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In PMO pitch for cantonment abolition, caution is the best way ahead

Even as the centre mulls over abolishing cantonments, the fact is that they have played a crucial role in securing the country against enemies and terrorists and should be guarded at all costs.

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By Praful Bakshi 

Recently, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) sought comments on the abolition of cantonments from all cantonment boards. This surprising development is likely to compromise the security of the nation and cannot be overlooked.

If one studies the history of ancient India, one will realise that every city was secured and protected by the nation’s army, with the king as the commander-in-chief and the total administration more like the fortified cantonment of today. Many experts still think that a military cantonment is a western concept. In India, the British rulers emphasised segregation between the whites and the natives. Hence, the real military and strategic reason for creating cantonments was shrouded in political and social arguments.                

The French expression canton developed into cantonment and indicates a corner or district where winter quarters were established during a military campaign so that army formations could be encamped and trained. The stay here could be much longer than during ordinary tactical manoeuvres. The French canton shares its etymological expression with the Swiss canton. 

In the evolution of mankind, security and safety occupy a prominent place. This was mentioned by Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, which includes physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualisation needs. As early as 3000 BC, civilisations in Mesopotamia and India were developed by creation of small towns along rivers with fortified banks and high walls guarded by armed soldiers. The two-fold requirement of this enclosure was protection of people and the wealth of the community.

As European and British colonisation grew, the development of the military garrison or cantonment grew in the subcontinent (Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka) and could also be seen in Malaysia, Ghana, South Africa and Singapore.

There are four types of cants: Port cities, cantonments, hill stations and railway townships. Port cities such as Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, various hill stations and railway townships developed into cantonments due to security needs. In the case of hill stations, British officers and soldiers were stationed there for considerable periods. Cantonments also made the lives of British officers and their families safer, secure, cleaner and healthier as they were cocooned away from cities and therefore, from epidemics and other diseases.

Cantonments in India were developed in the first few decades of the 19th century and along the main routes at strategic places. Their development was directly proportional to British military expansion and its need to control conquered and occupied cities and to integrate them into the colonial economic system. Gradually, these cantonments developed into flourishing settlements, with accommodation for the officers of the Raj, native soldiers and camp followers and had areas for horses, camels and mules. Regular bazaars came up, and were well-segregated for the benefit of the colonisers. They also gave great impetus to the socio-economic development of the local populace and agricultural development, which included military dairy farms. Famous convents and other schools came up, followed by colleges and teaching and sporting establishments which can still be seen all over India. With the passage of time, these camps became permanent.

In 1924, the British brought out a special Cantonment Act. The Act introduced the representative local government system under which the elected representative of the civil population became a member of the cantonment board. The first of these garrisons came up in 1805 in Meerut. India now has 62 cantonments and a few military stations. (These are strictly for the accommodation of fighting forces and equipment and have practically nil civil establishments.)

Some of the famous cantonments are at Meerut, Allahabad, Jabalpur, Pulgaon, Agra, Pune, Bangalore, Delhi, Srinagar, Jammu, Nagarkot, Pathankot, Mathura, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Barrackpore. Besides housing, they have ammunition depots, missile bases, armoured vehicle depots, technical equipment, radars, aviation store depots, training establishments and now, nuclear and associated devices.

All these not only require vast open spaces, but a great amount of security and protection. Few realise that when the cantonments were being set up, there was not just a requirement for housing, training of troops and storage of fighting equipment, but for privacy, which the foreign coloniser valued. Hence, the location of these cants was outside cities, practically in the wilderness where the common citizen would never feel the need to go.

But with industrialisation and increasing population, towns sprouted all around the cant area. This led to road travellers taking shortcuts into cantonment areas to save time. The clean and healthy surroundings of well-maintained cantonments started attracting more and more people, who naturally loved the beautiful environments, parks and efficient markets in a safe and secure atmosphere.

This led to the growth of population around cants and increasing infrastructure such as roads and Metros right next to military equipment, fuel and ammunition depot, creating a hazardous situation. There is need for immediate action to distance them from the civil population.

As modern cantonments are now a vast collection of ammunition stores and other explosives, some of which are radioactive, they demand strict distancing from the population by creating a sanitised belt of 900-1,000 m all around. This requirement already exists in old SOPs and government orders but has been ignored by vested interests for obvious gains. They have allowed town planners and builders to come right up to the walls of military establishments. In some cases, shops and hotels share the same wall with military depots.  

The matter is so serious that a missile storage depot near Delhi has a main highway right next to it, and as per experts, the vibrations of the heavy traffic constantly disturb the fusing system of the missiles. This poses a serious danger to the civilian population. The phenomenon is common for a large number of ordnance depots housing state-of-the-art weaponry and lethal missiles. One such case is Shakurbasti Ordnance Depot in Delhi. 

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Keeping in mind the developing security situation due to various threats such as the Taliban, ISIS and Naxals, there is an urgent need to review the threat to these military zones. This has been amply demonstrated by attacks in Pathankot, Sambha, Nagrota, Srinagar and other military locations. 

Therefore, the government’s proposal to open cantonment roads for the public is fraught with risks and could be due to being misinformed. Of course, civilians too stay in cants and have businesses within, but this still does not mean the roads can be thrown open to the public. The deteriorating security scenario must be reviewed and stricter measures introduced. This situation must be studied in the light of the fact that with men of the defence cadre being away from home on various duties at the borders, their families can become easy targets for terrorist elements as was seen in Nagrota twice. Here, terrorists stayed for over five days inside the cant, shooting innocent women and children. Similar incidents have taken place in Sambha and Jammu too.

It does not require much wisdom to realise that converting a military cantonment into a regular thoroughfare for commuters and allowing the public to loiter there unchecked is a sure recipe for disaster. With the PMO asking for comments on the abolition of cantonments, one realises that the top decision-makers of the country are not aware of the requirements which call for stricter application of rules to make cantonments more secure and safe. This problem must be studied by an independent body made up of various station commanders along with their advisers, members of the various cantonment boards, security and sociological experts and representatives from the ministry of defence.

Lastly, no political party must be allowed to get mileage out of this issue for whatever gain it has in mind. This would dishearten and demoralise the fighting forces who are ready to lay down their lives for the safety of the country. 

—The writer is a military analyst and air accident investigator

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