The merry month of May this year has again witnessed yet another method of land grab of defence lands, as a notification has been issued, somewhat innocuously, in the Gazette of India, stating that the government has decided to split all military cantonments in the country in two, by taking out the so-called civil areas from existing cantonments and handing them over to the States and converting the remaining areas into military stations. The first to be guillotined is the salubrious cantonment of Yol in Himachal Pradesh.

Our pro-establishment media immediately reported this as a win-win situation for both the parties, without really analysing the pros and cons of this policy decision.

Since the media has not obliged the readers with any analysis, let me do so.

Firstly, justifying the decision to bifurcate cantonments, the government has fed what I consider false reasons for this policy change. The justification is that ‘civilians who were, until now, not getting access to state government welfare schemes through the municipality, will now be in a position to avail them’. This is grossly incorrect, as in actuality civilians living and working in cantonments have never complained about not getting same welfare measures like those in municipal committees/corporations. Cantonment Boards that manage civilians in cantonments are legally ‘deemed municipalities’, with elected representatives, headed by a senior and efficient military officer. The truth is that no civilian wants to leave a cantonment, but many want to enter and live there because they are so well managed and where infrastructure and the environment are always better.

In my view, the real reasons for this bifurcation are that the premium on defence lands has become extremely high on account of the infrastructure developed and managed by the army, through the Cantonment Boards, that taking them out of the control of the army will enable disposing them off in future easily, especially when the land mafia in waiting for a bonanza of this nature!

As far as the military portion is concerned, no real conversion to military stations is needed as the existing military stations are the envy of all, as the best managed areas in all states.

The second issue relates to the thinking that the Indian Military is steeped in Colonial Culture, which needs to be wiped out and bifurcating civil and military areas would achieve it, as these cantonments were set up by the British colonialists!

This is yet another myth of the government, especially amongst the ‘darbaris’ who need to be educated that the armed forces had shed all colonial legacy issues soon after Independence and had retained only those practices that added to the professional competence, motivation and efficiency of all ranks.

Bifurcating cantonments are neither legacy issues nor do they achieve any major benefits to the armed forces. In actuality, there are more cons than pros in this policy!

At present, most cantonments have valuable space needed by the army units and formations during mobilisation for limbering up for operations; accommodating reinforcements or prisoners of war or even refugees; and other military requirements, as well as buffer areas for the security of the cantonments, especially when infiltration by militants and terrorists has been adopted as a war-waging capability by our adversaries. The latter is not confined to cantonments close to the borders but anywhere in the country.

Bifurcation, if not carried out sensibly, will also violate the Works of Defence Act, which stipulates that no buildings or dwellings of any type are permitted within 1000 yards of any defence works. In any bifurcation, it will be the endeavour of the governments, municipalities and corporations to take possession of the maximum areas, thus violating the points stated earlier.

There is also the danger of high-rise buildings coming up, which will overlook all parts of the adjoining military areas, a readymade hazard. Do recall the 13-storey building, ADARSH, that overlooks a large portion of military area in Colaba, Mumbai, which remains unoccupied and continues to dominate the area.

For the uninitiated, let me briefly explain what military lands and cantonments are and how they are currently managed. While the present cantonments are attributed to the British colonisers, most armies even earlier had permanent camps away from urban areas in all princely states of India. Many of these were taken over for the British Indian Army and only a few were established anew. As an example, one of the largest cantonments, Mhow in Madhya Pradesh, that has three premier training establishments and other units of the army located therein, was earlier the permanent camp of the powerful Holkar State Forces, since the 1730’s when Peshwa Baji Rao had granted the region of Indore to the Holkars’. It was only after the defeat of Holkars by the British in the Battle of Mahidpur that in 1818, the British troops commenced garrisoning Mhow and it became a cantonment.

Even the Mughals and the various Sultanates dotted all over the sub-continent, as well as Chhatrapati Shivaji’s troops and the Rajput kingdoms in the north and western parts of India were garrisoned away from the cities, so that they could train and be readily available; fort warfare of those times was fully in vogue by all these powers. Hence, to now attribute cantonments as only relics of colonial practices is patently wrong and is an unnecessary excuse, merely to push for changing the ethos of the armed forces on so-called British imperial practices that need to be eliminated!

There are 62 cantonments in India. At the time of Independence there were 56 and six more were notified after 1947, the last one being Ajmer in 1962. Each has a mix of military and civil areas. Most are old cantonments, where, over time the intermingling of military and civil areas is so great that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to divide them as military and civil areas. Keeping this in view, decades back, the army, which is the predominant landowner of defence lands, had taken the sensible decision of forming all future habitats as military stations and not cantonments.

Cantonments are different from the Military Stations in that the Military Stations are purely meant for the use and accommodation of the armed forces and these are established under an executive order, whereas the Cantonments are areas which comprise both military and civil population.

In the past, partial excisions have been carried out earlier in Ambala and Agra Cantonments, while cantonments like Dharamshala and Sitapur, among others were de-notified before 1947. However, today the civil areas have become so numerous that it may not be possible.

It is pertinent to point out here that even existing military stations have a smattering of civil population, like offices, staff and stores of Military Engineering Services (MES); offices and staff of Defence Estates Department; different types of schools, which do admit civilian students and teachers; banks and commercial establishments that serve and are essential to provide services to all ranks and their families.

However, they are not owners of shops, buildings and so on, but are transients. The Station Commander, usually of Brigadier rank, is still there and continues to manage, maintain and add to the infrastructure of the military station.

According to records maintained by the Defence Estates Offices, the defence ministry is the largest landowner in the country, with about 17.99 lakh acres. Of this, approximately 1.61 lakh acres is held within the 62 notified cantonments. The remaining land, around 16.38 lakh acre, is spread across the country and outside the cantonments. However, these figures are disputed. The defence ministry is not the largest owner of land bank among government departments. That honour goes to the ministry of railways. But the numbers vary. Data gleaned from the government land information system is often at variance with the annual reports of the respective departments of the ministries.

For example, at 723,919 acres, the railway ministry’s land bank falls short of the land data from the records of the Directorate General Defence Estates. In addition, the land holdings of the ministries of coal, power and heavy industries among others, are reckoned to be larger than that belonging to defence. As per the national asset register, all land held by the government of India is worth Rs 3.52 trillion.

The lack of consistency of data on these land parcels reveals the risk that the government runs in administering them. In this respect, defence land is particularly vulnerable to encroachments, as large chunks of it are located in and around cities.

The custodians of all A category defence lands are the Army Commanders (GOC’s-in-C), while the office of the Director General Defence Estates maintains all data and documents pertaining to the Land Bank of the Indian Military. For administrative purposes, the office of DG DE is assigned to work directly under the Ministry of Defence.

Affairs related to the cantonments, including construction of new buildings, height of building, commercial conversions, sewage and allied subjects are all controlled by the Cantonment Board in all cantonments.

A cantonment board is a civic administration body, under control of the Ministry of Defence. The board comprises elected members, besides ex-officio and nominated members as per the Cantonments Act, 2006, which had superseded the Cantonment Act of 1924. The term of office of a member of a board is five years.

Cantonments are divided into four categories based on their size and population: class I (population exceeding 50,000), class II (population between 10,000 and 50,00), class III (population between 2500 and 10,000), and class IV (population less than 2500). A class I cantonment has eight elected civilians and eight government/military members, whereas a class IV cantonment has two elected civilians and two government/military members on the board.

A Category I Cantonment Board consists of eight elected members, three nominated military members, three ex-officio members (station commander, garrison engineer and senior executive medical officer), and one representative of the district magistrate.

The cantonment board takes care of mandatory duties such as provision of public health, water supply, sanitation, primary education, and street lighting etc. As the resources are owned by the Government of India, it does not levy any taxes. The Government of India provides financial assistance.

Each Cantonment has been nurtured with utmost care by the ‘Military Formations’ and the Station Commanders to create areas of green cover, cleanliness and discipline which can all be seen immediately on entering a Cantonment. Funds are allocated by the Centre and also raised by the Cantonment Boards.

Unfortunately, vested interests of Land Mafia, Builders and some MPs/Politicians, have resulted in the exponential expansion of towns/cities in a haphazard manner, almost assimilating Cantonments within them. Representations were made by Cantonment Boards/Military Authorities, but most were ignored.

A draft Cantonment Act was circulated by the government in 2020. A very senior veteran of the 1ST JSW Course had made the following comments on it:

Dear Minister,

Have seen the above mentioned over 180-page Draft Act. I understand it has been put out to obtain the views of people who may be affected by it or have seen it working while they were serving. I retired in 1990 and have seen and lived in a number of Cantts all over the country. I have seen them change from bare habitations in 1952, when I was commissioned, to green oasis. While the administration in the Cantts has been improving exponentially because of the discipline imposed by the military commanders in charge, the cities around them have deteriorated at an ever-faster pace. Is it the aim of this new Act to bring both to the lowest common denominator?

If a new Act is deemed necessary the list of flaws in the old Act must be provided and explained as to how these deficiencies are being rectified in the proposed Act. Unless this is done, the exercise of getting views about the proposed Act is futile. To my mind the only reason why the new Act is being foisted on the Defence Services is that our politicians and bureaucrats want to control real estate on which their writ presently does not run. The Defence Estates Department was recommended to be abolished by the CAG a couple of decades ago because of rampant corruption but I see that it is being resuscitated and given more powers in the new Act!

In view of the above, may I request that the views of the military fraternity be sought only when the Draft Act is provided with a list of flaws in the old Act along with the remedies proposed in the new Act”.

For better understanding of defence lands, let me append some facts and figures.

Defence lands are divided into the following categories:

A 1 Land. Under Active occupation of Army.

A 2 Land. Reserved for future occupation of Army (Vacant).

B 1 Land. Placed under management of Central Government. (Like Hyderabad Airport Development Authority Land)

B 2 Land. Private Land

B 3 Land. Land belongs to Ministry of Defence but given on lease (Outside civil area).

B 4 Land. Defence Land (Vacant)

C Land. Cantonment Board Land for its use.

D Land. Contaminated Soil and Cover, and may contain Contaminated Groundwater.

Most old cantonments have ‘old grant bungalows.’ These were initially granted to officers, who were given licences of land sites, on which they could build houses. No right of property for the land was, however, ever granted to them. Later, civilians were also allowed to build such houses on lands belonging to the State, but these houses were to be hired by them.

Let me end this piece with an episode from history.

‘The Tamil Nadu Government had been coveting the Fort Secretariat and adjoining Islands in Chennai that were part of defence lands for long.

In the aftermath of 1971 war, Mr. Madhavan, a minister from the State Government met Babu Jagjivan Ram, the Raksha Mantri and requested for the defence land. The Raksha Mantri asked him to peruse a written report that stated that during the first week of December 1971, a threat by the US aircraft carrier Enterprise had developed on the Tamil Nadu coastal areas.

Fearing an attack, Chennai was in turmoil and almost depopulated with more than 75% leaving. The Raksha Mantri then asked the Minister: "If your citizens face such a situation in future and additional troops are brought for handling the situation, where will they be accommodated other than defence lands' '? The Minister from Tamil Nady left without any more pleas.

So, we did have political leaders who were sagacious and not greedy.

It is another matter that many years later, with changes in personalities, the army was forced to part with the land!”

While ending this epistle, I would like to state that considering the pros and cons, we do need to take measures to ensure that defence lands are not usurped by anyone. We need to safeguard defence lands and take measures to reduce, if not eliminate their being gobbled up by the rapacious appetite of the powerful politicians and their advisers/associates, in conjunction with the land sharks.

In my view, the biggest culprit and cause of facilitating the transfer of valuable defence land is the staff of DG DE and its subordinate offices, who are ever ready to line their pockets. The services, especially the army also needs to be blamed for a general indifference to the subject. The main reason is that we are a highly command-oriented army, where operations are supreme and administration/logistics take a back seat. This must change.

In this respect, the CDS and his integrated staff need to add the safeguarding of defence lands as yet another task to his huge list of ‘to do’ actions. However, as an example, even though the HQ Integrated Staff has been in existence for over 20 years now, the services have not been able to get the DG Armed Forces Medical Services to move from the MoD to this HQ. Perhaps the medicos do not want it either! If we are able to do so, the problems of slow reforms in the ECHS may also get solved earlier than what is happening now.

There are many areas of reforms and it is for this reason, if no other, that the CDS and the Service Chiefs, individually and collectively, must forcefully project reforms for all ranks that are essential for both the serving officers, JCO’s and Jawans, as well as the veterans.

Lt General Vijay Oberoi is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff and the Former Founder Director of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), and now its Director General Emeritus. Views expressed are the writer’s own.