New Delhi, Sep 8 : The system of establishing Army cantonments across the country was a process set in motion by the British with the specific purpose of providing clean, peaceful and environment-friendly living conditions for the garrisons.
Certain civil areas were always included within the cantonments in order to avail basic support system for the garrison while the Boards that governed these areas provided municipal functions to the local population.
As many as 62 cantonments came into existence across the country under the Cantonments Act, 1924.
This Act, which provides for the governance and municipal activities within cantonment areas, was replaced by the Cantonments Act, 2006.
Most of the cantonment areas, which were set up miles away from cities, are no longer pictures of serenity and the idyllic life for which they were once known.
Over the years, cities have grown, expanded and proliferated around most cantonments in the country. This has resulted in congestion, pollution, population explosion, encroachment and unplanned development of civil areas within the cantonments.
Many Cantonment Boards, despite being allotted separate funds every year by the Ministry of Defence, fall back upon military services for discharging municipal functions.
Former Indian Defence Estate Service (IDES) officials who have served at the helm of affairs in various Cantonment Boards are of the unanimous opinion that population growth and rampant commercialisation in civil areas has resulted in robbing the cantonments of their peaceful existence.
Mittal, a retired IDES officer who has served on the boards of 18 cantonments in his career, told IANS growth in population has resulted in illegal constructions and unauthorised extensions of old houses.
"Civil areas within cantonments used to be sparsely populated years ago.
But population has increased manifold resulting in fragmentation of land. Consequently, there have been illegal constructions over fragmented land within households. In addition, transfer of land lease within these civil areas is permissible even to outsiders. It has led to rampant commercialisation of properties too. The defence ministry could spare unused land at its disposal for the civilian population and land lease transfer should be allowed only to original inhabitants," said Mittal.
Civil areas have also been marred by the problem of rampant commercialisation with no checks in place.
There is public thoroughfare and diversion of city traffic through cantonments owing to traffic congestion on main roads due to unbridled increase in number of four-wheelers and two-wheelers.
In many cases, land lease agreements between government and local residents in civil areas have expired.
The government has a policy in place to convert leasehold land into freehold property.
According to retired IDES officer Ajay Kumar, former Principal Director (Defence Estates) of the Southwestern Command, thousands of cases for freehold conversion are pending with the ministry.
"The government is fighting a losing battle with the public.
The new Act of 2006 resolved several problems with cantonments. But land issues are still with the Defence Ministry. Unless the government renews the leases or allows freehold purchase, there will be unauthorised constructions and crowding.
The state governments have also been responsible for congesting cantonment areas. Open grounds near cantonments which were once used by troops for camping at night have been converted into public utilities, bus stands, court complexes, hospitals or commercial complexes by many state governments," Kumar told IANS.