Sanctity, Security and Safety of Military Cantonments

The Defence Ministry directive to the military authorities for the opening of all roads passing through the 62 Military Cantonments for all civil vehicular traffic has undoubtedly stirred a hornets’ nest. Veterans weigh in on this contentious issue.

Sanctity, Security and Safety of Military Cantonments

The recent directive of the Defence Minister/MoD to the military authorities for opening of all roads passing through the 62 Military Cantonments for all civil vehicular traffic has undoubtedly stirred a hornets’ nest.

The directive was apparently issued by the Defence Minister at the behest of the recommendations of the elected Vice Chairmen of the 62 Cantonment Boards and the political pressures of the MPs of concerned area/region with the focus being primarily on gaining votes from the civil fraternity for the crucial 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The immediate and long term implications of this recent controversial decision have led to a lot of confusion and chaos in the minds of the civilian population, who are the prime focus for garnering votes through such popular actions.

Hence, there is an imperative need to spread the right awareness of all these 62 military cantonments including the history behind their creation, the justification for their continuation for 71 years post-independence and the dire need to protect and preserve them from rampant and unplanned development of adjacent cities or towns by the civil authorities at the behest of the local vote seeking politicians.

It is time that the serving military hierarchy spoke up and took tough stands on such critical military issues.

Responses From Veterans' Across the Country

Col PK ‘Royal’ Mehrishi (Retd), Jaipur

Military Cantonments (Cantt’s) are by their very nature of upkeep and maintenance, islands of beauty and perfection amidst squalor, dirt and grime of the city which it is a part of. Has someone asked this question as to why and how are these spaces so neat and well maintained?

Not a bit of litter, no doggy pooh next to the roads, grass neat & trimmed, roads well swept and clean. The answer is a bit complex and requires detailed explanation.

The military firmly believes in the three fold manifestation of human energy i.e. body, mind and soul. All military persons are taught the virtue that a healthy mind resides in a healthy body, hence the PT and early morning exercise routine. To further this, are academic and training classes for all to shape the mind and encourage learning.

To top this there is a noble concept that cleanliness and order is next to godliness. It is for this reason in Military Cantts all over the country vector diseases like, dengue, malaria etc., are negligible.

Next is the administration of Cantts which is efficient and not corrupt like the municipal bodies in the cities. There is no politics over clearing filth and garbage. The persons who inhabit the Cantts come from the same villages and tier two or three cities of India but adapt to the prevalent ethos and culture of decent living.

Not one keeps a cow or a goat or creates a mess over hygiene as it concerns community living. Most important are the routine inspections by senior officers who have a penchant for looking at every nook and cranny and checking defaulters to pull them up for not measuring up to the high standards which are now bench marks.

Are our citizens and the RM jealous of the efforts put in by each and every resident of the Cantts? Is there a pressing need to compromise the safety and security of families who are separated from their husbands deployed operationally? Is there a larger agenda of belittling whatever is left of the military’s pride stemming from institutions they love, respect and nurture.

If citizens need more roads build them around our Cantts, not through them! We are getting angrier by the day because of repeated flawed decisions of the government. Beware of the fury of a fully angered military, the last bastion of our nation’s strength!

Brig SK Kakar (Retd), New Delhi

The political angle is the trigger for the opening of the roads in only 62 Cantonments (Cantt’s).Why representatives of only 62 Cantt boards were called from over 400 Cantt’s in the country? Why was nobody called from Cantt’s like Chandigarh, Jalandhar, Amritsar, Siliguri and Kolkata? Reason is not far to see as they are from different political streams with different views, perceptions and interests.

The Cantt roads episode started from Secunderabad. It is reliably learnt that there is a school in Cantt and owned by relative of an influential person wanting access through the Cantt. Also, the Telangana government wants to build new Secretariat in Secunderabad Cantt Area. Location is Army Polo Ground and play grounds of Army Centre. For this, the CM had asked the PM to tell Army to give land to Telangana Government has already been eyeing Neelayam Niwas (of President of India) in Secunderabad.

It seems that in order to meet all these requirements, the representatives of the 62 Cantts came together for their vested interests after nudge by ruling political authorities.

Hence, it is obvious that the decision of opening of Cantt roads was taken hurriedly to meet vested political interests, without realising the strong reaction would draw from families of serving persons and security of installations that will be compromised. Thus, subsequent backtracking and seeking support of Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat was only a face saving exercise!

Gp Capt TP Srivastava (Retd), New Delhi

Most pertinent issue is whether Raksha Mantri consulted Gen Bipin Rawat (COAS) before taking the decision? As a soldier, the views of the COAS are the only thing that matters to me on this issue. Rest of the issues doing rounds are merely historical in nature. Gen Bipin Rawat’s pregnant silence is indicative of his tacit approval to the proposal of opening Cantt roads. I sincerely hope I am wrong in my assumption.

Col CM Chavan (Retd), Pune

I am sure that the RM must have consulted the Army Chief before taking the decision of opening the roads passing through 62 cantonments. It is learnt that the Army Chief has since directed the Army to be extra vigilant to ensure the security of the cantonments.  

This has obviously increased the burden on Commanders at all levels and consequently deprived units coming from field areas of much needed time for rest and recuperation, which will be detrimental to the morale of families and soldiers residing in these military cantonments. They will be required to be more vigilant and alert than hitherto fore to safeguard their own safety.

Acceptance of diktat from politicians on the Army way of life revolving around security by the top brass, should be firmly repudiated. Army alone should not be expected to make concessions always. Examples from other countries should also be looked into.

TN Seshan, Chennai (ex-Defence Secy, Cabinet Secy and CEC), As explained to MVI's Nixon Fernando

In Mr. Seshan’s view, the decision to open the cantonment areas to civilian traffic is an old question and it had been discussed for ages. Even when he was a sub collector in the 1950s it was being discussed. As the pressure of population and the pressure of traffic increases over the available roads, the administration attempts to open the roads in the cantonments for non-military traffic.

The military looks upon that with grave worry, and both points of view are understandable. The administrator faces the question of what he can do when there is an excessive traffic.

He must take it on the available road. The military can have only as much road as the civil public can afford. An administrator will not consider it apt to reserve roads for the military in the cantonment while traffic comes to a grinding halt in the rest of the cities. Mr. Seshan says, “For me it is a non-issue; nothing to do with civil-military relationship. It is just a population issue.”

Lt Col MK Guptaray (Retd), Pune

The direction of the RM Nirmala Sitharaman on recent opening of closed roads in  62 Cantonments across the country has created hornet’s nest among the army circles especially among Veterans and ladies fearing opening of cantonments will affect their security, safety and moral of the army. It is also commented that such decision has political and financial connotation.

With increase of population from 22–25 crore when the cantonments were established to 130 crores today, space has shrunk. The cantonments have now been surrounded from all sides by the sprawling cities and towns. Civil populations, from toddlers of nursery classes to super senior citizens, perforce, need to use these roads in these 62 cantonments to commute from one place to the other.

In fact they had been using these roads since time immemorial, specially where the army and civil population co-exists, to carry out daily activities till the recent closure a decade ago consequent to recent spurt in terrorist activities. Closure of these forces them to take long detour which is expensive in terms money, when the petrol price has reachedRs85/liter, and time in tremendously increases traffic on the few roads those are available. All need to share this poverty of space.

Such arbitrary closure of active roads by the LMAs, mostly without following necessary procedures, has created bad feelings in the mind of the local civil population and has also thwarted civil military interaction which is essential for harmony. We must remember that, unlike British period, we are part of them and not an isolated body. Some of our parents, brothers, sisters may be facing same problems like other civilians, somewhere, for such drastic acts. We can no longer live in colonial style.

Army populations who are staying in the cantonments are of migratory nature, stay for a tenure of 2 to 3 years and leave the station. They are practically not aware of the tribulations of the local civilians. I am sure many of the propagators of closure might be staying far away from the cantonments and not aware of the problems. But we must understand that proper attention must be given to the need of the civilians who will live in or around the cantonments for generation after generation

There has been a misconception that Defence Minister has taken arbitrary decisions to take political mileage out of it. This is far from the truth. There have been constant interactions between Army HQ, LMAs, DG of Defense Estate, CEOs and vice presidents of 62 cantonments and concerned MPs of all parties. Last meeting was taken on 9th May after the return of the COAS Gen Bipin Rawat from Sri Lanka.

There are 862 roads in 62 cantonments which were closed. Many of them were closed arbitrarily. She insisted that even if decision is taken after one month to close certain roads after evaluating their security aspects, proper procedure must be followed and decision must be taken with proper justification.

She has also mentioned that roads are being opened in those areas of the cantonments where there are only living and administrative accommodations and not in the places where sensitive things like depots etc lay.

However, all of us are equally concerned for the safety of the soldiers and their families. Every unit or family station must be well guarded. If required, protection can be enhanced by augmenting number of guards, patrolling, constructing high boundary wall, having well equipped Quick Response Team, introducing CCTV and other gadgets etc. But please do not change all cantonments, most of them located far away from the border, into war zones.

Let’s show some boldness. Civil population looks up to the army with awe and admiration and feel secured living among them. In contrary army is projecting a feeling of fear and detachment and showing lack of concern and compassion to their civilian brethren. Before any conclusive direction, a tripartite meeting between LMA, PCB representatives and local user representatives must be held to arrive at a unanimous decision.

The gravity of the situation can be gauged by the fact that all MPs and CEOs of the 62 Cantonments unanimously represented for opening of the roads. This has been unprecedented. Army or Defense Ministry is merely a custodian.

Cdr Ravindra Pathak (Retd),Pune

The order of MOD at the behest of the RM to open all cantonment roads is seen as a populist move since the decision was apparently taken at a meeting where there were no representatives of the Local Military Authorities (LMA) concerned or the Army HQ with just the 62 Vice Presidents (elected members of public) of the Cantonment boards in attendance. May be her own house in Secunderabad is affected and that could have played on her mind. Never know how a political mind works.

Further what was horrifying was the kind of celebrations that some political activists indulged in as if they had won a war against the enemy. It is no one’s case that the LMA has not erred in some cases but that may well be an isolated case. The military environment has rightly been vocal on the subject and as such there has been some back tracking on the issue by stating that order is subject to review after a month and RM being forced to give out details which none do believe.

In this entire episode the silence of the Army Chief is thundering. Wish he had stalled the issue for a better understanding by the RM than to play along and expect his juniors to take action like blocking roads to allow soldiers to exercise on them. Childlike really, as if his troops had no other area other than a road to exercise on!

Let us understand the issue. The military lands are covered by many acts and the cantonment board areas have restricted, prohibited and protected areas, besides the civil areas that form part of the cantonments. The duties of the cantonment board are stated at Para 62 of Cantonment Board Act 2006 and I see no role of the board in the process of closing or opening the roads.

The issue is how to permit movement of those from civil areas from one side of the cantonment to the other civil side of the cantonment. This is where the cantonment areas have been divided into ‘Restricted’, ‘Protected’ and ‘Prohibited’ areas. It is very clear that only restricted areas could possibly be opened to civil vehicular traffic. In many instances, transit facilities have been approved through such areas in the interest of the public like the Metro line in Delhi.

The Vice Presidents (and it seems the lead was taken by Secunderabad) have largely complained that LMA have not followed Rule 258 of the Cantonment Act. This is a subject beyond their charter of duties as laid down. I see most of the cause of concern by Veterans and serving officers wives is the security of the families and about the exclusiveness of the Defence areas being lost.

To the best of my knowledge, security of families have been threatened more in units that were located in disturbed areas prone to attacks by anti-nationals, terrorists and insurgents rather than peace areas.

It is nobody’s case that all road closures are not without fault, but surely there are cases wherein the closure is justified as far as the LMA/Station Commander is concerned and that I feel is the final authority in the absence of any regulatory requirement to go beyond him.

Concluding Remarks

Gp Capt Johnson Chacko (Retd), Pune

A few years after independence, there were civil disturbances in Lahore, Pakistan. The Army was called out and they resolved the issues. The disturbances subsided. The Army was told to return to barracks. They asked for a week more before returning to barracks. In that week they cleaned up the city and brought in some order to the chaotic lifestyle of the civil population.

The civil population was very satisfied and they enjoyed it. They set standards for the civil administration to emulate and they haven’t been able to do so thereafter. After that, whenever Martial Law was declared the population welcomed it as ‘Masha Allah’ and not ‘Martial Law’. A small price to pay for better living, I guess. Why can’t better living be extended to the city from the Cantonment rather than ruining the Cantonments?

Cantonment roads are designed for the load that it is expected to carry. Funds to maintain them are allocated from the Defence Services estimates and maintenance is done by the Military Engineering Services. The funds are barely sufficient to meet the needs of repairs and maintenance. With heavy vehicles and quantum of vehicles expected to shoot up the roads are expected to give way. Can the respective cities fund the maintenance of these roads?

Now that the cities have grown around the Cantonments, there is a need for the population to reduce travelling time and hence traffic through the Cantonments needs to be allowed, which in many cases is already allowed except for heavy vehicles that ruin the roads. Restrictions are few and there is no need for a civilian to go to those places.

Allowing civil traffic through Cantonments reduces expenditure of fuel and probably it may cause an invisible dent in the foreign exchange we pay to import crude, though the users of these roads will benefit. Assuming that there are procedures for civilians who live within the Cantonment, the problem is for the civilians who want to cross the area. What is the solution?

Build flyovers, so that civilians who want to go to the other side can fly through without hindering the Cantonments. Have broad enough roads for a detour. Probability is very low as the area around is heavily populated in an unplanned manner. If the roads are open to all with no security checks, then security threat to the families of Armed Forces personnel living in the Cantonment is high. The police are not capable of providing the required intelligence or security to prevent a terrorist attack in the soft underbelly as has been witnessed earlier.

It will have a tremendous adverse impact on the morale of soldiers who are deployed to protect our borders. High quality all weather cameras that give a warning of undesirable deviation of traffic from the permitted routes and effective interception by tactically positioned Quick Reaction Teams manned by Army and police would be cheaper than a flyover. This will not tie down Army personnel to unnecessary guard and patrolling duties.

The apparent practical solution is that cities should contribute to maintenance of roads that are opened for civil use and for use of high quality all weather cameras to monitor and intercept deviation. The cost of these needs to be met by the city concerned before traffic is thrown open through the Cantonment.

(Views expressed are the respondents own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)

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