Yol, (Himachal Pradesh), Smoke billows out of the office, documents scattered on the floor as files are being torched, and furniture moved out. The officials of the Khas Yol Cantonment Board in Himachal Pradesh race against the clock to close the establishment.
With the Narendra Modi government’s landmark new decision to transfer Army cantonment land to civil municipal authorities, an old way of life established during the British colonial era is ending. Yol will be one of the first areas to make this transition.
The single-story building with an unpainted tin roof has been the centre of the hillocks administration for eight decades—managing the civil areas of a military establishment—running water lines, electricity transmission, mandating land use norms, and dealing with waste disposal for the hill-towns non-military folk.
The cantonment board’s tenure, which began on 31 January 1942, was brought to an abrupt end in the last week of April.
The Army has now removed the Yol cantonment board. Significantly, the Army has touted the change “as an end to archaic and colonial practices.” Cantonments have existed in India for over two centuries, with the first being set up in Barrackpore in 1765 by the East-India Company.
This dissolution is a precursor to a larger implementation—dissolving the remaining 61 cantonment boards, which control over 1.61 lakh hectares of land in the country. According to government data, this includes 25 cantonments under the central command, 4 under the eastern command, 19 under the southern command, 12 under the western command, and 1 under the northern command.
Traditionally, the dissolution of cantonment boards has divided opinion. Proponents of the decision have said that the dissolution is necessary to make life easier for civilians, and to allow the development of areas at a greater pace. Opponents, on the other hand, have stated that it could jeopardize the Army’s administration and way of life.
“The cantonment board abolishment is a significant and important rule change. The Army has been deliberating for years. Civil administrations should manage civil land. This is good for development,” Lt. General Deependra Singh Hooda (retd), former GoC-in-C Northern Command tells ThePrint.
As the frenzy to close down the establishment engulfs the officials, a middle-management executive of the erstwhile board tells ThePrint, “The Khas Yol cantonment board has now officially ceased to function.”
“We are fulfilling the last formalities. The municipality is responsible for the handover. Our staff has either been absorbed in the state government or at other cantonments,” the executive adds.
In the small Himalayan village, the reaction to the dissolution the cantonment board is mixed. Residents greeted this news with excitement and look forward to the fruits of a faster development. However, they expressed their caution and anxiety about the current situation. Former employees expected dissolution.
“The process to shut the cantonment board has been going on for over 10 years. This isn’t a new idea. We were expecting this for a while,” a clerk at the cantonment board tells ThePrint, with a sense of remorse over the dissolution.
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Excited, but cautious
A kilometre north of the cantonment board, parallel to Yol’s main link road, the town market is bustling with activity. The market spans the length of the Palampur – Dharamshala highway that runs through Yol. It has shops at the bottom and houses on top.
The road is also a natural buffer zone between the civilian part of Yol, and the military base.
At a local confectionery a group locals discuss with vigor the elimination of the cantonment board. “We don’t hold any grudges with the cantonment board. But support its dissolution,” says Manish Sethi, a property owner in Yol.
We will be able to access central government welfare programs, easier construction laws, increase the height of buildings and better land use standards. Sethi adds that the benefits of this move will be great.
“It is significant that the dissolution of cantonment boards in India began from Yol,” says Anjali Walia, a cashier at a garment shop.
Sethi says that the dissolution of the board was easier to begin in Yol because there was a clear separation between civil and military land.
Despite the excitement, residents remain anxious due to the uncertainty and disruption to civic administration brought about by the sudden dissolution of the cantonment board.
Khas Yol cantonment board documents accessed by ThePrint show the large administrative ambit under their charge—including managing over 15 kilometres of village roads, 1,500 drains, 670 water connections, 249 streetlights, and 05 schools.
Garbage collection stands out as one of the most visible disruptions and negatives of the board’s dissolution. “Waste disposal has become a major issue now. There is garbage lying all over and no one is there to collect it,” says Paramjeet Singh, a restaurant owner.
Singh complains about the difficulty of disposing of waste in his restaurant. “I can’t just throw the wet waste onto the road. We must go to a faraway place and dump in random open spaces. It’s also so unhygienic and bad for health,” he adds.
Water supply has also been a problem since the board was dissolved. “The water supply stopped for the first few days after the board was dissolved. The local MLA had to be contacted and he resolved the issue,” says Sandhir Malli, a business owner in Yol.
“We also now don’t know where to go to get a life-or-death certificate. Currently, there is ambiguity about who will take over the role of the board,” adds Sethi.
Alluding to the lack of administrative clarity, Anjanli Walia says, “We don’t know whether Yol will be absorbed into the neighbouring panchayats, You can also find a new panchayat This will be the place where administration is set up. This needs to be resolved quickly for efficient governance.”
ThePrint contacted the Deputy Commissioner of Kangra via phone and text to seek clarity on the future of Yol’s administration. There was no response until the publication of this article.
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House tax is high but there are no parks
Back at the cantonment board, as the remnants of the quasi-military institution are taken apart, an administrative assistant says, “The steep increase in house tax rates began the downfall of the housing board. People did not like this move.”
According to local people of Yol, the cantonment board arbitrarily started to increase house tax rates over the last decade. They claim that the new rates were even 4- or 5-times higher than before.
As the debate continues at the confectionary shop, Sethi says, “The continuous rise in house tax over the last few years turned sentiment against the board. It was unfair and contrary to any principles of land tax rates.”
Sandhir Malli says that the residents even approached the board several times to discuss the house tax rates and advocated for its rationalisation, however, their efforts fell on “deaf ears.” At least now we won’t have to pay “crippling house tax,” Malli adds.
Locals claim that the Board did not build any infrastructure for children, apart from tax rates. “On our side, there are no recreational facilities for children. Even a park wasn’t built by the board. Contrast this with the many facilities in the military station” says Kamaljeet Singh, an owner of a convenience store.
Residents still believe that the board has done a decent job in terms of administration, but the positives are now more evident.
Summing up the sentiment in the town, a local administration source says on condition of anonymity, “There are always two sides to any story, some residents are happy with this change as work could move faster, while some are sceptical due to the change affecting them directly.”
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The cantonment is beyond the hillock
Since more than two centuries, India has had cantonments beyond the Himachal hillock. A unique civil-military confluence developed as a result. Experts say that this could cause complications in the process of abolition.
“Cantonment board dissolution and segregation of civil and military areas will be far more complicated in other parts of the country,” Mandeep Singh Bajwa, a military historian tells ThePrint.
Bajwa says that in many cantonments there is a strong intermixing of civil and militarised spaces. In a military zone, you may find a pocket of civility. This will have to be considered in the disintegration process going ahead.
Unpacking the roadmap for the dissolution of the remaining 61 cantonments, Lt. Gen Hooda (retd) says, “Yol was easy as there was a clear segregation between the military and civil land.”
However, Hooda adds, for the remaining cantonments the process will have to be “selective”. Dissolution of the remaining cantonments must be carried out carefully and meticulously. It will largely depend on how much intermingling has occurred in each cantonment.
Bajwa points out the negative impact that a cantonment dissolution may have on Army life.
“Another problem is that in many cantonments—the sports areas, the golf courses, the clubs, the recreation infrastructure, and accommodation are in the civil parts. Due to rule changes, these may now be lost. This could adversely affect the Army’s way of life,” he adds.
Experts also believe that monopolies can take over the land, since the civil part is now under regular municipal law.
“Given that cantonment land in many cities is in prime locations and city centres, there will be land sharks who will try to take over large swathes for development. Municipal administrations across the country will have to be wary of this and prevent any illegal practices and developments,” a defence analyst explains.
Residents of the Yol Market are waiting for an immediate resolution to the current administration mess. The market curves into a narrow street a few metres from the confectionery. This leads to a row houses.
Sitting outside one of the houses, Suresh Kumar, a cab driver says, “At least now all state and central government schemes will apply to us. We won’t always be behind the curve on development.”