Exit cantonment culture; military towns in HP set to sport new look

While residents of cantonment areas are upbeat over the move, which is expected to boost tourism and create employment opportunities, the HP government has decided to fast track the process of denotifying various civil areas under the cantonment boards. A report by Nainu Rohtaki

Moving away swiftly from the British Era cantonment rules, Himachal Pradesh with its six cantonment Boards, is fast heading towards the excision of its civil areas from the various cantonment boards that fall under this mountain state, also known as ‘Devbhoomi’.  While the people of the state are all set to welcome the decision, the state government is fast tracking the denotifying process of various civil areas under the cantonment boards. Himachal Pradesh has altogether seven cantonments – Subathu, Dagshai, Kasauli (all three falling under the Solan district), Bakloh, Dalhousie, Jutogh, and Khas Yol. Barring Khas Yol, where the civil areas have already been denotified, the civil areas of the other cantonments are yet to be denotified.

It was recently in the month of March that the Government of India issued a gazette notification to denotify civil areas of 10 cantonments out of total 58 cantonments in the country. These areas will now be merged with the state municipalities (local bodies) concerned. The 10 states include Dehradun and Clement Town cantonments in Uttarakhand; Fatehgarh, Babina, Shahjahanpur and Mathura cantonments in UP; Deolali cantonment in Maharashtra; Ramgarh cantonment in Jharkhand; Ajmer and Nasirabad cantonments in Rajasthan. In the notification (a copy of which is with us), the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has given a time of eight weeks to raise objections, if any, in this regard.

How things are moving in HP

It was on July 24, 2023, that the MoD had notified the state governments (58 cantonments in different states of the country) to consider merging civil areas with neighbouring state municipalities. Khas Yol Cantonment (Himachal Pradesh) has already been denotified and its civil areas now fall under Municipal Corporation, Dharamshala.

After the Solan district administration, having given a go ahead for releasing the civil areas from the various cantonment boards of Kasauli, Subathu and Dagshai, the three cantonments that fall within the district, the process of moving away from the British Era concept of cantonment towns in Himachal Pradesh is in full swing. 

According to the cantonment board officials, the consent letters for the same had been given to the Ministry of Defence by four states including Secunderabad in Telangana, Shillong in Meghalaya, Ramgarh in Jharkhand with Himachal Pradesh leading with consent letters for all 6 cantonments (three in Solan including Kasauli, Subathu and Dagshai cantonments besides  Jutogh , Dalhousie and Bakloh cantonments). The Himachal Pradesh government then was leading the way with consent letters for all its cantonments.

It was on August 2, 2023, when the Ministry of Defence (MoD) formed a seven-member excision committee for six cantonments of Himachal Pradesh under the chairmanship of Joint Secretary (Land and Works), MoD, Rakesh Mittal. The committee that would be working on the various modalities in the process of excision was asked to submit its report in a month’s time.  

A Letter from the Ministry of Defence, Sena Bhawan , New Delhi (a copy of which is with us) read: “A committee of seven members headed by Joint Secretary (Land and Works) is constituted to look into the details of proposed modalities, that is land and immovable assets, cantonment board employees, pensioners, cantonment funds, civil services, movable properties and stores, road management and traffic, records etc for excision of civil areas in Kasauli, Dagshai, Sabathu, Jatogh, Bakloh and Dalhousie cantonments and submit its report to the Ministry within a month’s time”.

Talking about this, General Secretary of Himachal Pradesh Cantonment Association, Manmohan Sharma, said, “The seven-member committee that is  headed by the Joint Secretary (L and W), MoD, will have one representative from the Himachal state, Additional Director General (Land, works and establishments), Army headquarters, one member from the Director General Defence Estates (DGDE), Director, Defence Estates, Western Command, Chandigarh, the President, Cantonment Board of local cantonment and the Chief Executive Officer, Cantonment Board will be the Member Secretary of the committee formed”

But by then the Himachal government was yet to decide as to which local panchayats the civil areas after the excision from these cantonments will be merged into. For the Solan district, under which fell the three out of six cantonments, with Sabathu having Shadyana Pavi Panchayat close by, Dagshai having two panchayats – Ach panchayat and Chewa panchayat and it is yet to be seen to which panchayat they would be added to. Kasauli has three neighbouring panchayats – Nahri panchayat, Garkhal Sanawar and Garkhal Kasauli panchayats. This is still being considered as a challenge since the three cantonments are located in different areas.  

It was on November 24, that taking a step further towards the process of excision of civil areas from the cantonments in Himachal Pradesh, the Governor, Shiv Pratap Shukla, under a notification, formed a 13-member committee headed by the respective deputy commissioners of the areas to conduct a final joint survey before the handing over of the civil areas takes place. This followed a series of meetings that took place between the chief executive officers of various cantonment boards with the Ministry of Defence, New Delhi.  

The notification from the Governor, HP, read, “In pursuance of the decision taken by the Ministry of Defence, Government of India, to look into the proposed modalities for excision of civil  areas from the limits of the cantonments, the Governor, Himachal Pradesh is pleased to constitute a committee under the chairmanship of the concerned Deputy Commissioners for the Joint Survey”. It also added, “The committee shall complete the exercise of  joint survey within three weeks from the date of receipt of proposals from the Cantonment Boards”.  

But the process of joint surveys for various cantonment boards took time and it was only recently that the joint survey of all the six cantonment boards was completed and the report submitted to the state government under the chairmanship of the respective deputy commissioners. After the joint survey, the report is given by the state government to the MoD. The residents of the state are now eagerly waiting for the final denotification by the Government of India.

Residents hail the move

As for the locals, they welcomed the move as for them this shift opens up opportunities for development and tourism in historically significant places like Dagshai, Sabathu, and Kasauli, which have been restricted due to their location in defence areas. The move is expected to boost tourism, create employment, and foster prosperity in the entire district. 

Pradyuman Jain, a shopkeeper in the Kasauli Heritage market, said, “This move will be a big relief for the people as till date, even for a simple repair, they had to request the cantonment board which was not very congenial. The Board people were very strict and had difficult laws which made things even more difficult for us.”    

While for the MLA, Kasauli, Vinod Sultanpuri, he said, “All the facilities since Independence that were available to the local residents of the various states were denied to the residents of the civil areas under cantonment boards. The areas being under the defence land, the people could never be part of the mainstream. With this move, the residents of these areas too will be eligible for all the benefits that that any other resident of the state enjoys. These people were the owners of the structures but not the land which belonged to the army. Now they will be the owner of their land with no extra cost. Even for a minor thing like any small repair to be done in their buildings, they were required to get permission from the cantonment board”. 

He further added, “Solan has a very glorious past with a historical jail in Dagshai; Sabathu being the origin of Gorkha Regiment and Kasauli having given birth to many popular writers and authors. These are the places which deserve special effort to turn them into famous tourist spots. But nothing could be done due to them falling in the defence area. This move would help in the development of these areas into famous tourist spots bringing in further employment and prosperity in the entire district”.

Sultanpuri also added that he had a proposal, which he would soon take up with the state government, of putting the civil areas of all the three cantonments under one panchayat so that the semi-urban culture of these areas can be maintained. “Kasauli, Subathu and Dagshai being in the cantonment areas have a semi-urban culture. Putting them under village panchayats would not be fair to them. It is difficult for these semi-urban residents to fit in the panchayat system of the villages. We would be taking up the issue in this regard with the senior ministers of Himachal Pradesh so that these Himachalis who were denied all the rights of a state since independence, for being in the cantonment areas are not made to suffer again. Some of the rights they were denied were: no right to construct any house, or repair in the building, no ration depot etc. even the water cess in these areas was the highest till now”.

General Secretary of Himachal Pradesh Cantonment Association, Manmohan Sharma, a resident of Subathu said, “We in all these years were not the holders of occupancy rights. It was due to this, we could not mortgage or take loan against our property from the banks here. This move will bring back the ownership rights of the people. Till date, even for getting a small repair work done, we had to request the cantonment boards who would often not pay any heed to our requests”.