The present Government is the first in Indian history to eye military assets and use them to enhance vote banks or open doors to corruption. In the bargain they are denuding the capability of military organizations and enhancing security risks. The first act by the government to garner votes at the cost of the army was to open cantonment roads with an order from the MoD, without consulting local military authorities responsible for security of cantonments. The meeting leading to this decision involved civilian members of the cantonment boards and political leaders.
It led to a public outcry, but the government remained steadfast. The action has enhanced security risks for families living in separated quarters. It has compelled army authorities to switch troops from training to security, impacting preparedness of the military.
The second action, in the process of being implemented is opening military hospitals to all those who are part of the Ayushman Bharat Yojna, also termed as ‘Modicare’. This is because of the failure of the government to rope in private health care organizations into the loop. It would break the health care system of the armed forces as its hospitals would be pushed to the extreme, seeking to handle the additional burden thrust upon it.
Military hospitals cannot even handle the load of veterans for whom the Ex-Servicemen Compensatory Health Scheme (ECHS) was established. In most stations, veterans are sent to empanelled hospitals, rather than being catered for in overloaded military hospitals. Expecting them to handle patients under Modicare is almost impossible. It would be the death knell for military hospitals, functioning under immense pressure presently.
The latest is the MoD decision to restructure the functioning of cantonment boards. Cantonment boards, run under the Director General Defence Estates (DGDE), were under the supervision of president cantonment boards, who were serving military officers, keeping a check on any misuse or illegal activities of the members of the DGDE. The overall responsibility remained that of the concerned theatre commander.
Ironically, the present government is seeking to boost the powers of the same DGDE, which the previous government was considering shutting down due to mass corruption complaints, including the Adarsh scam. The Defence Accounts department had detected multiple scandals and financial mismanagement and had recommended its disbandment as far back as 2010. It managed to survive the UPA era and now instead of being cleaned up are now being given additional powers.
A committee established by the MoD is only interacting with vice-presidents of cantonment boards, all of whom are members of the DGDE. The committee headed by a retired IAS officer has only one veteran as a member. As an afterthought, post an outcry on social media, the defence spokesperson confirmed that the committee has also added a serving member, an officer who handles land issues. It is ignoring taking the views of the military establishment. The aim appears to be to enhance powers of the vice-presidents, while reducing the military’s role in the running of the cantonments.
This is being done, despite being aware that cantonments were established for the military and they are the main users of the same. By reducing the role and power of those for whom the cantonments were established, the government is opening doors to increased corruption and misuse.
Just a short while ago, there was a decision taken to hand over civil pockets within cantonment limits to the municipality, while securing military areas as separate pockets. The intention was to reduce the strength of the DGDE and make the army responsible for its own pockets. It was also aimed at saving vital defence funds as maintaining these civil areas was from the defence revenue budget. It has already been implemented in Yol cantonment. If this was being considered then why a turn around and appointing of a committee, unless there are ulterior intentions.
Cantonments are prime properties mainly in large cities. Hence defence lands have for long been on the radar of land sharks. By changing the rules of the game, the government is opening doors to enable the DGDE to get involved in shady land deals involving defence lands. There are only two saving graces, which could delay or restrict increased illegal activities, as now being considered.
The first is that the cantonment act can only be amended by an act of parliament, which is presently unlikely till May 2019, when the next government assumes office. Thus, if the present government lacks absolute majority or coalition government assumes office, such an action may not be feasible, which would benefit the armed forces.
The second is that sale of defence lands needs the approval of the Cabinet Committee of Security (CCS). This can partially be bypassed by a corrupt DGDE ignoring grabbing of defence lands. The army which till now monitored defence lands and prevented encroachment, would now be away from the picture, leaving authority to members of the DGDE.
Defence lands come under different categories. A1 land is either under occupation by the army or meant for solely its use. This cannot be tampered with. Other categories of land, A2, B1 and B2 are open to misuse. The biggest risk is the C category, being held by cantonment boards for municipal or public purposes which are under high risk of being illegally disposed of. The army can neither monitor it, nor control its illegal occupation.
The fact that the army is neither being consulted nor its views obtained implies that the MoD has made its intentions clear. It is openly supporting land sharks to grab defence lands, in connivance with the DGDE. It is another example of the government seeking to limit the army from controlling its own institutions.
The turnaround from handing over civil pockets of the cantonment to the state also indicates dubious intentions. The only hope is that post 2019, the present government does not return with a complete majority. If it does, the armed forces as an institution would be further denuded and has been happening, degraded.