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Monday, October 18, 2021

‘Pockets of colonial rule inside a democracy’: Calls for merger of Secunderabad Cantt with GHMC gather steam

This week, Telangana Minister K T Rama Rao backed the demand when he tweeted in the agreement of a merger of areas under the two bodies.

Written by Rahul V Pisharody | Hyderabad |
Updated: September 23, 2021 9:33:02 pm
Secunderbad Cantonment along with six zones in Hyderabad. (Wikipedia/ Harsha Devulapalli)

For the past many decades, residents of the Secunderabad Cantonment have wanted their civilian localities to be merged with the adjoining Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) fearing they would be left behind in a British-era time warp even as the rest of the city developed at a breakneck speed.

This week, Telangana Minister K T Rama Rao backed the demand when he tweeted in the agreement of a merger of areas under the two bodies.

Second-largest among the 62 cantonment boards in the country, the Secunderabad Cantonment has one of the densest civilian populations of close to five lakh people spread over about 40.17 sq km. Of the 9,800 acres under the Secunderabad Cantonment Board (SCB), nearly 5,400 acres are military stations, and the rest are already developed colonies, slums, and private lands. Interestingly, Rasoolpura, one of India’s largest slums, is under the SCB, just a few kilometres away from the Chief Minister’s Office.

The SCB is the civic administrative agency of the cantonment and an urban local body under the administrative control of the Ministry of Defence, constituted under the Cantonments Act, 1924, and Cantonments Act, 2006. Apart from the eight nominated members including the President, District Magistrate, and the Chief Executive Officer, the Board comprises public representatives elected from its eight municipal wards.But people living in the board’s jurisdiction have for decades been complaining of being deprived of better and wider roads, proper infrastructure and even sanitation.

In fact, the demand for merger of the civilian areas of cantonment into the municipal corporation dates started soon after Hyderabad acceded into Indian Union in 1948, explains Jeetender Surana, general secretary of the Secunderabad Cantonment Citizens Welfare Association (SCCiWA). He blames this on the special conditions within the Secunderabad Cantonment under the Hyderabad State with all lands, except 17 properties, owned by the Nizam, his government or estates or noblemen. However, a 1956 resolution of the SCB unilaterally deemed all of it as Government of India lands.

The SCCiWA wants the colonial practice of cantonments done away with as it claimed they have become islands of deprivation within large cities witnessing rapid development, and suggests the Army has a superior status over civilians. Section 4 and 5 of the Cantonment Act, 2006 have provisions for alterations of limits of Cantonment by the Central government in consultation with the State and Board, the Association reminded.

Lack of accountability

CS Chandra Shekar, the secretary of Federation of North East Colonies of Secunderabad (FNECS), part of which are cut off by the cantonment, is of the view that these boards, though urban local bodies, are unaccountable to electors. This, he said, is because they function under the Cantonments Act, a colonial law that mandates that half the members of a cantonment board shall be nominated from among military and defence estates staff. He alleged that as a result the board often takes arbitrary and high-handed actions against the public interest. “While one part of the city basks in bright constitutional light another is subjugated under an undemocratic colonial law,” he claimed.

The elections to eight wards of SCB were due in 2020 but could not be held. In February 2021, after completion of a year’s extension given to elected representatives, the Ministry of Defence announced the formation of the ‘Varied Board’ in the place of the elected body. “The Varied Board should have a nominated civilian member apart from the President and CEO who are from the Army. Even today, we do not have a civilian representative,” Surana said.

Speaking about elections, Surana said even if elections were held to the Board, thousands of residents do not have the right to cast vote in SCB elections.

“Unfortunately, after passing of the Cantonment Act, 2006, all the house owners or citizens who were not having door numbers were excluded from the voters’ list. We can vote for elections to Parliament and State Assembly but are not able to vote for Cantonment Board elections. To rectify this, the Parliament has to amend the Act,” he noted.

The illegal closure of roads

It is not only the civilians living in the Cantonment but also residents of GHMC areas beyond who suffer from the lack of development. One of their major concerns is the closure of roads in the Cantonment because of which they are forced to take longer detours. Ch Simhadri, president of the Federation of New Bolarum Colonies Welfare Association (FNBCWA), notes that north-eastern parts of Hyderabad have been denied development due to the presence of Cantonment in between. As many as 21 of the 27 roads in the Cantonment that were earlier closed remain closed today. “To reach a destination 3 km away, we are forced to travel 9 km, and that’s just one example. Commuting is time-taking as all open roads are narrow and have numerous bottlenecks,” Simhadri said.

Recalling that closure of cantonment roads started as recently as in 2011, Surana said the local military authority has refused to open all roads despite orders from the Ministry of Defence and Army Headquarters in May 2018. At the moment, 21 roads are closed. On a few roads, civilians are allowed after Army personnel check their IDs and take down details in a register.

Chandra Sekhar highlighted that an important road was not only closed but also walled up at Lakdawala Gate. He said the C-category road (maintained by Cantonment) used to pass through the golf course and was major road connectivity for people living in Yapral. “Lakdawala Gate was the only bus stop providing direct bus connectivity to any part of the city. It used to take a 10-minute walk to reach the bus stop. As it vanished one day three years ago, we have to take a detour of 9 km,” he said.

‘Not problems unique to Cantonment’

Speaking to IndianExpress.com, B Ajith Reddy, the CEO of SCB, agreed that some people are aggrieved but said issues plaguing cantonment areas were only similar to those experienced by people in GHMC jurisdiction. According to him, the aspirations of people have increased and SCB has as much scope for improvement as GHMC.

“We cannot be blamed for everything. The Cantonment is an assembly constituency too, and we need support from the state government for improving our infrastructure. The state government is yet to pay SCB an amount of Rs 50 to 60 crore on account of Transfer of Property Tax, and another Rs 20-30 crore towards the share of professional tax. GST compensations are also not given by the state to SCB,” he countered.

Reddy asked why the state government’s free drinking water scheme implemented across the city had not been extended to the cantonment and why no funds were spent by the State under SC/ST sub-plan in this area. “With the given resources, we are more accessible and much more efficient,” he added.

On the road closures, the CEO only said it is not fully correct to say that all roads are closed. And about the need for widening the two main roads passing through the cantonment, Rajiv Rahadari and NH-44, Reddy said the then Defence Minister Arun Jaitley had granted permission in principle to the state government. “There were certain terms and conditions and the state government has not met them.” Asked about the delay in nomination of a member from civil society in the present ‘varied board’, he said a list of eligible persons was sent to the Ministry of Defence, and a response is awaited.

Jakkula Maheshwar Reddy, the outgoing Vice-President of SCB, highlighted howthe GHMC and the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA) are already working towards a smart city and planning for the next 50 years. “If SCB does not join in and continue to run the Cantonment with rigid-British-era rules and does not widen its roads and nalas, it is only a bubble waiting to burst.” Reddy, an elected member from ward-1 of SCB, was the V-P of the Board till February 2021.

According to him, the merger of civilian areas of the Cantonment into GHMC will only add four or five wards to the existing 150 municipal wards. “Both urban local bodies are doing the same work. But in Cantonment, we want wider roads, footpaths, wider nalas to prevent urban flooding and plan for the next 50 years. This will ensure the expansion of the city to the east and northeast,” Reddy said. “No one is talking about military stations. We believe people living in the rest of the areas and localities adjoining the cantonment deserve better infrastructure.”

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