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Raksha Mantri, please read this!

June 07, 2018 09:22 IST

'It's doubtful if serving defence personnel and their families will retain their faith in this government if such gimmicks allowing political considerations to over-ride security issues are allowed to prevail,' warns Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd).

Cannanore Cantonment

IMAGE: The Cannanore Cantonment is one of the four cantonments -- the Badami Bagh Cantonment in Srinagar, Satwari road in Jammu and Delhi Cantonment are the other three -- that the army wants exempt from the defence ministry's decision to allow civilians to access roads in military cantonments across India. Photograph: Kind courtesy https://k4kannur.blogspot.com

A few years ago, I went to Dehradun for a course-mates get-together.

It was my first trip to the city after passing out of the Indian Military Academy four decades earlier.

As I walked out of the railway station, the dirt, stench, honking and chaos was a blow to my expectations of the hill resort that it was 40 years down the line.

We have done it in all our towns. That quaint hill station of yore -- Dehradun had not escaped the axe either.

As the army bus drove us down the congested roads, I was sceptical, waiting to see how IMA had fared.

To what extent would the influence of the city have crept across the fencing of IMA to convert that stately institution into one confirming with the host city.

As the bus crossed the gates, the view ahead was exhilarating: Amazingly clean, tree lined roads with lawns on both sides that would put any European capital to shame.

The single thought that crossed my mind was: Why can't Dehradun city try to emulate IMA's standards. That could have been called progress!

 

We are now on a journey in reverse gear, to turn our cantonments/military stations into the dirty mess that we have made of our towns and cities.

It is the story of Indian crabs, repackaged.

The first and the most important tenet that we would have dumped in the bargain is the fact that our cantonments serve as the city's lungs.

If the Delhi ridge is one of its lungs, the other one is Delhi cantonment.

All cantonments serve their host cities so. A look at military stations in deserts is especially relevant. They appear as oasis in the deserts; a reward for sustained efforts at greening the cantts.

The cantonments also house trillions of dollars worth equipment.

The soldiers who reside there are not there just to benefit in terms of housing and allied facilities, they guard the nation's military assets.

There is a reason to position the men there. The cantonments also house our operational plans which are guarded 24 hours.

Most cantonments also have ammunition dumps, highly sensitive with the attendant risk of detonation if there be any lapse.

Ammunition and petrol dumps are not kept entirely centrally at one place. These are spread out in all units in the station. Most of these units within the station have no separate walled boundaries.

It is the soldiers residing all around the station that provide a layer of security cover. The rest of it is by controlling unauthorised entry and guarding a large number of vulnerable points by deploying additional personnel.

The MoD's decision to open up the cantonments found army wives up in arms. There is reason for such fear. Half the time, these women are alone at home, with their men out on night duties.

For months together, units and formations in peace stations are out for exercises with minimum strength left behind for security of the cantonments.

Nowhere in a town are these conditions experienced. For most families, the men returning home at night is more the order of the day.

A lot of army wives living in military stations have come out of their villages for the first time.

When their husbands are not around it is the camaraderie among army wives that keeps them going. To have hordes of cars and motorcyclists zooming on the roads next to their homes will cause consternation.

Separated families whose husbands are in field areas could well panic if these crowds deviate from the main arterial roads to the residential colonies that are located along the thoroughfares.

Every entry to the multiple housing complexes within cantts cannot be manned. The military simply does not have so much manpower after guarding its vital assets.

Even if a minimum degree of accountability is inculcated in our governance, our cities can improve to meet the citizen's expectations to a great extent.

The problem lies with non-functional municipalities, corruption and sheer lack of planning.

Our cities have grown without a plan/plans being flouted openly.

Whether it is drainage, disposal of waste, water supply, maintenance of roads, in fact every aspect of town planning has been buried under the weed of corruption.

The situation will not ease by opening up the cantonments. In fact, it could well drive the culture of our city streets into the firmament of the sole robust organisation we still have.

There are legal implications to the move to open up cantonments, with land being divided in various categories and sub-categories that go to decide their utilisation and administrative control of various authorities like the military station commander and the chief executive officer of the MoD.

The MoD has taken the decision to open the roads based on the requests of MPs and the vice- presidents of the cantonment boards who represent these areas. The decision is obviously politically loaded.

With our history of attacks on Pathankot, Gurdaspur and a large number of military and police establishments in Jammu and Kashmir, the lack of discretion is particularly galling.

The attack on military family quarters leaving a trail of 23 dead -- including 10 women and 8 children -- in May 2002 at Kaluchak seems to have been forgotten.

We have also left behind memories of the 26/11 Mumbai carnage. For terrorist groups, there are no targets as lucrative as military cantonments.

Nothing will embarrass the country more.

The government has not yet been able to resolve the OROP issue in spite of having taken very substantial steps. By ordering the cantonment roads to be opened, the defence minister has taken the battle to the streets.

Those battling her this time are serving defence personnel and their families. It's doubtful if they will retain their faith in this government if such gimmicks allowing political considerations to over-ride security issues are allowed to prevail.

Finally, in a country where breaking the law and going scot free is getting to be normal, let the military guard its gates.

Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd)