|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
During NDA-1, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharanman's unilateral order to open all 62 military cantonments to public made headlines, with political victory parades led by MPs/MLAs marching through cantonments. Despite gaining Independence in 1947, defence of India remains responsibility of the defence secretary, not defence minister, vide Allocation of Business & Transaction of Business Rules Act 1961. Political parties in power have traditionally used defence ministers to collect funds through imports and in concert the governmental defence-industrial complex. Sitharaman went beyond to also increase the vote bank, as indicated by political victory parades through military cantonments that were forced open. For decades Defence Estates (DE) directly under Ministry of Defence (MoD), in conjunction Cantonment Boards, have been engaged in grabbing defence land and buildings of cantonments in connivance politicians and the land mafia for personal and fiscal gains. In 1992-1993, Defence Minister Sharad Pawar openly eyed cantonments lands but mercifully he was relieved of the appointment.
In 1997, plea by DE to assume 'complete control' over cantonments was rejected by the defence minister, who ruled that construction of roads bypassing cantonments or flyovers be examined. In 2001-2002, DE again took up case for taking over 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. Ironically, the decision to open all 62 cantonments was taken in a meeting chaired by Sitharaman with Members of Parliament (none from Parliament's Standing Committee for Defence) and elected Vice Presidents of 62 Cantonment Boards, in absence of the Army Chief. Prior to announcing the decision, misinformation was injected in media that proceeds from transferring defence land to civil would go towards the defence budget. Reports also stated Army was planning these funds for modernisation. But later Sitharaman stated that nothing from the proceeds would go towards the defence budget. Before opening the 62 military cantonments, over 13,000 acres defence land was under encroachment and over 2,500 Defence Bungalows under illegal occupation. A number of commercial properties were operating on defence land even without rent deeds. Despite explicit orders of Supreme Court for removing encroachments and reclaiming Bungalows, Defence Estates (DE) didn't initiate action in most cases. Corruption is so deep routed in DE that in 2010, the Controller General of Defence Accounts had labeled DE "most corrupt" part of MoD, recommending merger of its functions with land directorates of the Service Headquarters; following which the defence minister had ordered a study for implementation. But Sitharaman did the exact opposite, empowering DE to maximum possible extent.
News reports of August 25, 2019, now reveal that MoD, which has handed over its prime land to states for infrastructure development in exchange for land of equal value elsewhere, has not received any land or compensation in lieu of that. It further elaborates that around 1,600 acres of cantonment land in Delhi, Mumbai, Lucknow, Bengaluru, Secunderabad and in some areas of Punjab and Tamil Nadu, among others, were allowed to be used for civil infrastructure, and that at market rates, cost of this land would be more than 20,000 crore. MoD had reportedly agreed to a 'land exchange plan' but States are yet to allot land to the MoD despite reminders. News reports also indicate that apart from the issue of getting land in lieu of the area given for infrastructure development, land management has been lackadaisical.
Computerisation of defence land records under the 'Raksha Bhoomi' project by DE in association with the NIC over past 10 years. Why this is not complete in 10 years itself appears by design though it may be brushed aside as lackadaisical attitude. A survey for physical verification of defence lands too is about 98.95 per cent complete outside cantonments and 100 per cent inside cantonments. Before the cantonments were opened by Sitharaman, there were reports of over 13,000 acres defence land under encroachment but the abovementioned report of August 25 indicates around 9,980 acres of defence land encroached in the country though only 1600 acres of land has been transferred to civil as per reports – the mismatch speaks for itself. Most importantly, whatever land in lieu the States are offering under the 'land exchange plan' is miles out of the cities and would be no use over the next few decades. Local formations and DE have been asked to coordinate with the States. So, by design or default, the issue has been dumped in the lap of the Army, even partial resolution of which will easily drag on for decades. For example, Chhattisgarh of its own volition more than a decade plus ago had offered land for locating the Army's Special Forces Training School and an IAF base. However, the offered land has civilian habitations and the State has no will to relocate them. Army is being asked to move into some 50% of the land of what was originally offered, which is unworkable. Similar will be overall fate of the so-called 'land exchange plan' of the MoD. Concurrently, the Army is reportedly also working with MoD to allow construction of houses and flats on defence land since it is facing shortage of 70,450 dwelling units as married accommodation for all ranks. News reports say that Army has suggested three cities; one in northern India and two in southern India for the project which will cost 23,450 by the National Buildings Construction Corporation (NBCC) or public sector companies. Army has identified 3.5 acres of land in New Delhi that would be available, which can be sold and monetized. MoD has sent a detailed project for approval by the Ministry of Finance (MoF). Once the project is approved, Army should logically be allowed to execute the project through NBCC or public sector companies. But that is unlikely to happen. MoD will insist on being the via media for reasons not difficult to gauge. After all such future opportunities would have been the reason for empowering the Defence Estates despite CGDA recommending latter's disbandment and merging its functions with land directorates of Army, Navy and Air Force.