Nirmala Sitharaman asks Indian Army to build Elphinstone Road FOB: Not first time armed forces roped in for civil work

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Tuesday asked the Indian Army to build a foot-over bridge at Mumbai’s Elphistone Road railway station, where a stampede had occurred on 29 September, killing 23 people. The army will also build more FoBs at two other suburban railway stations, at Ambivali and Currey Road.

Making the announcement on Tuesday, Sitharaman said, “This is probably the first time we have asked the army to come in to build what could otherwise be called a civil work, but the Elphinstone Road tragedy was so big.”

The bridge at Elphinstone Road which was damaged on 29 September. PTI

The bridge at Elphinstone Road which was damaged on 29 September. PTI

Sitharaman had perhaps forgotten that barely a month ago, she had asked the army to clean up junk and debris being left behind by tourists at high-altitude mountains. Speaking in September at the Kasauli Cantonment, one of the oldest in the country, Sitharaman had said the army would also take initiatives to recycle and segregate waste in all the cantonments.

“One of the objectives of the army is to take care of civic roads, which are also within the domain of the cantonment boards, so that we ensure not just open defecation-free status, but also make sure that segregation of waste takes place at homes and the segregated collection goes to the recycling centres,” she had said.

She soon faced a backlash on social media and from the Opposition parties, all of whom pointed out that the army’s job is not to engage in civil work in the towns and cities of India. Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge said, “Army is being used to maintain peace at the Indian borders. But if it’s used in the civil work, then all departments and states will ask for its help in all kinds of small construction work.”

In its defence, the government said having the army build the FOB would help save time, since they can do away with lengthy tender processes. Furthermore, the army, as also the BRO and GREF has an effective track record of developing infrastructure. Also, responding to claims that the armed forces have never before been called upon to do civilian work, the Indian Railways cited other instances from the past when it has done so.

Past instances of army performing civil work

In times of natural disasters and tragedies, the army is often called upon to perform rescue and rehabilitation work. In addition to these, they said, it also distributes relief material and food, and assists with the repair of damaged infrastructure.

In August this year, for instance, the army helped rebuild a railway bridge which was damaged by torrential rainfall in Bihar.

A few months earlier, in February this year, the army was asked to help the Public Works Department (PWD) in Thiruvananthapuram to construct a portable bailey bridge at Enathu, where “cracks were detected”.

The army had then constructed a temporary “bailey bridge” within one month. A bailey bridge is a pre-fabricated bridge developed by the British military during World War II. Today, it can be used extensively to allow the movement of cars, auto-rickshaws and two-wheelers. Buses will have to take the existing alternative route.

In 2010, when India was hosting its first ever Commonwealth Games, a bridge collapse in the games village in New Delhi threatened to become an embarrassment for the country, and the army had to step in and rebuild the structure at a war footing to ensure it was complete in time for the Games.

A foot-over bridge had collapsed near the main CWG stadium just a week before the opening ceremony, injuring 27 people. With time running out, the army was called in. And in just four days, the new bridge came up and the Games could go on.

Sitharaman and the Indian Railways will hope the army is again able to manufacture the Elphinstone Road bridge in the three-month deadline set for it.

With inputs from agencies

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