The Local Military Authority’s (LMA) decision to close several roads in Bolarum and Trimulgherry areas from July 18, 2020 to contain the rapid spread of Covid-19 met with protests from Residents Associations, specially from the areas of North Eastern Secunderabad, whose connectivity to the twin cities passes through Secunderabad Cantonment.
Now, let us examine the announcement on the following grounds
1. Does closure of roads help in controlling Covid-19?
2. What will be the effect of road closure on residents, specially those who live in Northeastern Secunderabad?
3. Do the roads belong to the Army to close?
4. Is the LMA's action to close these roads legal?
Does closure of roads help in controlling Covid-19?
There is no evidence to prove that closure of road will help in controlling Covid-19. There is no such guideline by either the World Health Organisation (WHO), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) or the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
Neither the central nor the state governments have issued any order to close roads in order to check the spread of Covid. No such guidelines or instructions have been issued anywhere in the world either.
On the contrary, all roads outside important establishments are open. This includes seats of government, courts, including High Courts and Supreme Court and even Sena Bhavan, the headquarters of the Army in Delhi.
It is common knowledge that what contains the spread of Covid are the basic SMS precautions – social distancing, masks and sanitisation & hand washing - and epidemiologically proven techniques of contact tracing, testing and isolation.
If at all a person or a group of persons is to be isolated, then that isolation is to be done by controlling access to the particular premises housing those person(s), similar to what is done during quarantine or isolation orders.
On July 17, 2020, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare have issued an “Advisory for Gated Residential Complexes With Regards To COVID19”. A suitably adapted version of these guidelines would work well for Army units too, which have several similarities with gated communities.
What will be the effect of road closure on residents, specially those who live in Northeastern Secunderabad?
Northeastern Secunderabad is separated from the rest of the twin cities by a narrow North-South strip of Cantonment. The maximum width of this strip is not more than a couple of kilometres but it is more than 10 km in the north-south direction and stretches from Hakimpet in the north to Marredpally in the south. For residents of the northeast roads, passing through Cantonment are thoroughfares which connect them to civilian areas to the west of the Cantonment.
More than 10 per cent of the population of the twin cities lives in the northeastern parts. Three of the 30 circles of Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) (Malkajgiri, Kapra and Alwal) and all 8 wards of the Secunderabad Cantonment Board (SCB) are in the area. Several east-west roads (such as Balaji Nagar-Lakdawala, Mornington Road, etc.) which connect the arterial Rajiv Rahadari to the eastern side, are already closed.
Closing more roads would mean that the entire traffic load would come on the very few remaining roads that are open. One need not imagine what happens when thoroughfares through the Cantonment are closed – residents have already seen unending traffic jams at Trimulgherry junction when Cantonment roads were closed in the past.
The worst-hit would be daily commuters, women, elderly and the sick. An example would illustrate their predicament. The distance between Yapral in the east and Lakdawala Junction on Rajiv Rahadari is 1-2 km. With the closure of Yapral road at Valerian Grammar School and the walling up of Lakdawala Road, this distance has gone up to 8 km. This means that access to Cantonment Hospital, the Alwal Primary Health Care Centre, Holy Trinity Church, St Ann’s School, Loyola Academy, St Andrews School, is cut off. The problem is exacerbated by the absence of RTC bus services during the pandemic. There is literally no way for people in the eastern areas to reach Rajiv Rahadari conveniently.
The situation outlined above is not imaginary. This is real. The Valerian School’s access to Cantonment was closed on March 23, 2020 (when lockdown), without any announcement. Residents of Yapral today have no convenient access to Rajiv Rahadari. With closure of more roads, the situation will repeat across additional areas.
A word about those requiring medical care. LMA's latest announcement does say that emergency vehicles and ambulances will be allowed. What they do not say is that by the time identity and other checks are over, a senior office consulted, and entries made in various registers, the emergency could well become a tragedy.
Do the roads belong to Army?
This is an important question. Because, despite all arguments against the futility of road closure as a means to contain Covid, and the inconvenience it would cause to commuters, if the roads really “belong” to the Army, then Army is within its rights to close them.
The fact, however, is that these roads do not belong to the Army. Public have a Right of Way on them. The ownership of these roads vests in the Ministry of Defence, Govt of India.
What is the justification for the claim that public have Right of Way on these roads?
All land records in Cantonment are maintained as per Rules framed under the Cantonments Act. These Rules are called Cantonment Land Administration Rules (CLAR). Under these Rules, Defence Estates Office maintains a land record called the General Land Register (GLR). Similar to municipal corporation or panchayat areas, land parcels in Cantonments are also assigned survey numbers. These numbers are recorded in the GLR by the Defence Estates Office.
Regarding roads, CLAR stipulates that if public have Right of Way on a road then that road must be assigned a separate survey number in the GLR. However, a private road (such as the driveway leading from TASA Circle to the Sub Area HQ) shall not be assigned a separate survey number – it will have the same survey number as the plot in which it lies.
This is nothing new. The provision is identical to all municipal corporation laws. For example, the driveway of a farm house, connecting it to the main road, is not assigned a separate survey number. It has the same survey number as the farm. But a public road passing by the farmhouse would have a separate survey number, even if it happens to pass through the farmer's land. This is done to distinguish the road from the surrounding land, because the road is maintained by the concerned municipality and not by the farmer.
CLAR Rules further state that if a road is maintained by Cantonment Board then it is classified as a ”C” Class road. If it is maintained by Military Engineer Service (MES) then the classification is “A1” class road.
Finally, the CLAR Rules also state that all roads maintained by one authority (say Cantonment Board) are to be assigned a common survey number.
In the case of Secunderabad Cantonment all “C” Class roads in the entire 40 sq km extent of the Cantonment, are assigned a unique Survey Number – Sy No 779. And all “A1” roads in the entire Cantonment are assigned Sy No 778.
All the roads that are closed today are either in Sy No 778 or Sy No 779. So, going by the CLAR Rules, the fact that separate survey numbers are assigned to these roads from the plots lying on the sides of these roads is an acknowledgment that all these roads are public roads. To the public, it does not matter whether the road is maintained by Cantonment Board or by MES. They have Right of Way on them.
But how did public come to have Right of Way on these roads?
This happened because when these roads were built over a century ago, they were constructed over paths that were already thoroughfares, used by people on one side to get to the other. Farmers from the eastern areas of Kapra, Nagaram, Kowkoor and Yapral areas used these paths to reach bazars on the western side, such as Bolarum Bazar, Risala Bazar, Pioneer Bazar, Doveton Bazar, etc.
Old maps from over a century ago clearly show Octroi posts on some of these paths. Obviously, Octroi was not paid by the Army. It was collected from vehicles carrying produce and goods, showing that these were public roads even then.
So it is clear that the roads in Secunderabad Cantonment are public roads because of long usage, and the fact that they are public roads is clearly acknowledged in the land record by the manner in which they are numbered and classified.
Is the LMA's action to close these roads legal?
The short answer is “No”.
All municipal laws specify a more or less similar procedure to close a road permanently or temporarily. A public notice has to be given. Public objections have to be addressed. The municipal body concerned has to decide whether the closure is to take place.
The law governing cantonments is the Cantonments Act, 2006. The procedure to close roads is laid out in Sec 258 of the Act. It specifies a similar procedure as above if a road is to be closed. The power to close a road is given only to the Cantonment Board. Also, reflecting the fact that Cantonments are administered by the central government and not state governments, the section further requires that a Cantonment Board's resolution to close a road has to be further approved by the GOC or the Principal Director of Defence Estates of the Command.
However, the LMA has followed Sec 258 more in the breach than in compliance.
Even before this latest Covid-related road closure there have been numerous cases where LMA have closed roads unilaterally, without the procedure of Sec 258 being followed. This is obviously illegal.
Every such closure tremendously inconvenienced the public. Fed up of frequent closures citizens all over the country and their elected representatives, had been raising this issue with the Defence Ministry.
In May 2018, the Ministry acted on these complaints and decided to reopen more than 800 roads that were closed by LMA all over the country without the law being followed. Orders were issued by Army Head Quarters on May 21, 2018 to all station commanders, ordering that all closed roads be reopened.
In Secunderabad, this did lead to reopening of some closed roads. However, many other roads still remained closed. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Secunderabad Cantonment Board sent a status report in June, 2018 to the Principal Director Defence Estates, in which he listed the still-closed roads and the inconvenience which the public was facing because of their continued closure.
Citizens highlighted their problems to the Board, the MP and the MLA. Nothing happened.
Meanwhile, on September 4, 2018, the Ministry of Defence issued a detailed Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to be followed, if road closure was required. This SOP reiterated that the procedure of Sec 258 was mandatory for permanent closure of a road. It went further and said the power to even temporarily close a road in an emergency would only be with the Cantonment Board (not the LMA), and that such temporary closure decisions of the Board would have to be communicated to Vice Chief of Army Staff, and could not be for more than 2 weeks.
Since this SOP is still in effect, it is clear that LMA's latest unilateral announcement to close roads in Secunderabad, without following the SOP, is illegal.
The above discussion shows that the decision to close the road to contain Covid is arbitrary as it has no medical justification. The decision will grossly inconvenience the public. In any case, the roads were not the LMA's to close, but were roads on which public has Right of Way.
Finally, the decision is against the Law, against orders issued by Army HQ, and against the SOP established by the Ministry of Defence.
It would be best if this ill-considered decision is taken back immediately.
It would also be best if the LMA realises the illegality of their continuing road closures and reopen all closed roads forthwith.
By Pankaj Sethi
An engineer by profession, Pankaj Sethi is a long time resident of Secunderabad. He is interested in the history of Secunderabad and in civic issues affecting the lives of its citizens.