Nestled in the foothills of majestic Dhauladhar ranges and overlooked by snow-laden peaks, the sprawling and serene habitation of Yol in Himachal Pradesh is on a new transition after finally being free from what some call “archaic and colonial practices”.
Having shed its cantonment tag, first in the series of 62 cantonment boards being scrapped to exclude civilian areas, Yol’s 16,000-strong population now finds itself in a new struggle for identity after having been fragmented horizontally and merged with four panchayats of Rakker, Baghni, Tangroti Khas, and Narwana Khas.
The April 27, 2023, notification by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) changed the status of the 81-year-old Khas Yol Cantonment Board to enable civilian stakeholders to have access to welfare schemes, development plans, and basic services denied to them until now.
Yet, moving to a new era, which Kangra Deputy Commissioner Kangra Nipun Jindal describes as “not so fulfilling”, the civilians are getting confronted to real-time problems, the most serious of which are garbage management and regular water supply.
“You know, it’s easier to extend such basic civic services to people merged from rural areas to urban set-ups of municipalities but when status of a deemed municipality —cantonment— changes to rural and gets transferred to panchayats, there are plenty of issues which come up before the government,” says Jindal.
No one to pick garbage, interrupted water supply
While the Indian Army has taken over full control of military areas of Yol and has shifted focus to discharge the functions like water supply, sanitation, garbage management, upkeep of the roads and electricity in its areas, things have turned quite bad for the now-disbanded cantonment’s civilian residents.
“It's like we came out of the frying pan and got into the fire,” says a local media professional from Yol.
Until now, the Yol Cantonment Board managed over 15 km of roads, 1,500 drains, over 650 water connections, nearly 250 streetlights, and five schools. The house-to-house waste collection and garbage treatment system functioned well. With panchayats running short of resources and having no built-in system for waste management, Yol is turning into a heap of solid waste. The sewage drains are overflowing and are polluting the environment.
“Today, if you travel to these areas excluded from the cantonment, you will find places stinking with mounds of garbage piling up along the streets and bazaars. The people are illegally dumping the garbage and domestic waste into the rivulets, khads, and nallahs. There is nobody to collect the waste generated in tonnes. It has blocked drains and has started to stink,” says Akshit Maini, President of Beopar Mandal, Yol .
Maini says the water supply was disrupted the very next day of the transition and it was only through the intervention of local MLA Sudhir Sharma of Congress, a former state urban development minister, that the supply was restored. There are fears about this problem cropping up later.
On May 6, Maini wrote to Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), Dharamshala, informing them about the garbage collection system having been stopped by the cantonment board and of the absence of any alternative arrangement put in place by the panchayats.
“Absence of garbage collection and removal of facilities has resulted in piling up of heaps of garbage on roadside, market areas, and rivers. Dumped garbage is conducive to breeding ground for vector-borne diseases and therefore poses a severe health hazard to humans,” wrote Maini.
Kangra Deputy Commissioner Jindal admits that garbage management is a major issue confronting the population at Yol because of the changed system. The panchayats, he says, are not well-equipped to handle it and thus efforts are underway to identify a place for collection, disposal, and treatment of the solid waste.
Dreams of development shattered: Resident group
The Yol Cantonment Sangharsh Committee, a body of civilians that had filed a writ in the High Court in 2008 for exclusion of the civilian population from the cantonment, had sought an independent panchayat. Instead, the government merged the erstwhile cantonment’s civilian areas with four existing panchayats — completely fragmenting the entire population.
They are not sure if the arrangement is temporary or permanent. There is a huge confusion at the government’s end.
“Our dreams for planned development and access to services and benefits of various welfare schemes have been shattered. We don’t know our status. The panchayats are not telling us anything worthwhile. Our effort to seek attention of Chief Minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu, Dharamshala MLA Sudhir Sharma, and even Deputy Commissioner have gone futile. We have been left at God’s mercy,” says Gian Chand, President of the Sangharsh Committee.
The panchayats are raising bills and are asking the residents to pay arrears of house tax. The bills are up to Rs 1.50 lakh for some families, who allege that while the panchayats have not given any services, they are already demanding taxes.
“If things remain like this, we will approach the High Court,” says Gian Chand.
The panchayats have not yet started issuing certificates of birth and death to people, claiming that the government has so far not issued the notification in this regard. The issuance of income certificates is also halted.
The change has also not gone well with the employees and pensioners of the cantonment board. Around 150 outsourced employees have lost jobs. The pensioners of the cantonment board have been attached to Dalhousie Cantonment and another 36 ex-employees with Bakloh Cantonment in Chamba district.
As per records, Yol was established by the British Indian Army in 1849. The name Yol comes from the term Young Officers Leave —YOL— camp. During World War II, Yol served as a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp and hosted Italian soldiers captured from various war theatres.
In January 1942, it became a cantonment board and currently hosts the headquarters of Rising Star Corps — a prestigious Army establishment.
Though the move to scrap cantonment was seen by the civilians as essentially beneficial to enable them an easier living and better development prospects, it seems to have led to new problems, ranging from an identity crisis to an impasse over basic civic services.
Besides Yol, there are six other cantonments in Himachal Pradesh. These are Nahan, Kasauli, Subathu, Dagshai, Dalhousie, and Jutogh.