Urban Renewal – or not

October 24, 2017

During the British Raj, military cantonments were established across the country. For space availability and strategic reasons, these were originally established at some distance from urban centres. There are presently 62 notified Military Cantonments in India occupying an area of 157,000 acres (such as Delhi, Ambala, Agra etc.) There are also another 44 non-notified cantonments (Mumbai, Bangalore etc.). Similarly, there are areas controlled by the Air Force and Navy. Over time, our cities and towns have grown to engulf these formerly separate enclaves. In Delhi, the city I know best, the cantonment used to be a distant and distinct location. Today the Delhi Cantonment is the heart of the traffic flow between South Delhi, Dwarka and Gurgaon.  In other cities with which I am somewhat familiar, urbanization has not only reached but encircled these military enclaves. Their roads have become thoroughfares for non-military traffic. This includes Bangalore, Pune, Ahmedabad etc. While the military authorities have fought a valiant battle against encroachment, they have been unable to do anything to counter being swallowed up by the ever-growing urban morass. Several Air Force run airports are shared with civil aviation, compromising operational security and effectiveness.

This trend defeats the purpose with which these military enclaves were created. There was meant to be a separateness for security reasons, by keeping military activity away from civilians. And there needed to be an ability to mobilize and move military men and material quickly and nimbly to where they may be needed. Anyone trying to negotiate rush hour traffic in Delhi Cantonment knows how futile this would be. It has taken me an hour to move 1 km through a major artery in the evening. How easy would it be for a mechanized column to reach a national highway out of the city?

If this is not seen as a national security problem, it should be. It can also be seen as an opportunity on 2 counts:

  • As a source for valuable and scarce urban space with a chance to pursue planned urban development
  • As a source of funding for the defence forces for sorely needed upgrades and modernization in infrastructure

Quite simply, the defense forces could sell the current cantonment land. Given the level of urban land prices, this would generate very significant financial resources that could be used to

  1. Purchase land for new cantonments at sites consistent with current strategic needs, away from urban centres, at much lower rates
  2. Use the surplus generated to invest in modern state-of-the-art housing and training facilities as well as equipment commensurate with the forces’ current needs.

Looking from the outside, the bulk of the physical infrastructure in cantonments looks antiquated and inadequate, and in urgent of upgradation. The space freed up could be used to build new civilian mixed-use housing/ commercial/ leisure space and enhance transportation infrastructure. This would be a golden opportunity for planned urban development to meet our growing needs for urban facilities in terms of the built environment, green spaces and transportation linkages. The increase in supply of urban land could even reduce the upward pressure on prices in our urban centres. In any event, the market would dictate how much would be paid and what the monetized value of the military real estate would be. (The idea would be to preserve and even enhance the socially valuable green spaces in the urban areas currently owned by the military, like the Calcutta Maidan.)

At this stage of being carried away by my own compelling logic in solving the twin needs of military infrastructure modernization and creating more urban space, I must pause to add a major caveat. Land (or the opportunity to make money from it) brings out the most venal tendencies from the politician – builder nexus. Look what happened in Mumbai with mill redevelopment. Invaluable urban space was made available through the textile mills closures. Instead of mixed use development benefiting multiple sections of society, we have ended up with 100-story luxury apartment buildings. The same people are now salivating at the prospect of pillaging the land that could become available from the Bombay Port Trust.

Despite the merits of the idea of re-developing cantonment lands, I do not have enough faith that our politicians will not be suborned by the lucre that property developers will offer them to subvert and manipulate the process. Once again, we will not try to do the right thing, for fear that wrong outcomes will result.