The approvals are a shot in the arm for the Army as it has seen a fall in the numbers of its firing ranges for a variety of reasons.
The Environment ministry’s apex committee on diversion of forest land, the Forest Advisory Committee, has agreed to renew permissions to major firing ranges in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab besides a critical strategic facility in Madhya Pradesh in view of the country’s national security and strategic interests.
The decision was taken at a meeting held on 15 June, top sources told ThePrint.
The bulk of the Indian Army’s firing ranges are on lease, hence controlled by state governments, and need to be renotified every time the lease period ends. As per data shared by the Ministry of Defence in Parliament in August last year, there are 66 Field Firing Ranges (FFRs) in the country, a number that has been coming down over the years.
It has also become difficult to win a renewal of these leases with several state governments eyeing the huge land swathes for more commercial purposes. In other places, environmentalists and activists have protested against firing ranges. In Jammu & Kashmir, the renewal of the lease for the Tosa Maidan range in 2014 was refused and has now been converted into a public place. Similarly in 2008, the Environment ministry withdrew its permission for the Indian Army’s proposal for a firing range in the Lashar valley of Sikkim after environmentalists opposed it.
The two renewals in UP and Punjab, therefore, come as quite a relief to the Army which is also learnt to be relying more on simulators in the absence of sufficient field firing ranges.
The Indian Army’s firing range in Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh involves diversion of 25,885.64 hectares of forest land. Opened in 1987, this range’s lease had expired on 31 December 2015 and has been pending renewal permission since. As the range is located on reserved forest land and an elephant reserve – it falls between the Rajajji National Park in Uttarakhand and the Kalesar National Park in Haryana – the proposal was closely scrutinised before being approved.
The FAC has recommended the proposal with conditions that forbid any firing within 10 km of the Rajaji National Park or on the migratory route of elephants. There will be no firing between sunset and sunrise as well. A scientific study has also been ordered on the firing impact area vis-a-vis the fauna, flora and bio-diversion.
The FAC also cleared the Hoshiarpur field firing range on the Punjab-Himachal Pradesh border. This firing range runs in combination with the Army’s firing range in Una district of Himachal Pradesh. Spread over 50 sq km, the range continued to operate from 1960 to 1996 and then discontinued due to its denotification.
The Army’s request for its renewal was finally approved by the Environment ministry on 6 September, 2005, notifying it as a firing range for the period 2007 to May 2017. Since this period has ended, the Punjab government has recommended its renewal under the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act. The Una range has been notified as a field firing range from 2012 to 2021.
The FAC has also recommended diversion of 598 hectares of forest land to DRDO for establishment of “research and development” purposes in Bhopal district.