Ideally, state governments must shape policies to ensure that the benefits of incorporation into municipalities are also accessible to poor and lower middle-class sections.


Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (Retd) 


The government’s plan to disband military cantonments was set in motion on 27 April, when, following a notification from the Ministry of Defence, Himachal Pradesh’s Yol cantonment ceased to exist as one. The decision meant that the identified civil areas of these former cantonments would merge with adjoining civilian municipalities/local bodies while the armed forces would exclusively administer the remaining portions as military stations. The order was projected as a reform meant to do away with an ‘archaic colonial practice’. According to media reports, Nasirabad cantonment in Rajasthan is next in line. It will likely be followed, wherever possible, by the bisection of the existing 62 cantonments across India.


The reality of cantonment conversion

The conversion of cantonments to military stations has been under discussion for decades, driven in part by the growth of civilian populations in and around these cantonments. This demarcation involves segregating the cantonment into military and civilian areas. However, this is easier said than done due to the commingling of civilian and military elements such as population, infrastructure and civic amenities. It is also a task that will require concluding agreements between the MoD and municipal/local authorities.

For the state, it means a greater outflow of financial resources for the enlargement of civic responsibilities. As for the military, it should mean that the earlier practice of financial allotment to cantonment boards in the form of ‘grants in aid’ by the MoD could now be devoted exclusively to military stations that would have to cater to lesser populations and reduced civic amenities.


Who will reap benefits?

The well-to-do can be expected to reap greater benefits from the exploitation of civic areas by real estate moguls. In league with politicians and officialdom, these groups would profit from the growing population pressure on land. The case of Yol cantonment is illustrative.

The Army has been pushing for the denotification of Yol cantonment for over a decade. There are large chunks of private land inside the cantonment where senior military officers have constructed bungalows. It also includes a housing colony with about 80 homes. Now the situation is set to get worse as, inside the former cantonment, building restrictions will no longer apply and new building bylaws will prevail. Land sharks will be in stalking mode, and a similar situation will likely prevail in most denotified cantonments.

Ideally, state governments must shape policies/rules to ensure that the benefits of incorporation into municipalities are also accessible to poor and lower middle-class sections. But it is unlikely to happen, as in most places (like Yol), local politicians will pursue their narrow vested interests in connivance with land sharks and some segments of military authorities.

Conversion can improve the quality of life in military stations while providing enhanced security due to shedding of responsibilities connected to the civil population. Significant portions of existing infrastructure – in terms of the Army’s barracks, offices and housing – is from the pre-Independence era and need rebuilding and major repairs. This requirement has been troubled for long by constraints of the defence budget as well as poor management.


Scheme’s success rests on transparency

Thus far, the policy governing land assets taken over by central/state entities for building infrastructure for any purpose entailed compensation to the MoD. The question that arises now is that, though the MoD can decide to denotify cantonments, would the state have the monetary means for compensation? If the state does not have the means for compensation, how can cantonments be done away with? In the case of Yol, the order for denotification would have been preceded by long-drawn negotiations between the Himachal Pradesh government and the MoD. It is not yet known whether compensation is involved and how much will be paid if it is. If nothing is going to be paid, has the MoD evolved a new policy on handing over defence land to state authorities? These are questions that will finally determine the delivery of possible benefits.

The scheme’s success will depend on the MoD being able to negotiate the reform path in an ambience of transparency. The process would also depend on the MoD’s and the state government’s budget constraints. If, for whatever reason, the policy is to allow conversion without compensation, military benefits will be restricted mostly to the domain of security. The main beneficaries would then be the real estate lobby that will leverage the pervasive culture of corruption that remains deeply embedded in property and land transactions.

It is also possible that converting some cantonments to military stations could translate into a positive reform. But as usual, the devil lies in the details. A scarce resource like land in existing cantonments would attract the worst propensities of real estate sharks who have acquired financial power that can be used to bend the rules and procedures. Only transparency in the deals between the MoD, the state and private parties can keep the forces of corruption under check.

Therefore, the MoD must publicise details of the deal it struck in Yol. The information will indicate who the actual beneficiaries of the conversion will be. Would it be the civilian population, the military organisation, private real estate entities or all/some of them? Without transparency, the answer will continue blowing in the wind.