The archaic, colonial era rules governing the management of Cantonment lands have become major impediments to development. It is proving to be an extremely cumbersome and often frustrating task for the States to get clearances from the Defence Ministry for utilising these lands for public works. For instance, Telangana has been struggling to get the nod from the Centre for handing over defence lands in Hyderabad city to take up certain pressing development projects. Reforming the defence lands policy has been a long-felt demand because most of the procedures were framed during British rule. Against this backdrop, it is heartening that the Centre is contemplating sweeping changes in the defence land policy for the first time in 250 years. All these decades, any attempt to tinker with defence lands in India for any purpose other than the military has been a strict no-no since the British set up the first cantonment in Bengal’s Barrackpore in 1765. The proposed rules allow equal value infrastructure (EVI) development for armed forces in lieu of the land procured from them by the state agencies for undertaking works of public importance. The proposed Cantonment Bill, 2020, aimed at providing for development in cantonment zones, is a welcome development. Since a major chunk of the defence lands is in prime locations all over the country, there has been a justifiable demand from various quarters for handing over a part of them to civilian authorities for taking up development activities beneficial to the people.
At present, the cantonment and defence lands are governed by a special 1924 Act and laws that are independent of civilian municipalities. The British were keen to keep the military away from the civilian population and their planning reflected this thinking. The defence sector is the biggest landowner in the country. According to the Directorate General Defence Estates, the Ministry of Defence has about 17.95 lakh acres, of which 16.35 lakh acres are outside the 62 cantonments in the country. This does not include lands with the public sector units under the jurisdiction of the Defence Ministry. It is time for reforms to modify the British-era policy that prohibited land transactions for any purpose other than military. Added to the huge landholdings, the armed forces also have veto powers on land sale or construction activities near their stations on grounds of security. The surplus defence lands can be monetised for the modernisation of the armed forces, apart from helping the States in implementing socially relevant projects. In 2017, a high-level committee, headed by former revenue secretary Sumit Bose, was constituted for studying the optimum use of defence land and to regulate its commercial exploitation. The committee had made 131 recommendations in its report.
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