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Cantonment Towns and Administration

Published: 27th Jul, 2023


The Ministry of Defense has decided to demerge civil areas from Military Stations and integrate them with municipalities in their respective states, aiming to move away from the British-era concept of cantonment towns.

What are cantonments?

  • Cantonments —or cantts, as they are often referred to— are civic bodies that trace their roots to the British Raj.
  • A cantonment is governed by a Cantonment Board. Instead of the state government, these civic bodies come under the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
  • There are more than 60 Cantonments in the country which have been notified under the Cantonments Act, 1924 (succeeded by the Cantonments Act, 2006).
  • The first cantonment was established in 1765 at Barrackpore, near Calcutta (now Kolkata).
  • These are the places where the British Indian Army stationed its troops. Unlike the Air Force or the Navy that had exclusive ‘bases’, the Army had cantonments where civilians too stayed in places away from military installations — but close by, leading to a fusion of lifestyles and cultures.
  • Over the course of time, these cantonments developed into towns and cities, with military and civilian parts.
  • While the military parts are managed by the military authorities, the civilian parts are managed by the cantonment boards.

Need for Cantonments:

  • These cantonments were often at strategic locations across the country.
  • They served as military and logistical hubs and were key to consolidating British rule in India, such as the Meerut Cantonment, which served as the key to the British consolidation and expansion in North-West India.

Urban Planning and Administration classification:

Cantonments and their structure:

  • Cantonments are classified into four categories — class I to class IV —depending on the size of the area and population.
  • While a class I cantonment has eight elected civilians and eight government/military members on the board, a class IV cantonment has two elected civilians and two government/military members.
  • This board is responsible for various aspects of the cantonment’s administration.
  • The station commander of the cantonment is the ex-officio president of the board, and an officer of the Defence Estates Organisation is the chief executive and the member-secretary.
  • The board has equal representation of elected and nominated/ex-officio members to balance the official representation.
  • Administrative Control:
    • An inter-services organisation of the Ministry of Defence directly controls cantonment administration.
    • In terms of Entry 3 of Union List (Schedule VII) of the Constitution of India, Urban Self Governance of the Accommodation therein is the subject matter of the Union of India. Cantonments and the Housing

The issues with cantonments:

The cantonments that served the British interests well raised a range of issues in Independent India.

  • Civil –Military tussle: Along with a unique culture of civil-military fusion that emerged in these places, tussles between the two were also not uncommon.
    • The civilian residents were concerned with poor civic services, restrictions on construction and housing, and lack of development, while the military complained of a shrinking space of their way of life and security concerns.
  • Limited implementation of work: With most of these issues being highly local were resolved soon, some persisted over the decades and led to extreme demands for the disbandment of cantonment boards altogether.
    • For example, cellular coverage in Meerut Cantonment remains limited as cellular towers are limited and residents complain construction requires unnecessary paperwork.
  • Issues with taxation: In several places, the house tax or water tax in cantonments —paid to the cantonment board— is higher than the rate in adjacent civilian civic bodies, which is a cause of disgruntlement.  

What is the Significance of Demerging of Cantonment Areas?

  • Strengthening Civil-Military Relations: The demerger of military stations and civilian areas is likely to foster better understanding and cooperation between the armed forces and the civilian population. It can also enhance mutual trust and respect, leading to smoother interactions in times of peace and crisis.
  • Local Governance and Civic Amenities: The integration of civilian areas into municipal governance can lead to improved civic amenities and infrastructural development. Residents may have a more significant say in local governance matters, resulting in better urban planning and public services.
  • Historical Heritage and Urban Planning: Many cantonment towns have a rich historical heritage dating back to the colonial era. The decision may raise questions about preserving the historical significance of these regions while facilitating modern urban planning.
  • Legal and Administrative Challenges: The transition from a cantonment town to a merged municipality may bring about various legal and administrative challenges. The government will need to address these issues to ensure a smooth and efficient transition.

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