Shifting Military Cantonments

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It is already in public domain that the initial decision of opening all 62 military cantonments for free access to public by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharanman was taken in a meeting chaired by her with select MP’s (not from Parliament’s Standing Committee for Defence) and elected Vice Presidents of 62 Cantonment Boards (all civilians), in absence of the Army Chief, as given in the Press Information Bureau report of May 4, 2018. Defence Minister’s explanations she consulted army many times matter little since she obviously presented fait accompli as the decision taken in the May 4 meeting. It stands to reason that she should have consulted Parliament’s Standing Committee for Defence and the May 4 meeting she chaired should have also included Presidents of all 62 military cantonments, as also the army chief. After all she is the Defence Minister, not the Minister of Urban Development.

Opening cantonments to free access to public violates the Official Secrets Act that classifies military cantonments ‘Prohibited Areas’; trespass through which is punishable under Criminal Penal Code. She even ignored Delhi High Court judgment of local military authority having authority over Cantonment Board officials. Despite terror attacks on military camps, Sitharaman disregarded security of army personnel, equipment and families, latter more vulnerable when troops move out for collective training, operational alerts, relief operations etc. There were victory parades through military cantonments with helmet-less motorcycle-born goons leading political processions shouting slogans. This was vote-bank politics and politico- builder mafia nexus at its best, plus Sitharaman’s vested interests; her husband running ‘Pranav International School’ in Secundrabad cantonment and Chairman, Parakala Seshavataram Memorial Trust, of which Sitharaman too was a Director.

Over 13,000 acres defence land is encroached and over 2,500 Defence Bungalows are illegally occupied. Commercial properties are operating on defence land even without rent deeds. Despite clear orders by Supreme Court for removing encroachments and reclaiming Bungalows, MoD has initiated little action. Corruption is so deep routed in Defence Estates (DE) that based on recommendation of CGDA, MoD had recommended its disbandment in 2010. But Sitharaman has empowered DE, by helping them get Non-Functional Upgradation (NFU) allowance, that too with retrospect from 2016.

A recent post on social media reads, “One thing ought to be clear … present BJP Govt, MoD and the builder lobby have joined hands and are eyeing open spaces in cantonments ….. Till Modi the disrupter came on the scene, Army enjoyed certain immunity and sanctity which he has continued to demolish and the bureaucrats who were always anti-Army are doubly emboldened. The fact that they have “managed” an Army Chief who is prepared to do their bidding makes things worse.” Initial propaganda in media was money used from sale of defence land will go towards military modernization, which Sitharaman has now nixed. Another cover up is underway in garb of ‘saving funds’, which too is misnomer. In fact, the army chief appears to have been roped in to give political statements.
Sitharaman has also not acted against civilian defence officials getting upgradation of ranks by Union Cabinet based on false inputs, because the proposal to Union Cabinet obviously had consent of the Defence Minister.

It is quite obvious that for Sitharaman to act so brazenly, she has the backing of Prime Minister Modi. As the story goes, when a Corps Commander made a courtesy call on Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi allegedly told him prime land in his military station could be developed and industrialized if surrendered, and in lieu land can be given to army anywhere. This obviously was music to the politician-builder-bureaucratic mafia in Delhi. But all said and done the Prime Minister has all the authority to order the military to vacate cantonments especially where he is convinced there will be no war and army is a necessary evil – remember in February 2014, Modi said, “Traders are better than Army Jawans”. But it could be done in systemic fashion. Military could be asked to work out a plan for shifting all cantonments over a 8-10 year period, rather than the manner in which attempted now, including some dense statements by ministers and media being used to turn public against the military.

Looking back over the years, Cantonments were moved in US also but that is a country where even the US President moves into his private house the day he retires. Compare this to what happens in India? Here, even a bureaucrat posted from Delhi to Guwahati retains government accommodation in both stations and earns Rs 75,000 monthly hazard allowance, compared to an officer getting Rs 42,500 serving in Siachen. Besides, what about massive land holdings of DRDO, DPSUs, and organizations like ONGC, FRI etc. Singling out military cantonments indicates cynic intent.

Builder mafia is going berserk despite chipko movements in Delhi and Gurgaon. What a pity scores of elegant old trees have been cut both sides of Parade Road in Delhi Cantonment. The NGT and Delhi High Court had put a stay on hundreds of trees that were to be cut for making way for a VVIP colony. But despite the ban, these trees have been chopped off systematically by night, with police turning a blind eye and media scared to report. Government claims of planting hundreds of trees in lieu (which anyway would take a decade to grow up) have been proved false in TV discussions. Sure the NGT and Court can take suo moto cognizance but would they knowing they have to live in murky waters? Ironically, arrogance in authority is increasing rapidly perhaps sensing there is no viable opposition. Despite lynching incidents practically every second day, Home Minister says government will enact anti-lynching law, if needed. All said and done, the tidings certainly don’t look good for the country.

Prakash Katoch is third generation army officer hailing from Himachal Pradesh. He is former Lieutenant General from Special Forces and post retirement has published over 1300 articles on international affairs, geopolitics, military, security, technical and topical issues besides authoring two books. He is active in seminars at both national and international levels.

1 Comment

  • Vibhu says:

    . . . . and this civilian administration that’s now credited to manage these Cantonments has successfully destroyed every city across the length and breadth of my country.

    I can’t find even one square kilometer of municipal space that’s proper and perfect because the administrators habitually blame citizens, councilers and other politicians for the mess. . . . . consistently . . . with all help from their support system across other institutions. . . . while each happily draw their self-appraised emoluments on an absolute safe wicket.

    Wonder if there is any remote parallel in any civilised society across the world.

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