Tuesday, Sep 26, 2023

Modi Govt's Plan To Disband Cantonments Stirs Debate, Raises Questions

Modi Govt's Plan To Disband Cantonments Stirs Debate, Raises Questions

Yol in Himachal Pradesh is the first cantonment of the Indian Army to be disbanded. The Narendra Modi government has planned to disband all cantonments and convert their military areas into military stations and merge civilian areas with adjacent civic bodies. People are divided on the plan.

Starting with Yol in Himachal Pradesh, the Narendra Modi government has decided to disband all the cantonment boards
Starting with Yol in Himachal Pradesh, the Narendra Modi government has decided to disband all the cantonment boards

A way of life that has been around for over 100 years —over 200 years in some cases— is now about to end as the Narendra Modi government has decided to disband the cantonment boards across the country. Starting with Yol in Himachal Pradesh, all remaining 61 cantonments would be disbanded one by one. The military areas of the cantonments would be converted into exclusive military stations and the civilian areas would be merged with adjacent civilian municipal bodies.

Although the military and civilian areas might be easy to segregate in smaller cantonments like Yol, the task is bound to run into complexities in bigger cantonments like Meerut or Lucknow, but experts say a systemic method can definitely be found. People who have lived in cantonments or have been long-time military observers say it’s much easier to come up with a policy than to actually implement it.

While the idea of exclusive military stations has its takers in the military, as the military prefers exclusivity over intermingling with the rest of the civilian population, the loss of vast fields of cantonments and open access to cities would be lost too and this, some say, would have an adverse effect. 

What are cantonments?

A cantonment is a civic body governed by a Cantonment Board. Instead of the state government, these civic bodies come under the Ministry of Defence (MoD). 

Cantonments —or cantts, as they are often referred to— are civic bodies that trace their roots to the British Raj. These are the places where the British Indian Army stationed its troops. Unlike the Air Force or the Navy that had exclusive ‘bases’, the Army had cantonments where civilians too stayed in places away from military installations — but close by, leading to a fusion of lifestyles and cultures.

Over the course of time, these cantonments developed into towns and cities, with military and civilian parts. While the military parts are managed by the military authorities, the civilian parts are managed by the cantonment boards — a civic body with a mixture of officials and elected members. The first cantonment was established in 1765 at Barrackpore, near Calcutta (now Kolkata). Several cantonments came up in the next few decades. 

These cantonments were often at strategic locations across the country. They served as military and logistical hubs and were key to consolidating British rule in India, such as the Meerut Cantonment, which served as the key to the British consolidation and expansion in North-West India.

“There were a lot of specific reasons for establishing a cantonment in Meerut. These reasons are not of recent origin but run deep into the history of this part of the country. Meerut lies in the upper Ganga Yamuna Doab. The strip of land connects Punjab and the lands beyond to the East of the Indian subcontinent, bound on one side by the mountains and on the other by the Thar Desert…In the early days of British expansion, it also allowed them a foothold in Northern India to launch their operations further on into Punjab and then beyond into Afghanistan,” notes military historian Amit Pathak in his book 1857: Sajhi Shahadat Ke Kuch Phool.

Pathak adds that the location of Meerut in the fertile land with abundant food and fodder supplies allowed the British to station their troops there.

“These garrisons [in Meerut] were close enough to Delhi to keep it under their protective cover. This ancient military wisdom was followed up by the British to establish one of the largest cantonments of Northern India at Meerut,” he noted.

Such strategic reasoning and geographic factors were behind the setting up of other British cantonments too that guarded important cities of symbolic value, consolidated British rule, and helped protect frontier areas or facilitate expansion into new areas. 

The issues with cantonments

The cantonments that served the British interests well, raised a range of issues in Independent India. Unlike the British Army, which ran cantonments with its absolute authority, an Independent India could not do the same.

Cantonment Boards had to be run democratically, not with absolute colonial authority. Along with a unique culture of civil-military fusion that emerged in these places, tussles between the two were also not uncommon. The civilian residents were concerned with poor civic services, restrictions on construction and housing, and lack of development, while the military complained of a shrinking space of their way of life and security concerns.

With most of these issues being highly local were resolved soon, some persisted over the decades and led to extreme demands for the disbandment of cantonment boards altogether. For example, cellular coverage in Meerut Cantonment remains limited as cellular towers are limited and residents complain construction requires unnecessary paperwork.

There were also issues with taxation. In several places, the house tax or water tax in cantonments —paid to the cantonment board— is higher than the rate in adjacent civilian civic bodies, which is a cause of disgruntlement. 

Everyone does not, however, support the call for disbandment. A Meerut-based social activist, who lived in the cantonment for around two decades, says a middle-way approach would be a better solution. On the condition of anonymity, they say that cantonments have a socioeconomic dimension and a short-sighted approach of disbanding cantonments might hurt it.

“I say you reform cantonment boards instead of abolishing them entirely. There is an entire socioeconomic aspect of cantonments right from the British period. The military population has an entire economy around it, such as a large number of defence contractors, civic services contractors, properties where military families stay, civilian markets next to military areas serving them for decades, and the automobile hub serving the military. Is disturbing this ecosystem worth it? I am not sure. You should not go for the amputation if you can carry out surgery to correct some flaws,” the activist said.

The merits and demerits of disbanding cantonments

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) was never meant to be involved in municipal affairs, says Major General (Retired) Harsha Kakar, adding that the separation of civilian and military areas of cantonments can be a win-win situation for both sides. 

Kakar tells Outlook, “The Cantonment Boards are not financially well and don’t have enough sources of income. They are dependent on grants-in-aid by the MoD. As a result, the civilian parts of the cantonments are terribly managed whereas the military-managed places are quite clean. Merging the civilian areas with municipal bodies of the state government and converting the military areas into military stations will be ideal.”

Once civilian and military areas are separated, Kakar adds that the budget allocated for civic services too would be freed up. 

Military historian Mandeep Singh Bajwa, a critic of the plan, notes that the military prefers military stations over cantonments, but also points out that it would be a task to carve out civilian and military pockets in many cantonments. 

“It’s true that the military usually prefers military stations over cantonments, but carving out civilian and military pockets in many cantonments will be very tough. Disbanding cantonments would also take away a lot of places such as open fields for sports and training and risk turning military stations into isolated pockets away from habitation,” Bajwa tells Outlook,

This, he says, could make the Indian Army unattractive to the youth. 

“People don’t always join the Indian Army for patriotism. People join for the life and facilities the Army offers. The sporting and recreational facilities that the Army provides you at no cost, such as the golf courses and training areas will cost a fortune in the outside world. If you take it out, it would affect the attractiveness of the Army and the training aspects as well since sports is key to team-building and esprit de corps,” notes Bajwa.

Bajwa adds that the military personnel and their families also have a life and if you drive their settlements away from cities, it would not work out well for them.

Kakar, however, says that there would be enough safeguards and mechanisms in place to address the concerns of either side. He highlights that no one is going to prevent the to-and-fro movement but it will be regulated. 

He explains, “It will be a gradual, step-by-step process. First, completely civilian areas would be taken out, such as the Gopinath Market in Delhi and Sadar Bazar in Lucknow. Then, partial areas would be taken out. Finally, civilian and military pockets surrounded by the other side would be decided. There will be extensive consultation between the MoD, cantonment boards, and state governments, and it would not be done without considering all aspects.”

At times, there would be a civilian area surrounded by Army units or an Army unit surrounded by civilian colonies. In such cases, says Kakar, these areas can be converted into enclaves and arrangements of gates and roads can be made to ensure smooth and regulated to-and-fro movement of both sides.

As for the security concerns of the Indian Army, Kakar says it would be the first priority of the Army and MoD. While the newly-formed military stations would be exclusive and easier to protect, any civilian and military pockets can also be regulated, according to him.

“As for the roads passing in front of the Army units, the Army would ensure during the consultation process that there are safeguards in place. Even now, there are provisions of the no-objection certificates (NOCs) for construction around defence property. Such provisions and safeguards will remain and security concerns can be addressed this way,” says Kakar. 

Bajwa says that while it can be done in a thought-out manner, he does not have confidence in the current establishment to be able to pull the job. He also says the initiative is politically motivated. 

“There is of course political motivation. There is the issue of land. The Indian Army is sitting on some of the most prized real estate in the country and that’s central to the idea of disbanding cantonments. The cantonments in Delhi, Shillong, and Chennai have prized real estate and disbanding cantonments is an attempt to monetise the freed-up land. It’s an attempt to commercialise this defence land,” he shares.

While Bajwa contends the military usually prefers military stations over cantonments and that the plan can indeed be carried out if well thought out, he too expresses his lack of faith in the current establishment to do so and adds it’s not required. 

“If it’s not carried out properly, it would create more problems than it would resolve. At the end of the day, it’s India and not Pakistan. The Army would carry out the orders given to it, but such an order would be a disservice to the Army,” says Bajwa, adding that the current drive to disband cantonment is not the first time defence land has been sought.

He says, “In the 1970s, Army commanders had their pick for training fields and firing ranges for training purposes in and around Amritsar, such as the Ram Tirath and Harike. All of those ranges are now gone. They have been denotified. Now, the Army units from Kashmir go all the way to Suratgarh in Rajasthan or even further in Pokhran for their training. If the Army cannot train its soldiers, how is it going to prepare for war? Every piece of defence land being taken away under whatever pretence is a disservice to the Army and the nation.”

While Bajwa highlights that defence interests would be hurt by the taking away of defence lands, there are issues with the practicality of dividing cantonments. In Meerut, a residential area stands merely 10 metres from an infantry division’s headquarters. The Meerut Cantt Railway Station, one of the two main stations serving Meerut, stands right in front of Army messes and residential accommodations. A tank battalion at the other end of the cantonment stands a stone’s throw away from a civilian colony. Then there are historic churches, cemeteries, temples, and a Masonic lodge in the heart of the cantonment, frequented by countless people every day. How do you carve out pockets for each of these places?

Kakar says that civilian and military enclaves will come up to ensure that free movement of both the military and civilians is ensured. Such an approach can definitely work out. After all, the military does not control the roads and, except for its units and some critical roads or crossings, the rest of the cantonment is open to all.

There are anxieties among several people on both the sides, such as the old grant bungalow-leaseholders whose palatial properties lie at the heart of the cantonment. If cantonments cease to exist, what happens to their houses? With scarce details, no one knows how these oases of civil-military fusion would look once the cantonments are done away with. Is there going to be a neat division of land and open access to both sides or are there going to be ugly lines on maps that would divide the place haphazardly? Only time will tell.


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