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Climate Diplomacy and India’s Ecological Task Force

The Indian military could be an instrumental player and leading force in India’s climate change strategy on domestic and international fronts. Dhanasree Jayaram analyses its traditional functions and newfound responsibilities towards the environment. The example of the Ecological Task Force, the world’s first ecological battalion, shows how the military could be involved in successful climate action.

The role of the Indian armed forces in environmental security activities is not as well-documented as is quite common in the Western democracies these days with dedicated websites and doctrinal references. There are many reasons for the lack of visibility of their role, including civil-military relations (despite the absence of any discernible attempts of the armed forces to stage a coup unlike neighbouring countries in South Asia like Pakistan and Bangladesh) and organizational inertia within the military among others. However, with increasing signs of the impact of climate change on the Indian military, coupled with growing clout of India in global climate governance, the Indian military could be an instrumental player and leading force in India’s climate change policy and strategy on domestic and international fronts. 

One of the earliest proponents of the Indian military’s environmental diplomacy was Major General Eustace D’Souza (an Indian Army officer), who through his work, “Swords into Ploughshares”, took the exemplary story of the Ecological Task Force (ETF), a Territorial Army (TA) unit – the world’s first ecological battalion – to the global audience. His statement – “Swords can be turned into ploughshares and rifles to rakes, without blunting the cutting edge of the sword” – puts across the message of how the military is capable of balancing between its traditional function of war-fighting and newfound (rather relatively more recent) responsibilities towards the environment.

Now that the 2015 Paris Agreement is not sufficiently clear about exemption for the militaries to report their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the pressure on militaries to report their emissions as well as take steps to reduce them as a part of the country’s overall nationally determined contributions (NDCs), could increase. The US military, for instance, is considered the “world’s biggest institutional consumer of crude oil” but this cannot be confirmed as it has been exempt from reporting emissions so far. Similarly, in other countries as well, including in India, the military is regarded as one of the biggest consumers of energy. After the Indian Railways, the Indian armed forces are known to be the (second) highest landholder as well. What this implies is that it is high time that militaries across the world bolster its environmental stewardship agenda in order to help achieve the climate goals set by the international community.

Although the first signs of military’s interest in climate change, more specifically climate security, emerged in the West (mainly in the US), it cannot be discounted that the Indian military has been active in ecological restoration, biodiversity protection and conservation much before. In fact, the ETFs, raised by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and financed by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF & CC) and/or State Governments, have planted a total of more than 65 million trees in various parts of the country since the setting up of the first ETF unit in 1982. The afforestation has been targeted at reclamation of degraded lands but one must not forget that the same initiative has contributed significantly to climate change mitigation through creation of carbon sinks.

The Indian Government has committed to “create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.” The ETF can certainly supplement these efforts by continuing its afforestation and reforestation drive in the areas they are deployed. The ETFs have already been credited with many successes across the country. Alarmed by the degree of deforestation on the Shivalik hills in Mussoorie (Uttarakhand), the 127th Infantry Battalion (Inf Bn) was set up in Dehradun in 1982. It managed to reclaim a mining area of nearly 2,500 hectares through massive afforestation and rigorous watershed management, in addition to constructing soil conservation structures. The ETF 127 has had to tackle not only recurring landslides and difficult 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, restored those parts of Mussoorie that had seen very negligible amount of vegetation. Subsequently the 128th Battalion was deployed in the Thar desert of Rajasthan (in 1983), where their efforts led to sand dune stabilisation. Here too, the main reason behind using the services of the ETFs was the region’s demanding terrain, which entailed enormous efforts to prolong and sustain the survival rate of the saplings. The armed forces are accustomed to harsh and vulnerable terrain – mountains, deserts, rivers, jungles and so on – by virtue of their training. Their successes in Mussoorie and Jaisalmer prompted the Central and many State Governments to extend their presence in other ecologically degrading/degraded parts of the country like Jammu and Kashmir, Pithoragarh (Uttarakhand), Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Assam etc.

Gradually, the ETFs also began to engage with civilians for environmental awareness campaigns and the promotion of tourism. The original plan had been to withdraw the ecological battalions once the assigned task was fulfilled (in three to five years) but until now all of them have been redeployed to sustain the effects of the accomplishments of the ETFs in those regions and in most cases, more land has been allocated and more battalions have been added.

Without second thoughts, this success highlights the Indian military’s contributions to climate change mitigation, which other militaries can emulate; this specific example brings to light the efficacy of the afforested area in carbon sequestration and storage, which India could use as selling point at the global level. It also emphasises how the armed forces could aid advancement of India’s climate goals, especially through the National Mission for a Green India – one among the eight missions under the country’s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC). On an issue such as climate change, all entities including the military need to be taken into account and the achievements of the ETFs (and even the Regular Army) constitute just one of several ways in which the militaries could be made stakeholders in global climate governance.


For more the Ecological Task Force (ETF), please read the author’s chapter – “Environmental Security, Land Restoration, and the Military: A Case Study of the Ecological task Forces in India” – in the book, Land Restoration: Reclaiming Landscapes for a Sustainable Future.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.

Dhanasree Jayaram is Project Associate, Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University, Karnataka, India.