'These combat engineer units are used in war for building bridges for advancing troops.'
'Instead of training by building bridges over the Mula and Mutha rivers in Pune, they will practice by building bridges in Mumbai,' Indian Army chief General Bipin Rawat tells Ajai Shukla.
Army chief General Bipin Rawat says he has directed the army to build three railway bridges in Mumbai to boost the army's image as an organisation that stands ready to assist the public at times of distress.
"We often hold camps in various towns and cities on the theme of 'Know Your Army'. I would prefer that our citizens get to know their army by seeing us come to their assistance with the efficiency and capability we are known for," Rawat told this correspondent.
The army chief was answering criticism from various quarters, including from Opposition parties and retired army veterans, about the army being employed on civil engineering tasks that were responsibilities of the railways.
Critics averred the army should be training for war, not making up for the inefficiency of civil agencies.
Among three pedestrian overbridges the army has undertaken to complete by January is one that was damaged in a deadly stampede that killed 23 people at Elphinstone Road station on September 29.
The army chief says the army engineering units that will build the overbridges are not being diverted from training.
"These combat engineer units are used in war for building bridges for advancing troops. Instead of training by building bridges over the Mula and Mutha rivers in Pune, they will practice by building bridges in Mumbai. It takes the same skills in either case."
The army chief argued that publicly demonstrating army capabilities would help in resettling soldiers after they retire.
"If we want our offices and jawans who retire young to pick up jobs outside, what better way than to persuade the railways to raise one or two battalions of ex-servicemen to build bridges? Lateral absorption in organisations like the railways will happen if we demonstrate our discipline, capability and adherence to time deadlines," he said.
"I have stopped the expensive advertising campaigns we were running, urging the youth to join the army. We don't really need to advertise. We should create awareness of the army by public assistance," General Rawat said.
He pointed out that the army was the first responder in almost every natural disaster, and whenever the civil administration needed help.
In February, the army built a Bailey bridge in Enathu, Kerala, to assist the civil administration.
In August, after devastating floods in Bihar, army engineers had built a bridge near Katihar.
On October 30, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that the army was being co-opted to help the Maharashtra government.
"Given the tragedy that took place at Elphinstone Road station," asks General Rawat, "could the army have refused to assist? If I have a capability, I am duty bound to deploy it."
Given the army's frequent deployment in disaster management and relief, the army chief has asked the defence ministry to permit units to procure disaster management equipment with government funds.
Currently, expenditure on such equipment invites audit objections on the grounds that this is not the army's primary job.
"I told the defence minister that we would always remain first responders. Just equip us for the task."