Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister says the ground is under the unlawful occupation of the Army

Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal on Sunday demanded an unconditional apology from the Western Command of the Army for accusing the government of colluding with the land mafia over the Annandale ground, which he said is under the “unlawful occupation” of the Army.

Saying the Army's accusation was baseless, Mr. Dhumal said he would file a defamation suit and activate appropriate legal action against the Army. The Himachal government has demanded that the historic ground be handed over to it for building a cricket stadium.

The Army in a statement charged the government with being indifferent to environmental concerns. “Rather than initiating measures to bring additional areas under forest cover, the State seems to be hell-bent on destroying the meagre forest cover, all at the behest of the land mafia eyeing phenomenal profits which the cricket stadium project would bring.

“Ironically, it was Dhumal himself who had launched the revival of the deodar afforestation project in Shimla in August 2009 by giving a clarion call to people to restore the faded glory of the capital town by actively participating in the afforestation drive. And now the same Dhumal is toeing an entirely different line,” the statement said.

The statement said the proposal to construct a cricket stadium could destroy one of the last green preserves of Shimla.

“That Shimla is reeling under the effect of unplanned urbanisation is no secret. One shudders to think of the impact that a cricket stadium and the associated mushrooming of malls, shopping complexes, hotels and housing societies would have in the forested areas around Annandale. The costs which such developments would impose would have a cataclysmic effect on the fragile ecology of the region...” it said.

“In the past, the ground has been jointly used by the civil administration and the Army for conducting disaster relief and management exercises. Shimla and its adjoining areas are located in high-seismic zone,” the statement pointed out.

PTI adds: The 121-bigha dale, surrounded by thick forests just 4.5 km from the Ridge of Shimla, has become a bone of contention between the State and the Army, amid an intensified campaign launched by the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA), headed by MP and Chief Minister's son Anurag Thakur, to restore the area to the State authorities.

Non-negotiable: Army

Adopting a tough posture, the Army rejected the demand. “Annandale ground is of paramount strategic significance for the Indian Army from the national security perspective, which can never be ignored in favour of any game and gimmicks being played at the cost of the larger national interest, national security, training and disaster management purposes, which are not negotiable at any cost.”

The historic ground — from where the Durand Cup, the annual football tournament launched in 1888, started — was a major centre of activities during the British rule as well as a race course. It was leased to the Army during World War II to be used as a training camp. The lease expired some 30 years ago.

Noting that the campaign, with the full backing of the government, was gaining momentum, the statement said: “For quite some time now, ignoring the larger national interest and at the cost of national security and disaster management, reports have appeared in the media on the issue of construction of a cricket stadium at Annandale — an open and large ground under the management of the Army since 1941. The strategic significance of Annandale as forward logistic and operational base for operations in the sector adjoining Himachal is being overlooked in preference for a cricket stadium.”