On the ground, Secunderabad residents allege that the decisions taken by the Local Military Authority (LMA) are opaque and arbitrary and that their voice is finally being heard.

File photo of KTRFile photo of KTR
news Controversy Wednesday, March 16, 2022 - 16:07

A large crowd gathered at the RK Puram flyover in Secunderabad on Monday, March 14. Holding up placards and chanting slogans, the protesters highlighted the closure of 21 roads in the cantonment area — an issue which they have been raising for the last eight years but to no avail. The protest was held a day after Telangana's Municipal Administration and Urban Development Minister KT Rama Rao on Saturday, March 12, said the state government would disconnect electricity and water supply to military authorities in Secunderabad Cantonment if they do not stop causing inconvenience to the people. Speaking in the State Legislative Assembly, KTR said if the military authorities failed to mend their ways, the government would be compelled to take strong action, and if necessary, they would stop power and water supplies.

Taking exception to closure of the 21 arterial and peripheral roads and certain other actions of military authorities, KTR, who is son of Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, said military authorities should understand that Telangana is not a different country. "Our officials will hold a meeting with them. If they don't understand, we have to take strong action. If needed, we will cut water supplies to them," he said.

The comment triggered a row with several BJP leaders condemning it and suggesting that the TRS was ‘anti-national’. But on the ground, the residents say that their long campaign against the opaque and arbitrary decisions taken by the Local Military Authority (LMA), has finally been heard.

Gulshan Gev Bamboat, the wife of a veteran who was part of the protest organised by Green Sainikpuri on March 14, said, “We have gathered here today and have been agitating for the past several years for the opening of all the illegally closed cantonment roads. We are agitating for the opening up of the 21 cantonment roads that have been illegally closed. Despite orders from the Defence Ministry in 2018 to reopen the roads, they have not done so.”

Responding to KTR’s statement, she said, “At long last we have been heard.” Speaking about a service road that was closed by the LMA under the RK Puram flyover, she said, “We have unearthed that this road was illegally closed. Why? To extend the lawn of the Army mess. This is totally illegal, I am an Air Force wife and in spite of that, I am agitating because this is illegal. We in the armed forces have to have the highest integrity in the land. But unfortunately, in the LMA of Secunderabad, the Army is not following the laws of the land.”

Years of protests

There are two institutions around which the protests have been centred, the Local Military Authority (LMA) and the Secunderabad Cantonment Board (SCB). While the LMA is completely under the control of the Union government, the SCB is a local self-government and municipal authority under the Ministry of Defence. While the cantonment was initially on the outskirts of Hyderabad, the city has since grown and several Army installations are now interspersed with civilian colonies in Secunderabad. While eight members on the SCB are civilians who are elected to power, the other half are military nominations. The president of the SCB is always an Army nominee with veto power, while the post of vice president is with an elected representative.

The protests against the road closures have been ongoing from as earlier as 2015, when it surfaced that certain areas cordoned off by the Army citing 'security concerns', were serving the purpose of an extended golf course. The closure meant that an 800-metre ride turned into an 8 km detour for citizens living around Yapral and Ammuguda. The issue had also gone to the High Court and in 2017, after a two-year battle, an RTI reply from the Defence Estate Office (DEO) had shown that six out 12 roads which had been shut by the LMA in and around the Yapral area, were under the jurisdiction of the SCB, thereby making them usable to the public. Citizens had also pointed out that this RTI reply was in conflict with the SCB’s own admission in court that the roads were A1 defence land, under the LMA’s control. 

Ground report: Why mistrust brews between army and civilians in Secunderabad cantt

CS Chandrashekar, also from Green Sainikpuri points out that the judgement from the High Court was cited to close the roads. “In 2015, Manohar Parrikar (then Defence Minister) issued an order to reopen such roads, which was blatantly disobeyed. In 2018, the headquarters of the Army had also issued similar orders and laid down a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), which clearly showed that LMA did not have the right to close these public roads.”

While some roads were opened, Army personnel often guard the entrance of the few routes which were opened, and check ID cards before letting any citizen pass. “Today, we are standing in 2022, four years later, and the orders are still not implemented. Why is no disciplinary action being taken against LMA? Who has given them a free hand to take civilians for a ride? We are going through Britishers raj. There is no elected representative or redressal forum,” Chandrashekar added.

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SCB lagging in development

However, road closures are only one part of the problem. Citizens living under the jurisdiction of the SCB also lament that their areas have not kept pace with colonies under the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC), which have seen massive growth.

The Times of India recently stated that a report by the Sumit Bose Committee, which is presently with the Ministry of Defence and has not been made public, is said to have reiterated the same. The report suggested that the civilian areas under the cantonment often lagged behind and remained isolated from the policies implemented by the state governments, stating, "cantonments in the country, cannot be developed as islands in an isolated manner."

In some wards of the SCB, drains still remain open and water supply remains intermittent. It was just earlier this month that the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board said that its free drinking water supply scheme of up to 20 kilo litres per month to every household, which was introduced in 2020, would now be extended to the SCB area. Locals have also complained of poor garbage management and lack of civic infrastructure.

Roads in SCB are often riddled with potholes and several colonies witness flooding during the monsoon as the drainage system has not kept up pace with the rate of growth of the population under its jurisdiction. There is also a cap on Floor Space Index (FSI), which means that there is a restriction on any construction above three floors, which is a deterrent for those who wish to construct apartments. Water shortage is another issue, especially during the summers, as the SCB has a limited number of water tankers. When borewells dry up, residents are often forced to shell extra money to hire private water tankers to meet their requirements.

The SCB also has a shortage of manpower compared to the GHMC and this takes its toll, especially when it comes to areas like healthcare. During the coronavirus pandemic too, as Secunderabad saw a rise in COVID-19 cases, the cantonment board was battling a fund crunch as there was a delay by the Union government in clearing dues worth Rs 500 crore. Besides its Urban Primary Healthcare Centres, the only major healthcare facility under the SCB was the Bolarum Cantonment General Hospital.

‘Merge SCB with GHMC’

With all this in mind, many citizens and the ruling TRS including KTR have called for a merger of the SCB with the GHMC. While the state government has shown its interest, it will need to hold talks with the Union government to work out the transfer of land and jurisdiction.

TRS spokesperson and Chairperson of Telangana State Mineral Development Corporation M Krishank said, “BJP leaders pouncing on KTR's statement forget the fact that there are thousands of people that are residing here from decades who are denied the same water, electricity and toilets.”

Read: Water, sewage, power: Ahead of polls, problems galore in Secunderabad Cantt slums

Citizens have also complained of bureaucratic red tape in the SCB as even the construction of a toilet in some cases needs the sanction of the board. There has also been the pending issue of amending construction bye-laws to allow for buildings taller than three floors, but the proposal is yet to be ratified by the Union government in Delhi.

“Ïn 108 bazaar, families have been residing for a century but they’re not allowed to construct toilets for their use. Even if they manage to construct one somehow, they are not allowed to lay a drainage system. When the city is growing so fast, the areas in the SCB are still mired with such issues. The state government has made various offers to the LMA to shift important defence installations to the outskirts, so that citizen movement is not hindered. But they continue to remain adamant. That’s why the minister (KTR) made such a statement,” Krishank added.

But for now, the focus remains on the roads that have been closed. Chandrashekar from Green Sainikpuri said, “In the short run, the 21 roads that have been closed must be reopened. At least the golf club must be relocated. For 100 people who want to play golf, this entire part of the city goes for a toss. The Cantonment Act should also be amended, so that roads can be widened and civic infrastructure can be stepped up. The LMA should follow the rule of law and there should be a democratic way to address our grievances.”