Dissolving 62 Cantonment Boards: A Critical Analysis

"The Indian Armed Forces are still growing and still to grow a lot. Therefore, the land assets presently held remain vital to the Armed Forces' future developments, to state the least" Opines Lt  Col PJ Chacko

Dissolving 62 Cantonment Boards: A Critical Analysis

The brick has been dropped! The larger question is whether it is  a self-inflicted wound? Given by the utterances by the previous CDS on the subject, it appears that it certainly is. The armed forces have since recent past leaned forward to chop their own feet, in order to appease the powers that be, sacrificing their own service interests.

Bartering defence land to fulfill the desire to garner financial resources has never been a wisdom filled step, especially in a country which is young ( 75 years in a nation's history is insignificant) with her armed forces still at an embryonic stage. The Indian Armed forces are still growing and  still to grow a lot. Therefore, the land assets presently held remain vital to the armed forces' future developments, to state the least.

The Defence Ministry has now directed to dissolve the 62 Cantonment Boards( CBs)  as they exist now, with the civil areas under these being merged with the Municipal Bodies that exists in the respective towns and cities.

Before analysing the present directions from the government and their implications on all the stake holders, it is essential to know, why the Cantonments (Cantt) were instituted in the first place and also why and how they remained in existence for seven odd decades since independence. Let us be clear that there were/ are no colonial  hangovers, a syndrome which is in vogue in present times and is freely employed to justify the actions to promote the narrow and dubious vision.  Both during the pre-independence period and thereafter, the Security (both physical as well as of information) of the troops and their defence assets was the guiding parameter to house the troops in protected cocoons away from the civilian areas. The connotations of Security, may have transformed a little from the earlier days, but the Internal Security aspect still hangs large.  Merging the civil areas of the Cantonment with that of the municipal bodies may at face value appear prudent and justifiable for many reasons but can the armed forces afford the denudation of the security aspect?  Merging the cantonment civil area with area governed by the municipal authorities, surely it will lead to jeopardization of the that essential aspect- security.

The administration of the Cantt were found to be sailing smoothly. With each of them being self- sustaining bodies generating their own revenues. However, with the introduction of GST, the functioning of CBs witnessed a lot of strain. More so, the failure of the concerned ministry to disburse the legitimate funds to the Cantt directly, all but compounded the problem. The choking of resources led to the irregularity in the maintenance of the CBs various infrastructures especially the roads. Who could be apportioned the blame for these gross lacunae, is easy to guess.

The Municipal bodies at present have large area under them. Many of them, across the country, find it extremely difficult to maintain the areas already under them in the desired manner. The chaotic and utterly degradable municipal area are an example of how not to maintain the jurisdictional limits. Many of them are incubators of various diseases. Will not the health of troops  be at peril should the civil areas of the Cantt or the military stations get merged with that of the municipal bodies ? It becomes clear that the notion to push the cantonment civil areas under or merge them with the municipal corporation, was not a well thought out comprehensive plan. Moreover ,if the source of revenue ( Property  and other taxes ) for the Cantt boards are snatched away it would in all probability make the existence of the cantonments extremely trying and likely to sound the death knell for the Cantt, which may be the ultimate aim?

The civil population residing especially in leased bungalows environment for many generations would suddenly be put to avoidable inconvenience and discomfort.  The land on which these residences stand, were acquired by the Army/ Defence forces prior to Independence, with the understanding that houses when built  by the lesee would be hired by the services to accommodate the serving soldiers. This arrangement evolves a complex situation, as regards the ownership of the houses as well as the title of the property, when the civic body registers such properties, for its own allied reasons. Hence, it could be imagined that the present residents and their heirs could be drawn into never ending litigations. The same could be said of the many commercial properties lying within the precincts of the cantonments.

Many cantts  have extensive land assets under them, it would be seen that the cantts by virtue of their well- planned developments have become a source of attraction for many. In many of the cantonments across the country the value of the land lying within the cantonment limits has risen astronomically. Turning over these high value assets to the municipal authorities will make it extremely easy for the high and mighty and also those with political connections to extend their greed, leading to avoidable haphazard development in close vicinity to the remaining military assets. A judicious assessment prompts that such a move should not be consented to, at all.

The nature of cantts at different places vary. 'One size fits for all' may not hold water when the size, composition and locations are taken into consideration for implementing the direction/s from the MoD. 'Stand Alone' Cantt Nasirabad (Rajasthan) is far from the nearest Municipal corporation located at Ajmer, similarly is the case with Delhi Cantt or for that matter Pune Cantt where the civil areas under it, if and when handed over may find large chunks of military area with vital military installations interspersed within that. Similar may be the story with many cantonments elsewhere in the country. In all honesty it must be stated that doubts elicit, whether such aspects were duly considered?

The rationale behind initiating such an exercise also needs to be debated at length. Has the country come to such a dire financial crunch that the vital military cantts need to be abolished or for that matter military land assets are battered to find funds in order to modernise the armed forces. What happens when modern weapon systems reach and demand new locations to house them. How much exchequer would be saved by demobilizing 62 CBs and the staff. Will it not  add to the huge unemployment figures gnawing the country presently? Ideally it would have been wise to prune the Cantt for the unwanted fat wherever that exists, but maintain the sanctity of the Cantt by not bringing civil municipal bodies closer to the cantt than where they are existing now. It is a known fact that ' Cantts  are the lungs' of the city in which the cantonments are located.

The moot point remains- why such a direction now? It would be prudent to recall the opening of certain roads in the cantts, done exactly five years ago (2018), at a time when the previous general election was in the offing. It may be a  similar kind of ruse to garner votes for the ruling dispensation, this time too!  It is essential to ponder who benefitted from the opening of the roads then? Did the country gain anything meaningful ? Did the Cantt benefit or people benefitted ?  It is not a rocket science to search who benefitted.

Agreeing to abide by the directions issued, the Armed forces may pay a heavy price - The Clean and Serene surroundings that the Cantts provide may be lost forever. The  provision of clean and healthy environment at locations, where the Defence establishments  are situated and also at places where troops reside is not a habit or hobby adopted during the pre-independence days only but even now it is an essential requirement.

About The Author

Lt Col PJ Chacko was commissioned into the Army Air Defence in June 1971 and saw action in both the Eastern and Western fronts during the 1971 war. He has served in all operational Army Commands with a tenure at Siachen glacier. He is an avid reader with interest in International Relations and J&K. As DQ (Lands) HQ Southern Command, he dealt with issues related to defence land and aware of historical facts, rules and regulations governing them, including the Cantonment Act and security related civil-military issues.

(Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India)

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