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Army may shut all cantonments to save money

Army may shut all cantonments to save moneyNEW DELHI: Almost 250 years after the first cantonment to house troops was established at Barrackpore by the British, and their number slowly grew to 62 over time, the Army is now open to the idea of abolishing them across the country and saving funds spent on maintenance.

The Army has conveyed to the defence ministry (MoD) that military areas within cantonments can be converted into “exclusive military stations”, with it exercising “absolute control” over them, while the civilian areas are handed over to local municipal authorities for maintenance and other purposes, say officials.

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The top Army hierarchy believes the step will help reduce the strain on the country’s defence budget for the annual maintenance of cantonments, which amounts to Rs 476 crore this year, as well as strengthen security in military stations, simplify their land management and prevent encroachments.

Army chief General Bipin Rawat, in fact, has already ordered a feasibility study into the entire matter to be concluded by early-September. “The proposal to abolish cantonments is not new. Under a study team chaired by the defence secretary on the “Relevance of Cantonments in India” in 2015, the Mhow, Lucknow, Almora, Ahmednagar, Ferozepur and Yol cantonments were identified for excision of civilian areas. It is already underway at Yol,” said a senior officer.

But the proposed step is bound to generate a lot of controversies since similar moves have failed in the past because of widespread criticism that the powerful politician-builder lobby was eyeing cantonments after virtually running out of lucrative land in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Lucknow, Pune, Kolkata, Ambala and others. It also comes at a time when a major section of the military community is up in arms over the MoD’s decision in May to reopen all closed roads in the 62 cantonments for civilian commuter traffic.

Of the 17.3 lakh acres of land owned by the MoD in the country, almost 2 lakh acres fall in the 62 cantonments in 19 states. When most of the cantonments came up before Independence, they were located far away from populated areas or on the outskirts of towns. But with the population explosion and growing urbanization, cantonments now constitute prime property within cities.

After Independence, the Army gradually moved away from the concepts of cantonments due to the inclusion of civilian areas in them, and the attendant friction between military and civilian authorities, to progressively establish 237 military stations for their needs.

Defence officials say several parliamentary committees and CAG reports have “adversely commented” on the functioning of cantonments, which have their own laws and administration under a special Cantonment Act, as also mismanagement of leases, unauthorized constructions, encroachments and the like. “If the leases are managed properly and expired leases are terminated, the government can earn a lot of revenue and get land for creation of Army infrastructure,” said an official.

Civilians living inside the cantonments are also often deprived of various welfare schemes sponsored by the central and state governments because they do not fall in “municipal boundaries” to be eligible for them.

“With introduction of GST, the toll tax system of cantonments has also been abolished. Cantonments, therefore, are unable to self-sustain themselves because of meagre resources available to them for maintenance and reluctance of state governments to share GST revenues with cantonment boards,” he added.

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