed to the young saplings. Where water channels could not reach, plants were watered manually by the standing guard. Thanks to the regular watering, the survival rate was 90 percent. The major damage was by porcupines which fed on the tender saplings. This problem was overcome by thorn fencing obtained from a local acacia.

In a subsequent phase, 10 000 more trees were planted during the following monsoon. When the author visited the site recently, he noted that wildlife was now returning to its original habitat. Grasses had begun growing and the villagers were permitted for a fee to cut them for cattle fodder, the funds earned being reploughed into the project.

Four nature trails of 1 to 2 km each were also constructed within the cantonment; two along the high banks of the Chambal and two in the estate of the former ruler of Kotah. A unit was designated to oversee each project and to signpost and maintain the trail allotted to it. The aim was to create awareness among troops and their families and local people and to learn about the species of flora and fauna found in Kotah.

The next step taken was to introduce alternative renewable sources of energy, mainly through solar cookers. As a start, all bakery products for the station were cooked in solar ovens. Families were encouraged to use solar cookers during the nine months of sunshine and 80 of these were marketed at concessional rates through the divisional canteen.

In view of the large number of children in the cantonment, the Kingfisher Nature Club was inaugurated and a room in the officers' enclave given for its activities. The children raised their own funds through the sale of WWF-India and BNHS greetings cards and other products. With three important parks within convenient reach of the division (Ranthambore Project Tiger Sanctuary, Tal Chappar Black Buck Reserve and Keoldeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary), the division organized nature camps using trained resource persons from WWF and BNHS. So successful was this effort that the BBC Overseas Service recorded and broadcast a special programme.

Micro level

Regreening Bhuj

An independent brigade is located in Bhuj, a desert town in the Gulf of Kutch. The area is arid and the main species of tree is Acacia niloteca. The open areas of the cantonment were devoid of tree cover and the brigade commander decided to green them. Before doing so, he organized a seminar and workshop for his formation with resource persons from BNHS and local NGOs. Among those invited to make presentations were a member of the former ruling family, an ornithologist and the author of this article.

The environmental challenges of the area were discussed in great depth, including the perennial problems of water scarcity and cattle migration to other states when the monsoons fail and the need for protection of the flamingo, which nests in the Rann of Kutch, as well as a number of other bird species and the Indian wild ass.

Military assist in reforestation at Kutch in Gujarat

After the workshop, a wasteland within the cantonment was prepared for planting 10 000 trees of varieties native to Bhuj. Sectors were allotted to each unit in the brigade under the overall supervision of the Engineer Company of the Madras Sappers and Miners. The Forest Department responded by setting up a nursery within the camp. Provision was made for watering the saplings and security was also ensured without coming into conflict with the local population. Army patrols have been instructed to report on the sighting of endangered species and to prevent the intrusion of enthusiastic visitors to the nesting grounds of the large number of flamingos. Arrangements to carry fodder from the famous Bani grasslands in empty returning transport to prevent mass migration of cattle are under way and measures are being examined for better storage of rain water during the monsoon.


The 109 Infantry Battalion Territorial Army is located in the town of Kolhapur on National Highway 4 between Bombay and Bangalore. Both the commanding officer and his deputy were bitten by the greening bug. The small cantonment just outside the town consists of rolling downs which, for the most part, are devoid of tree cover. The two officers decided to green the camp using unit labour and on a no-cost basis. Only donations in kind would be accepted.

The Forest Department agreed to provide saplings free of cost. The contour bunding technique was adopted. The initial attempt using troops proved to be slow and initially met with some resistance, but an industrialist was persuaded to lend a tractor and another provided diesel fuel. A tractor driver was located within the unit and the tempo of work increased.

To provide a steady supply of water to the young saplings, a number of small check dams were constructed. A tank was excavated on the highest hill using the tractor. A well-wisher lent a 7.5 hp pump. The Mayor of Kolhapur visited the project and was so impressed that he ordered a borehole to be dug in the record time of a few days.

In the first monsoon, over 300 000 trees were planted and windbreaks of casuarina and ashoka were planted along the road bisecting the camp. Noting the increase in requirements for saplings, the Forest Department delegated one of their botanists to oversee the establishment of a nursery. A water source was located and a supply of Australian acacia seeds was obtained from which, through careful nursing, saplings were grown.

An additional 300 000 trees were planted during each of the next three monsoon seasons. Wildlife has returned and one hillside has been allotted to the local National Cadet Corps Unit for conversion into a 2 km nature trail. The project now has the support of all local schools and has been taken over by the Territorial Army Battalion.


The United Kingdom has recorded progress by jointly managing with local organizations Ministry of Defence lands. The United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence has a Defence Environmental Cell to coordinate these activities and its army produces the periodical Sanctuary, which records the environmental activities in the British Army in the United Kingdom and overseas.

One of the important roles of the Venezuelan National Guards is the protection of Venezuela's rich natural resources. The Brazilian military have replicated a piece of the Amazon jungle complete with live specimens of Amazonian wildlife at the jungle warfare training school in Manaus.

The United States military permit scientists to carry out scientific environmental studies on the vast defence lands. It has also set up an Environmental Cell in the Pentagon. The Austrian Army has addressed itself to cleaning the Danube River and recycling vehicle batteries. The Bulgarian Army has created a soldiers' forest where each soldier plants two trees during his two years of national service.

The Nepalese Army monitors pollution in the Greater Himalayas and helps protect wildlife. The Vietnamese Army painstakingly hand-plants trees in the areas degraded by Agent Orange during the Viet Nam war.

Beyond these individual examples, some 26 countries have pledged their support to a University of Hawaii project to document the use of the military for environmental protection while the Centre for International Peacebuilding and the International Association of Retired Generals and Admirals are compiling a database on this subject.


From the foregoing it is obvious that the military do have an important role to play in protecting the earth and its natural resources. They are geared to do so by virtue of their organizational structure, training, leadership, motivation, technical skills, mobility and intercommunications. This potential is exemplified by the work of the Indian military in such fields as forestation, the use of renewable sources of energy, anti-pollution measures, population control and creating awareness and economy in the use of resources, especially energy and water. All these nation-building and productive activities by the military are possible in the changed world scenario. If it is possible to collate and disseminate information on the tasks that the military the world over are doing in this field, the results will be magnified. And to those cynics who consider such activities outside the scope of the military, if proof is needed at all, the Indian military have been able to achieve these results notwithstanding their manifold commitments and without blunting the cutting edge of the sword.

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