Families of Army officers and retired Army personnel continue to rage against the government’s order last month to open all roads in military cantonments. Retired officers have used social media to vent, and the wives of some Army officers have met Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman with the hope that the government would rescind or amend its order. Going by the statements of the Minister and Army Chief General Bipin Rawat, however, no change looks likely.
The major objection to the opening of roads is related to the security of military installations and families of Army personnel staying inside the cantonments. There is also fear that the land mafia might try to encroach on defence land in the cantonments. Retired officers complain that the decision was taken without consulting the Army.
Official correspondence accessed by The Indian Express under the Right to Information Act shows the order followed a litany of complaints to the Ministry from Members of Parliament representing all major political parties.
In December last year, Pune MP Anil Shirole wrote that a cemetery in Koregaon Park had become out of bounds for residents of Ghorpadi, as the road from Ghorpadi to Kalyani Nagar had been closed by the Army. Nashik MP Hemant Godse wrote about the Mhasoba temple in Deolali cantonment, besides the Muslim and Bohra graveyards, which were the only ones that citizens in these areas had. Malkajgari MP Ch Malla Reddy complained that the Holy Trinity Church in the Secunderabad cantonment had been shut out.
In April and May, the Defence Minister had a series of meetings with all stakeholders, including senior Army officers dealing with the subject, before the order for opening all roads in cantonments was issued. A procedure for closing any road based on intelligence inputs and for security considerations was also formally given by the Ministry.
At a press conference, Sitharaman said a total 850 roads had been closed in 62 cantonments across India. Out of these, 119 had been closed by the local military authorities without following the existing procedure. After the Ministry’s order, 80 of these were opened fully, and 15 partially. But 24 roads remained closed. The Ministry proposes to undertake a review of the state of roads in cantonments later this month.
The government argues that its orders do not affect the security posture as they do not deal with military stations but only with cantonments. There are 467 military stations in the country, and 62 cantonments, which were designed as places of residence of both civilians and military personnel. Cantonment Boards, which are elected bodies, run 203 schools, 88 hospitals, and 46 vocational training centres, and cater to a civilian population of more than 21 lakh. Moreover, cantonments, unlike military stations, are notified in the gazette and governed by an Act of Parliament. Any change in the governance of cantonments that bars civilians from using roads, needs an amendment to the Act by Parliament.
According to data provided to Parliament, there are 17.57 lakh acres of defence land in the country. Only 1.57 lakh acres are in the 62 military cantonments. While this is prime property in most major cities, government sources estimate that only a very small part of the nearly 10,000 acres of encroached military land is in these cantonments. The sources also point out that the Colaba military station in Mumbai saw transfer of land for the Adarsh building from the military, with senior military officials allegedly benefitting from their order.
The debate has become emotional in ways that are similar to the demand for One Rank One Pension (OROP) by retired military personnel earlier. It suggests a deterioration of civil-military relations, with many military personnel believing they were being deliberately snubbed by civilian officials and politicians. A section of the civilian establishment, in turn feels that certain military personnel are demanding special privileges.