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Outdated & Obsolete

A proposal to abolish cantonments, for which the defence ministry incurs about Rs 500 crore, has been welcomed by civilians residing there as it will mean restoration of their ownership and fundamental rights

By Mukul Shrawat, Judge

It is a welcome move of the government to abolish laws which were introduced under British colonial rule. In this regard, India has witnessed the repealing of more than 1,000 such laws with the introduction of the Repealing and Amending Bill, 2023 or Jan Vishwas (Amendment of Provisions) Bill on August 2, 2023. Most of these laws had become redundant and obsolete in modern times.

In this regard, there is a proposal to abolish The Cantonment Act, 2006. Those residing within Cantonment Boards are happy and thankful about this change. At present, around 62 cantonments are in existence in India, where lakhs of civilians are residing. 

The Cantonment Area came into existence with the passing of a resolution by the British Parliament on May 17, 1773, where it was pronounced that all property/land that had come into the possession of the East India Company was to be recognised as the property of the British government. In April 1801, the Governor general-in-council ordered that no bungalows or residential accommodation in cantonments could be owned by anyone other than the army. Later on, permission was given to civilians for occupation of cantonment lands “on grants”, but without ownership rights.                         

In recent times, the Ministry of Defence has on a number of occasions raised the necessity of re-framing outdated and burdensome rules. An estimated expenditure of Rs 500 crore is incurred by the Ministry for the maintenance of cantonment boards all over the country. Senior army officers have questioned this expenditure on the ground that in return army personnel are not gaining anything.  

Cantonments were created with the solitary purpose of establishing “military stations” to provide security and safety to British Forces facing mutiny or hostility. After 75 years of Independence, the need of the hour is to redefine the territories of cantonment boards, their control and managing authority. 

There are huge acres and acres of land lying vacant in cantonment boards. As of June 30, 2011, total defence land holding was approximately 18 lakh acres. The excision or carving-out of cantonments is necessary in order to segregate the civilian area from the land area exclusively under control of “military stations”. There must not be inter-mixing of “military establishments” with the civilian population. 

Civilians residing within cantonment boards have faced a number of problems for the past several decades. The draconian colonial laws still haunt Indians even after 75 years of Independence. 

These civilians are deprived of the advantages of “Panchayati Raj”. The General Land Register (GLR), as prepared by the Defence Estate Officer (DEO), is not allowed to record ownership rights to civilians even though they are residing and occupying their respective properties as owners before 1947. However, the implementation of Cantonment Land Administration Rules (CLAR), 1937, was changed/ manipulated and shown as “government land” in GLR. 

Resident civilians are thus denied their constitutional rights of ownership of their properties in cantonments. Due to the lack of ownership rights, they are also deprived of other fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. They cannot sell, mortgage, gift, or even transfer through a Will these properties.

They also face hindrances in obtaining permission from the DEO for renovation or repair of their residence inside the cantonment. Even to get a permission to repair a leaky roof is cumbersome.

However, there is no necessity to introduce a new enactment or to amend the existing provisions under The Cantonments Act, 2006. The exclusion clause is already in existence in Section 4 of the Act, titled “Alteration of limits of Cantonments”. This Section prescribes excluding from the cantonment any local area comprised therein.

There is an inbuilt procedure laid down under the Cantonments Act itself that by notification in the Official Gazette, the central government is empowered to declare its intention to exclude any local area comprising therein. 

Likewise, in Sections 6, 7, 8 of the Cantonments Act, 2006, the requisite procedure is laid down to deal with the funds and the land when it ceases to be under the control of a particular board. These Sections have laid down the determination of liabilities of the Board and how they are to be satisfied. Section 8 prescribes that a cantonment fund on secession/excision is to be applied first to satisfy the liabilities of the Board and secondly, for the benefit of the inhabitants of the local area which has ceased to be a cantonment.

There is applicability of other laws too here. The Urban Land (Ceiling and Regulation) Act, 1976 (No. 33 of 1976) promulgated on February17, 1976, provided a ceiling on vacant land in urban agglomerations. With a view to prevent concentration of urban land in the hands of a few, under the said Act, notices were issued and in all cases, the land area was declared “excess land”, resulting in acquisition by the government. A number of private land appurtenant to bungalows were thus acquired by the government under the Urban Land (Ceiling and Regulation) Act. It means that the land appurtenant to bungalows within cantonment area was held as “Private Land” and not the “Government Land”. Undisputedly, the Urban Land Ceiling Act was not applicable on government land, but on private land only because a private person was not allowed to hold more than the prescribed limit of holding, and the rest of the land was declared “excess land”. 

This Act was found to be against public interest and against the Constitution of India and was repealed on March 22, 1999, as the Urban Land (Ceiling and Regulation) Repeal Act, 1999 (No. 15 of 1999) and was later on adopted by states. This means that a bungalow area situated within the territory of a cantonment which was treated as private land under the Ceiling Act became illegal and unconstitutional and was then treated as government land.   

Already, Yol cantonment in Himachal Pradesh has been abolished through an April 27, 2023, notification by the Ministry of Defence. This means that the 81-year-old KhasYol Cantonment Board has enabled civilian stakeholders to have access to welfare schemes, development plans and basic services, which were denied to them until now. On the same lines, other cantonments all over the country can also be abolished by due process of law so that a smooth transition can take place between the authorities.

A simple solution is that “Category – A land” be declared as military establishments and be controlled and occupied exclusively by establishing military stations. The rest of the formalities such as transfer of funds, allocation of liabilities, absorption of employees of cantonment board and transfer of land is possible on the basis of an evaluation matrix.

—The writer is former Judicial Member, Income Tax Appellate Tribunal and National Company Law Tribunal

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