Converting cantonments to military stations

Harsha Kakar
A Government notification of 27th April stated that Yol, a cantonment in Himachal Pradesh, will be the first to be converted into a military station and civilian areas, thus far a part of the cantonment, will be merged with the local municipality. The army would exercise full control over the military station. Across the country, conversion of cantonments into military stations has commenced. This may be slow initially but ultimately all 62 Cantonment boards would be dissolved.
There would be delays in some cities where army and civilian pockets are mixed or in very close proximity. Thus far, cantonment boards, responsible for management of cantonments, are run by the Military Lands and Cantonment Service (MLCS), established in 1926, its nomenclature changing in 1985 to the Indian Defence estates Service (IDES).
Historically, the British had established cantonments away from cities where the army was segregated from the influence of the freedom struggle. The first cantonment was established in Barrackpore in the late 18th century spreading across the country subsequently. Cantonments were large open areas with greenery and training grounds as also well protected. Soldiers and their families were secure within cantonments. Civilian pockets, including small markets, where daily necessities were available, have always been a part of cantonments.
Select Indians in British employ were granted land to construct residences within cantonments. These were termed as ‘grant bungalows’ (currently called ‘old grant bungalows’) and still exist in some cantonments. Steadily towns grew around cantonments resulting in cantonments becoming the centre of cities rather than isolated from the populace. This was possibly because of security provided by cantonments. The British enacted the Cantonment Act in 1924, which was amended in 2006.
The intent of the act was to employ professionals to manage the land, population and services being provided to its residents, relieving soldiers from this responsibility. All taxes, including that of transit were collected by cantonment boards and not city municipalities. It was this income which the cantonment board utilized to provide basic amenities. MLCS came about to administer cantonments, their nomenclature subsequently changing to IDES.
The land on which cantonments are located is owned by the MOD, the armed forces use a part of it for its soldiers and amenities, with civilians residing in some areas, while its management is with the IDES. Defence land also includes camping and training grounds spread across the country, largely unutilized, as also land occupied by other MOD establishments including ordnance factories and few DRDO laboratories. With the closure of military farms, land held by them is largely under the charge of the IDES, with some being under army control.
Management of defence lands, in demand by land mafias, resulted in corruption within the IDES. In 2010, the Controller General of Defence Accounts recommended disbandment of the IDES for failure in accounting, auditing, acquisition and fiscal management of land holdings. Upto 2010 the IDES had piled up over 13,000 land cases which alone would have cost the Government Rs 5,000 crore to settle. Monthly salaries for its staff is to the tune of Rs 200 crores.
The difference between income and expenditure of cantonment boards, amounting to approximately 450 crores across all cantonments annually, is the responsibility of the MOD and meant to be paid from the defence budget. Shortfalls or delay in release of funds by the MOD leads to lack of upkeep of facilities mainly in the civilian areas of the cantonment.
Since cantonment boards function as separate entities, they are ignored by state authorities when it comes to central grants and development. This is evident when visiting a cantonment market and nearby municipal maintained colonies. While the areas occupied by the armed forces within cantonments are clean, green and well maintained, civilian pockets are neglected and lack basic amenities.
As compared to cantonments, military stations were established post-independence and currently 200 exist. There are no civilian pockets within them and these are under full control of military authorities. The IDES has a very limited role within them and most military stations remain green lungs of the cities in which they are located. Facilities within them are far better than most municipalities.
Defence land located away from major cities, mainly camping grounds, have few takers. In many cases guarding them is costlier than their value. The problem arises in cities where defence owns prime land, since cities grew around cantonments. It is here that builder mafia’s eye defence land.
Post the Adarsh Scam, the Government issued guidelines for construction within vicinity of cantonments, termed as ‘Guidelines for grant of no-objection certificates for building construction’ in Jun 2011. These laid down guidelines for approval by military authorities on multi-storey construction which could impact security of garrisons located in cantonments within proximity of the under-construction habitat. These were partially amended and fresh guidelines issued on 23rd Dec 2022. The latest has listed cantonments where military sanction is a must for civilian construction varying from 100 to 500 meters, depending on the number of storeys and type on military establishment existing.
If cantonments are to be closed, then these guidelines must become law, as civilian pockets surrounding cantonments could be prime targets for builders which could end up as security hazards. Simultaneous is the need to issue guidelines for re-sale of ‘old grant bungalows’ located within cantonments. Akin to civilian pockets, these can be security threats if procured by individuals with wrong intent. All open grounds in the vicinity of cantonments, including parade grounds, should become part of military stations.
There are multiple benefits which would accrue from closing cantonments. Primary would be development of civil sectors of cantonments, which would now be the responsibility of the state. Secondly, it would save the Government exchequer from funding to keep cantonments afloat. Thirdly, would be curtailing corruption within the IDES. The final intent should be the disbandment of the IDES, saving a further Rs 200 crore in salaries. At a time when the defence needs additional funds, closing cantonments is the right decision.
The author is Major General (Retd)