TRIGGERING A political firestorm over using defence personnel to upgrade civic amenities, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said Tuesday that the Army will construct foot overbridges at three suburban railway stations in Mumbai, including at Elphinstone Road where 23 people were killed in a stampede last month.
Fadnavis’s announcement, made after visiting the Elphinstone Road station with Railway Minister Piyush Goyal and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, drew sharp criticism from Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah, who attacked the government for using the Army to cover up for its alleged failures. Senior officials in the defence establishment and Railways, too, expressed surprise at the decision.
The Army is expected to complete the construction of three foot overbridges at Elphinstone Road, Currey Road and Ambivali stations by January 31, 2018, said Fadnavis. “We have sought the help of the Army in building an additional bridge near Elphinstone
Road station on the Western Railway. The Army will also make additional bridges at stations, including Ambivali and Currey Road, on the Central Railway in Mumbai in the same period,” he said.
Defence Minister Sitharaman said, “The Army has always been steadfast in provision of aid for disaster relief issues. This is the first time when we are calling the Army to help us in what essentially could be called civil work in the financial capital… As the Elphinstone Road tragedy was so big and considering their strong operational expertise in roads and bridges construction in a short span of time, it was decided to take the help of the Army.”
Railway Minister Goyal said, “After a discussion with BJP Mumbai president Ashish Shelar on October 6, we realised that there was an urgent need to develop passenger amenities at certain railway stations at the earliest. We have decided to utilise military precision to work on completing the work of bridges.”
Goyal added that work on constructing 40 additional foot overbridges in the city, as suggested by a suburban audit, will be undertaken by the Railways.
Senior Railways officials in Mumbai said the decision to use the Army was taken at the ministerial level. “It was a cumulative decision taken by the Railway Board and the state government. We were not involved in the decision making process of roping in the Army,” said Mukul Jain, Divisional Railway Manager, Western Railway.
“The Army will construct the bridges and send the bill to the Railways after the work is over. We will be signing a memorandum of understanding with them in the days to come. They will utilise a special technology in making the bridge,” said Ravinder Bhaker, chief public relations officer, Western Railway.
Brigadier Dhiraj Mohan, Commandant of the Bombay Engineer Group and Centre in Pune, conducted a presentation for Sitharaman in Mumbai and said that the Army was looking at a time frame of three to four months to complete the bridge. He said that heavy train traffic, the number of tracks and poor soil quality would be potential challenges.
Amarinder Singh, meanwhile, described the decision to involve the Army as “deplorable and an admission of the failure of the government and the Railways”.
“The Army’s job is to train for war and protect the country’s borders, not to build bridges and clean the roads,” he said, while warning against “the serious implications of such misuse of the Indian Armed Forces”.
According to Amarinder, the Defence Minister “was making the same mistake that Major General BM Kaul, GOC of “Red Eagles” 4 Division, had made before 1962 War with China. The scandalous misuse, by him, of military manpower to build accommodation cost the Indian Army heavy during the Sino-Indian War”.
Former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah said that “the Army was to be a measure of last resort to be called upon in extreme emergency. Now it seems like it is the first number on speed dial.”
The decision also appears to have hit a raw nerve in the Railways establishment.
“Railway engineers are more capable to build their own bridges. In the past, there have been instances where Railways engineers have constructed bridges that the Army failed to construct,” claimed Shiv Gopal Mishra, head of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation, the largest Railways union.
Railways sources pointed out that three months would have been more than enough for building those bridges with in-house capabilities. “Railway workshops are much better equipped than Army workshops. And, the Railways engineering cadre is known to act fast in emergencies,” said A P Mishra, former Railway Board Member (Engineering).
Army Engineers have been involved in construction of bridges to help civilian authorities earlier, too. In March 2016, they constructed a pontoon bridge at the Yamuna floodplains in Delhi for an event organised by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living foundation.
In 2010, when a footbridge in Delhi collapsed days before the Commonwealth Games, Army engineers constructed a replacement.
They are also involved in constructing bridges during the Kumbh melas, apart from undertaking similar work to restore road communications in areas devastated by floods, earthquake and other natural calamities.
In the case of Mumbai, however, a defence official suggested that the Army need not have been called in.
“In almost all cases so far, where the Army has been used to make bridges in civilian areas, it was either because these were far-flung and inaccessible areas or the bridges were temporary in nature, as at the Kumbh. And these were emergency situations where relief is needed in days, not weeks. This case is different, largely because it is in Mumbai and the Railways has the resources, the engineering capability and the wherewithal to make a permanent bridge,” said the official.