If you thought the Army’s job was only to defend the country’s borders, think again. They have also been entrusted with the responsibility of boosting local economies in rural areas along the international borders, especially conflict zones.
On a visit to Siachen Glacier, a strategically important base for the Indian Army on the border with Pakistan, in the Nubra Valley, the Commanding Officer (CO) who was showing me around told me ways in which the Army was promoting entrepreneurship in the area. Even though many parts of the region look green, agriculture was just enough to feed the locals but is not a commercially sustainable activity. They even have apple trees bearing fruit, but they lose out to farmers who do not have to transport their produce over such long distances to the paying markets.
The Army lends a hand by buying local produce instead of relying on supplies coming from far. For their transport needs, for which their own vehicles are never sufficient, they hire vehicles from locals. Assured of business from the Army, villagers feel confident about breaking even on their investments within a reasonable amount of time.
Clearly, tourism is the surest way for locals to have a regular source of income. Running their cars as taxis is quite lucrative, and a safe investment knowing the Army will send assured business their ways. The SUVs can earn them Rs. 2,000 (US$ 45) a day – a handsome sum in these parts even if they get business only 4-5 months a year. The locals are also being trained to start home stays for tourists, and this includes helping them build amenities like modern toilets, teaching them housekeeping skills and telling them how to prepare and serve decent meals. While there were no signs yet of quality home stays, it may just be a matter of time before the offerings move up the value curve. The backpackers are happy though, with access to cheap but basic home stays.
Not all efforts pay off though according to the CO. For example, he showed me a greenhouse near the hotel I was staying at: the Army had built it for growing plants under controlled conditions, but no one seemed interested in using it.
For the Army, such development and relationship building also means they can count on the support of the locals especially when India and its neighbours engage in battle – and these can be triggered off at the slightest provocation lasting from a few minutes to many months. To use a political cliché, winning the hearts and minds of the local population may be as important to winning wars and training and equipment.