Things are heating up in Secunderabad as the members of its cantonment board are gearing up for the upcoming polls. Over the last few days, several elected members of the board have been busy laying the foundation stone for multiple projects like pipelines, roads and community halls. This, as they fear that work might be stalled once the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) kicks in.
With a population of around 2,17,910 (per 2011 census) under its jurisdiction, the Secunderabad Cantonment Board (SCB) is divided into eight wards.
Several issues plague residents who live here and locals accuse the SCB of failing to address even their most basic concerns like roads and sanitation. It also has not helped the SCB’s image that it scored poorly in the Centre’s recent Swachh Survekshan rankings, coming 46th out of 62 cantonment boards in the country, with a total score of 1,660.7 out of 5,000.
Under the ‘direct observation’ category, field officers gave the SCB 611 marks out of 1,250, while the board received another 744.19 marks out of 1,250 from ‘citizen feedback’.
Voting for the SCB
Under the Cantonments Act of 2006, the SCB is a local municipal authority that functions under the Ministry of Defence, and works as a local self-government.
Half the members on the board are elected civilians, while the other half are military nominations from the Local Military Authority (LMA). The SCB has its own wings that deal with sanitation, health, road laying, tax collection, water supply, etc.
While the President of the SCB is a nominated army officer, the Vice President is an elected civilian. Elections to the different wards of SCB are held every 5 years.
Speaking to TNM, G Shravan Kumar, a BJP leader and a contestant for Ward 4 says, “There is a dire need to upgrade infrastructure. In many areas, drains and pipelines are completely outdated. Public toilets are also very few. Roads are another major issue. In many places, we can see that development has been stalled.”
Residents complain that board meetings are not held frequently and that civic issues are being ignored because there is no elected representative heading the SCB.
“Board meetings are held only to give permissions to certain properties and sanction contracts, but not to address systemic issues,” Shravan says.
Jeetender Surana, General Secretary of the All Cantonments Citizens’ Welfare Association (ACCiWA) and a resident of Secunderabad, tells TNM, “The board meeting does not take place every month as it should. The difference between civilian and military areas is clearly visible. The military area is well maintained, while things are in a shambles in the civilian area. Why should civilians suffer even after paying taxes?”
Jeetender argues that under the 2006 Act, cantonments are deemed to be municipalities and therefore all members, including the SCB President, should be elected.
“Why are nominated members in the board? Elected representatives will know the problems of the people, while an Army nominee will not. It is as simple as that. The Army officer has been given training to prepare for a war, not to run the administration of a municipality. The fundamental problem lies here,” he says.
In many areas, the SCB and LMA are locked in a bitter fight with ‘encroachers’ in slums that have come up over the past few decades as the city has grown. In many areas, the slum dwellers are denied electricity and water connections, and often have to resort to ‘steal’ power and pay a fine every month.
Shravan cites the example of Gandhi huts, a colony where the construction of homes under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) is completed, but no occupancy certificate was given to the residents.
“The SCB says they need approval from the Centre, but as a result basic amenities are not available for the locals, and potential property tax is lost,” he says.
Road closures by the LMA have been a contentious issue between civilians and Army officials for years now. Citizens allege that the Army has been shutting down arterial roads, which result in long detours for them.
In 2018, the citizens managed to secure a directive from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to reopen all roads to civilians, but locals say that the orders aren’t being followed yet.
“Till today, not a single board meeting has taken place to reopen the roads that were closed, though it was clearly mentioned in the MoD orders. There is also a lot of infighting in the SCB, leading to total chaos and lacklustre performance,” Jeetender says.
SCB cites shortage of funds
The SCB, on the other hand, claims that it is willing to work, and has cited a shortage of funds as the reason for its poor performance.
“The Army and the Centre owe us service charges to the tune of Rs 550 crore, which is a huge amount. Due to the population density and the large area under our jurisdiction, our needs and demands are very high. We are unable to balance or bridge the gap between the demands and availability of funds. This is a major reason why we’re lagging behind,” SCB Vice President J Rama Krishna tells TNM.
“We have the manpower, infrastructure, and we’re willing to work. A lack of funds is leaving us incapable of doing the work,” he adds.
Responding to this, Jeetender says, “These dues are for the services given by the SCB to the Army area. When a common person doesn’t pay his bills or taxes, authorities immediately take action against them and cut off their services. Why has this principle not been applied to the Army?”