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Cry for self rule in cantonments

August 07, 2012

RAWALPINDI, Aug 6: There is no denying that the last military rule established local bodies system that gave the people a role in running local governments. But it is also true that it denied the same to people living in its own domain - the cantonments.

Soon after the military takeover in October 1999, the cantonment boards, with an elected civilian component, were suspended and replaced by a mini board, with the station commander at its head who ran the civic affairs of the cantonment with the help of one civil and one military member selected by him, for six-month periods.

And that arrangement has continued in the cantonments since then in violation of the Article 14/A of the Cantonment Act 1924.

Elsewhere in the country, elected local governments ruled until 2009 when the new democratic rulers folded up the military-given local bodies and revived the colonial system of deputy commissioners and magistrates in all the four provinces.

In the 13 years since elected representatives were banished from cantonment boards, the demographic picture of cantonments has changed vastly. One estimate says every 18th citizen of Pakistan today lives in a cantonment.

Rawalpindi boasts to be the oldest and most densely populated cantonment in the country. Its civilian population face many problems but pour its ire on the civilian government for not having the courage to loosen “the absolute authority and control of the military” over its fate.

Defence analyst and Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, once an insider in the military establishment, stands for civilian rule. “Two forms of government in the country - one run by civilians and another by military in the cantonments - is an anomaly.”

Today’s cantonments are no more the cantonments of British Raj, she says, reminding that civilian population in them vastly outnumber the military. And so have their stakes, according to her.

She said the military police were not supposed to check the documents of private vehicles on the roads but they do. “People are not aware of their rights, that’s why they don’t raise their voice.”

When approached for comments, Rawalpindi Cantonment Board (RCB) Executive Officer Rana Manzoor Ahmed Khan said as a public servant he would act on government’s directions.

When law calls so, the cantonment administration would hand over its responsibilities to public representatives. If no policy or elections are announced by the government, it would be difficult for the administration to consult unnecessary people in running the day to day business of the civic body, he said.

Jamaat-i-Islami’s local leader and the last Vice President of RCB, Hafiz Hussain Ahmed Malik, said it was the prime duty of the government to announce local elections.Local political parties PPP, PML-N, JI and PTI are united that public representatives should run the affairs of cantonment civic bodies.

“Pakistan People’s Party stands for the supremacy of democracy and parliament. It wants people’s representatives run the affairs of civic bodies, including those of cantonments,” PPP City President Aamir Fida Paracha told Dawn.

It was difficult for the people to go to army headquarters for the approval of their applications for tubewells, street lights, construction of streets, nullahs, death and birth certificates and things like that, he said.

According to him, the PPP-led federal government wanted to build consensus on holding local bodies elections. He would like local body elections for cantonment board held before or soon after the general elections.

Opposition PML-N MNA Malik Abrar Hussain said his party had been demanding local bodies elections in cantonment areas. “It is the duty of the federal government to hold elections but the NRO-tainted ruling elites will not work for a democratic setup in cantonment areas,” he told Dawn.

Non-representation of public in the cantonment boards was allowing the bureaucracy “take anti-people decisions, like raising property tax, water charges, fees for death and birth certificates and other services,” he added.

Public representatives like him, he said, find it difficult to solve the problems of their voters and supporters as the military bureaucracy had no time to meet local people. “They are unapproachable to the common man because of the high security surrounding them,” he said.

“The minority cannot rule over majority. The government must take stock of the situation and true to its slogan and democratic values, not only give voice to the people of cantonment areas but its must cater for the majority rule while not comprising the military requirements,” said the PML-N MNA.