Tuesday, June 19, 2018
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Cantt roads: Not open & shut case

The Ministry of Defence needs to find a middle path to resolve the row over cantonment roads. The civilians who live in surrounding areas see road-closures by the Army as arbitrary and impractical, while the defence forces personnel and their families think of it as a security issue17 Jun 2018 | 1:50 AM[ + read story ]

Ajay Banerjee in New Delhi

Araging debate over allowing civilians to use selected roads within 62 cantonments across the country refuses to die down. Opinions on both sides have hardened, while acerbic messages over Twitter and Whatsapp have fuelled a needless unpleasant 'us' versus 'them' binary. 

The 'us' and 'them' are swappable depending on which side of the debate you are.

A review of this 'road-opening' is coming up later this week and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will do itself a favour by ending this amicably. A total roll back — that is closing all roads again — may not be possible. However, the present free-for-all passage through the cantonments may not work. Possibly, a new set of rules on road usage, identity cards for locals living in the vicinity, and maybe a new flyover over some portions of a cantonment or a new by-pass could be the answer.

On one side of the divide are civilians who live near cantonments and see road-closures by the Army as arbitrary and impractical. They are forced to take long detours to carry out their daily chores. Urban populations that have sprung up around cantonments, too, face inconvenience. On the other side are wives of military men and retired soldiers who see this as a security issue and question the act of opening these roads without taking into account the military opinion.

Since military men/women are not allowed to express an opinion in public, a group of spouses was invited by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. "I met some wives of the armed forces personnel and heard their concerns which were largely about the security. I fully appreciate that," Sitharaman said during a press conference in Delhi earlier this month.

Several of these affected and angry women live alone with their children in cantonments in separate family accommodations when their husbands are posted in non-family stations like the Kashmir valley, Siachen, Ladakh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland or on the Indo-Pak border in Rajasthan.

Security issues

A memorandum submitted to Sitharaman by wives of military personnel says it is not possible to segregate civil and military areas inside the cantonments. Hence, the opening of all partial and fully-closed roads leaves military families vulnerable to trespassing and compromises their security.

Noted policy expert Mohan Guruswamy, who lives in Secunderabad and is one of the votaries of a rational approach to this issue, explains: "The Army has mischievously sought to treat all cantonment roads as unit 'line roads'. India tries to be a society of civil laws and the Army cannot do as it pleases."

He, however, suggests 'line roads' and 'base roads' should be highly restricted.

As per existing rules, if there is an Army establishment on either side of a road, it could be termed as a unit 'line road'. But all roads in cantonments are not under the Army as there is a civilian population living inside since the British came up with this concept of joint living.

Land in the cantonments is under various classifications. The Local Military Authority (LMA) is in charge of military section of the cantonment and is always a military officer. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) performs the executive functions of the Local Cantonment Board and reports to the Director General Defence Estates (DGDE).

Some 10,200 acres of defence land is under encroachment, Sitharaman had informed the Lok Sabha in January this year. In 2010, the Controller Defence Accounts had said the DGDE had failed to secure defence lands and suggested it be disbanded.

Where does the decision apply

It is not that all roads have been opened. All over the country there are 850 roads that are ‘closed’ for thoroughfare. The MoD took up the case of only 119 such roads, and allowed 80 to be opened. These road closures had not been done as per procedure mandated under the Cantonments Act, 2006, said the minister, adding that the authorities have been asked to follow the due process.

On May 28, the MoD laid down rules that asked the LMA to not close any road without following due procedure. It says the Cantonment Board will give its opinion and even recommend closure but only after inviting objections from the members of the public and addressing all concerns. The MoD will vet the case for legal aspects before any road is closed. The rules do not apply to military stations, Air bases, Army forward bases, Navy locations.

Hashtag wars

The Twitter campaign slamming the MoD, Sitharaman and Army Chief General Bipin Rawat also sought answers from the Prime Minister. It started after May 21 when Lt Gen RK Anand, the Director General of the Land Works and Environment Directorate, issued a letter which specified the methodology of opening roads: "All barriers, check posts and road blocks will be removed. Vehicles will not be stopped or checked".

This literally opened the floodgates of protest and a Twitter campaign followed. The MoD letter on May 28 added more ammunition. Major Priyadarshi Chowdhury (retd), who was leading the campaign over Twitter with hash-tag ‘CanttSecurity' told The Tribune: "It appears that neither has MoD applied its mind nor has it taken detailed feedback from the LMA of the 62 cantonments." The ill-thought order has been passed without taking into consideration the genuine issues of the Armed Forces, says Major Chowdhury, a gallantry award winner and decorated veteran, who served in the Sikh Regiment.

A few people even took out celebratory 'rallies' on opening of roads in Danapur (Patna). An MLA in Delhi and an MP in Haryana was congratulated and feted for getting roads opened while another MP rushed to thank the Defence Minister for getting road opened in Deolali in Maharastra. On Twitter, retired military men questioned if this celebration was a 'victory' over the country's own Army.

Facts from history

  • The first cantonment was set up at Barrackpore, Calcutta. Civilian population was co-located inside these exclusive enclaves to provide services. The Cantonment Act, 2006, has provision of 24 types of municipal services, including tax collection.
  • Cities like Ambala, Jalandhar, Barielly, Lucknow, Dehradun and Meerut have localities like Paltan Bazaar,  Lal Kurti Bazaar or even more obvious British-India Bazaar and the Sadar Bazaar.
  • Almost all cantonments have a typical bakery to meet European tastes. Some have convent schools too. In places like Kasauli, Landour (Mussoorie), Barrackpore, Secunderabad and Pune, India's who's who have their houses.
  • In North, the British had hill cantonments to match the climate back home — Kasauli, Dagshai, Subathu, Jutogh, Yol, Bakloh, Dalhousie (in Himachal), Landour, Lansdowne, Nainital, Almora and Clement Town in Uttrakhand

     
  • 62 Army cantonments collectively occupy 1.57 lakh acres of land (about 635 sq km)
  • 850 cantonment roads all over the country are closed for thoroughfare
  • 80 such roads have been allowed by the MoD for access after taking 119 into consideration
  • 17.57 lakh acres (about 7,110 sq km) is the total land under MoD

     
  • Due to rapid urban growth, the national highway runs through Ambala Cantonment, the headquarters of the Army's 2 Strike Corps and also IAF's key air base. 
  • In Jalandhar, the national highway passes outside the cantonment area. The 11 Corps is based in the city. But military area is segregated.

AT THE CROSSROADS

  • 10,791.88 acres Delhi Cantt
  • 8,816.86 acres Meerut Cantt
  • 8,100.49 acres Ambala Cantt
  • 3,758.47 acres Jalandhar Cantt
Cantt roads: Not open & shut caseThe inside war: In a bitter Twitter campaign, both sides have been taking potshots at each other. Even in the real world, reactions have been extreme, with some people even taking out celebratory ‘rallies’ on the opening of roads in some states. Tribune photo: Mukesh Aggarwal
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