Govt's decision to open military cantonments endangers national security, empowers corrupt defence estates

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharanman's unilateral order to open all 62 military cantonments to public evoked plenty of euphoria and victory parades by certain MPs and MLAs. The armed forces are seriously concerned about the security of their personnel, equipment and families. The latter become even more vulnerable when troops in cantonment move out for collective training, operational alerts, relief operations etc. This may be for months, as happened during Operation ‘Parakaram’. This increases the vulnerability of families and separated families living in cantonments.

Some argue against fearing the public, but military cantonments, personnel, equipment and families in cantonments are lucrative terrorist targets because of high publicity value – that’s why military establishments have been periodically targeted. Besides, free access implies free run to spies and saboteurs, aside from hooligans and unscrupulous elements. Moreover, when stringent personal and vehicle checks are ensured for entry to malls, what absurdity to give free access in cantonments?

Opening cantonments to public is being viewed as an attempt to increase BJP’s vote bank for elections next year. But there is a sinister motive behind it, which Sitharaman has apparently become party to indirectly. That the decision was taken in a meeting chaired by Sitharaman with Members of Parliament (not from Parliament’s Standing Committee for Defence) and elected vice-presidents of 62 cantonment boards, in the absence of the army chief, indicates the land mafia may have taken her for a ride.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

For decades, defence estates (DEs) directly under MoD, in conjunction cantonment boards, have been engaged in grabbing defence land and buildings of cantonments in connivance with politicians and the land mafia. DE officers look after requirements of Local Military Authorities (LMA) for land and buildings, and manage defence lands. All land acquisitions for army, navy and air force are carried out by DEs, which also maintain all defence land records. Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) head 62 cantonment boards, DEOs head 37 DE circles and four assistant DE offices. Both CEOs and DEOs are from Indian Defence Estates Service (IDES).

Political connections with the land mafia for personal and fiscal gains are well established. In 1992-1993, Sharad Pawar, as defence minster, was openly eyeing cantonments lands but the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao relieved him of the appointment. DEs have been consistently trying to assume ‘complete control’ over cantonments.  Director General DE (DGDE) took up the issue with the then Defence Minister Mulayam Singh in 1997 on plea of civilian inconvenience, but Mulayam rejected the plea, ruling that construction of roads bypassing cantonments or flyovers should be examined. In 2001-2002, DGDE Veena Maitra again took up case for complete takeover of all cantonments. This was vehemently opposed by the three service chiefs led by General S Padmanabhan and eventually shot down by Defence Ministers George Fernades and Jaswant Singh.

In the 62 military cantonments presently, over 13,000 acres of defence land is under encroachment and over 2,500 defence bungalows are under illegal occupation. A number of commercial properties are operating on defence land even without rent deeds. Despite clear orders of the Supreme Court for removal of encroachments and reclaiming of bungalows, DEs have not initiated action in most cases and are dragging their feet in others. Corruption is so deep-rooted in defence estates that CGDA had recommended its disbandment in 2010.

This time, the DGDE has acted smarter by keeping service chiefs out of the meeting that made the decision, terming it a trial for a month, and rubbing it in that closure of any road by an army commander must be vetted by DGDE under MoD. Ironically, instead of clamping down on the DEs, Sitharaman has given them overriding powers over the armed forces. Possibly, she has been kept in the dark by being briefed only on selected portions of Cantonment Board Act 2006, which anyway can only be applied in conjunction other relevant acts and regulations. She needs to consider the following points:

• Functions of cantonment boards, listed in Cantonment Board Act 2006, are purely civic or municipal in nature; they do not deal with security of military area and establishments.

• All military establishments and installations are categorised “Prohibited Areas” under Official Secrets Act 1923, Section 2(8).

• The armed forces are empowered under the Official Secrets Act 1923 not to allow entry into prohibited areas without ascertain identity.

• Armed Forces are responsible for ensuring safety and security of defence establishments and stations under Section 7 of the Official Secrets Act. Security, responsibility and procedures for armed forces have been laid down in Para 1160 and Appendix AD of Defence Service Regulations 1987.

• Trespassing into prohibited areas without valid identity and purpose is a criminal offence under the Criminal Pena Code (CrPc).

• Cantonments are also covered under the Works of Defence (WoD) Act laying down specific security restrictions.

• Court judgments exist upholding validity of Official Secrets Act 1923 and WoD Act.

From the above, it may be seen that arbitrary orders to open up cantonments are legally untenable, being in violation of the Official Secrets Act, the Works of Defence Act, Defence Service Regulations. Most importantly, they endanger national security and empower further defence estates; “most corrupt” part of MoD whose functions CGDA recommended be taken over by land directorates of the Service Headquarters. Defence Minister Sitharaman needs to revoke the orders for opening of cantonments forthwith, despite political opposition and the DGDE goading her to make it a prestige issue.

The author is a retired lieutenant-general of the Indian Army.

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Updated Date: Jun 05, 2018 18:32:53 IST

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