Controversy – Civilian Traffic in Cantonments

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(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)

On 4 May 2018, Nirmala Seetharaman, Raksha Mantri, chaired a meeting of 62 Cantonment Authorities (all Cant Executive Officers/DEOs) attended by several MPs, where a decision was taken to immediately open cantonment roads to civilian traffic.

The RMs decision is to mollify protests by civilians residing in neighboring localities and within the Ministry of Defense lands for the past 4-5 years, particularly in Secunderabad Cantonment, to lift the ban on movement of Civilian traffic on cantonment roads citing SECURITY reasons.

Not only civilians are inconvenienced, but also former armed forces personnel settled in adjacent colonies have been forced to take long detour to gain access to authorized facilities available for them to include: military hospitals/dental clinics/ M I Rooms; educational institutions; recreation facilities; Canteens; Clubs and so on.

“SECURITY” is cited as the prime consideration to close the roads. What does it imply? Security cover three spectrums: “Information (Cyber Security as the latest), Material and Personnel and their movement”! So, what is the criteria used by LMAs (Local Military Authorities) unilaterally and arbitrarily to prioritize key “SECURITY” issues – Where, What and Who – into VAs/VPs (Vulnerable Areas/Points in military parlance)?

Let me attempt to provide a perspective of the Secunderabad Cantonment spread over in 4 parts: Secunderabad Army Area comprising of AOC Center, MCEME, EME Center, Infantry formation, EME Center and units and Hakimpet Air Force complex; Bowenpally area with artillery brigade and armor regiment; Begumpet Air Force Base; and College of Air Warfare (CAW) complex on the Parade Road and its administrative infrastructure North of it beyond Parade grounds.

High priority wise to be designated as “VAs” include the most sensitive establishments located in Bowenpally, Begumpet Airport and Parade Road complexes.

Viewed in the “Army” point of view, Bowenpally complex on NH 1, due to location of artillery and armor units along with their ammunition, certainly deserve higher security classification than others.

Since VAs are located astride main roads/artery – National Highway 1 and in the “Core City” of Secunderabad – the LMA just cannot close them by arbitrary decision.  Should any such attempt be made, Secunderabad would come to a grinding halt.

Next, residences of key VIPs, who deserve to be provided high-grade security like the GOC of Infantry Formation, Commandant’s of CAW, Begumpet and Hakimpet Airports, are located ‘bang’ next to the State Highway 1. Add to them, officers mess complexes adjoining them.

Let me highlight that there is no way for the armed forces to demand closure of the National Highway 1 and State Highway 1 for civilian traffic.

Quixotic it is that the roads in the lowest priority complexes hosting training infrastructure like the AOC Center; MCEME and  EME Center complexes are closed for not only civilian traffic but also for serving and former armed forces personnel residing in adjacent colonies.

Let me highlight that the National Highway from Pathankot-Jammu-Nagrota-Udhampur-Srinagar-Leh cannot be closed to civilian traffic. Let none of the officers families suffer from illusions on the above count. On the other hand, families may lose their residential facilities in border areas.

Similarly, can the Road New Delhi-Palam Airport be closed for civilian traffic since the Western Air Force Command Operational Headquarters – very high grade security installation – is located adjacent to it. So also, the case in many peace station cantonments.

Thus, the controversy attempted to be stirred by Guarav Sawant, India Today TV anchor and former Brigadier’s son, reflects woeful bankruptcy. Questioning the decision to open all roads across cantonments and vilifying it as an irresponsible move based on views of few army wives is blatantly absurd.

Such critics must remember that the morale and the fighting capability of the forces on the battle field is closely linked to the civilian moral, material and physical support that their families enjoy in peace stations.

In the past, civilians in large groups bid tearful farewell to departing units to border areas in 1965 and 1971 wars contributing to their courage and valor in battlefield. If armed forces families want to remain insular from their civilian counterparts, they would lose goodwill and support in crises times.

Whereas the “Braves” are waging battles on the borders, why the “Cowardly” behavior/ire in peace stations against former veterans and civilians who constitute their backbone in case of war?

Some of the key issues that the army officers ladies must ponder over are simple.  Why are they blind to the security of separated families whose husbands are serving on borders living in adjacent civilian areas and denied direct access to facilities in the cantonment? Have they ever visited them living in pitiable condition and enquired about their welfare?

Why do they escort their local civilian friends to buy articles in the CSD Canteens?  Why are they not demanding the LMAs/bosses to stop all friends and relatives visiting CSD Canteens?

Why do the office’s families visit I-Maxes, Mals, five-star Hotels and so on in civil areas with utter disregard to their physical security particularly in highly sensitive “Charminar” complex?

How about large number of civilian families residing in housing complexes in servant quarters working as servants since many decades? How can any officer and their families guarantee their security credentials. And, what about civilian teams of Military Engineering Service and telephone services carrying out maintainence?

Even more critical is the recent phenomena of “outsourcing’ of services like catering by five star hotels/caterers during various dinners hosted during various celebrations. In New Delhi, there have been few instances of such dinners being hosted in five-star hotels.

Add to it to also the recent phenomena of permitting stay of delegations of officers visiting various key establishments in five-star hotels in the “Core” of the city. What about security during such trips?

Next, what about security of wives of army personnel employed outside cantonments like Cyberabad in high-tech companies and their children attending “classes in high-fly coaching institutions” in civil areas?

If SECURITY of personnel and their movement is most critical, there should be a ban imposed on all such activities besides families going into “Core” part of cities unescorted.  Should such a situation arise, then soldiers would be only sentry/escort duties instead of their primary task of preparing for wars.

In retrospect, army families, instead of getting upset, must relook at the issue of opening roads to civilian traffic more pragmatically.

Yet another significant issue that must concern all alike is the “SECURITY” of “High-Fly” technology establishments like DRDO labs, IMTRAT, ECIL, Nuclear Fuel Complex and so on located all around the city of Hyderabad.

In retrospect, they are the “real establishments” and their families must be provided the highest grade SECURITY possible from all the three dimensions of SECURITY – Personnel, Material and Information”. Ironic but true all of them are located astride “Highways” encircling Hyderabad city. (Gaurav Sawant and his team must go around Hyderabad/Secunderabad city to understand and appreciate realities to provide a balanced perspective to views instead of indulging in rank bad caophony).

If the rule enforced by the LMA in Secunderabad Cantonment for utterly lowest grade sensitive complexes is enforced in all other cases, then the city of Hyderabad can shut down on permanent basis.

Let me also draw the attention of reader to the article authored by Mohan Guruswamy published on May 1, 2018, titled “This is not Pakistan, General Sahib”. Not only he has traced the history of cantonments in general, but also stated “There are now over 15 lakh people living in localities around the cantonment. Many of these residents are families of ex-servicemen and some are even serving military officers. The Indian Army has shut down critical roads making dubious claims of ownership. …..The military plea of security is just a ploy to extend control of what is not with it, and should not be.”

All State governments want to promote growth and development of their cities. The LMAs cannot constrict their growth based on arbitrary and dictatorial ways.  For example, the Phase 2 of Metro line is designed to follow the SH 1 what with a flyover connecting Parade Road to Hakimpet. Whenever they are constructed, almost all army installations security automatically gets compromised based on current considerations.

In sum, not only the LMA of Secunderabad cantonment must pragmatically review the imposition of closure of roads to civilians but also the LMAs in all other 61 cantonments. There is an urgent need to review, identify and define the rules or criteria to close roads.

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