Thursday, April 12, 2012

Siachen Disaster - isn't it time that sanity should prevail?

Everyone heard about the disaster that blanketed the headquarters of a 6th Northern Light Infantry of Pakistan Army - burying alive 138 personnel both military and civilians underneath a thick sheet of 25 metres consisting of boulders, rocks and snow, with a heavy heart. The disaster occurred on the Saturday morning and it has been five days but there has been no news about those buried underneath the landslide.

Landslide blankets headquarters of 6th Light Infantry Battalion with 25 meter thick sheet of boulders, rocks and snow

The headquarters located at 13,000 feet at Gayari Camp has temperatures as cold as -8 to -10 degrees Celsius - making it extremely difficult for the rescuers to continue with their operations with full human force. Even the machines fail to function at this height. Whatever machinery has been flown in will take considerable time to remove the 25 metres thick sheet before it reveals who it has been blanketing for the last five days.

The deteriorating weather is making it difficult to move in more machinery. Even the rescue mission augmented by teams from some foreign countries has been unable to make any headway. When do we start hearing any news is very uncertain so far and it is taking a heavy toll of the nerves and patience of the relatives of those 138 buried under the rubble?

The Siachen dispute has eaten away best of the sons of the soil since India occupied it in 1984, besides billions of dollars of tow of the poorest countries of the world. It is not the war, but the weather hazards that kills - how many more lives we want to perish in an area which has been the venue of the world's highest battle ground since. Isn't it time that sanity should prevail and we leave this area as it was since time immemorial?

Read below the genesis of the Siachen conflict and a peaceful solution to the issue before more of our sons succumb on the desolate heights of Saltoro Range. 

Satellite view of Siachen Glacier and adjoining areas [Google Map]

The Siachen Glacier is located in the eastern Karakoram Range in the Himalaya Mountains, just east of the Line of Control between India-Pakistan. The glacier was discovered in 1907 and is the world´s longest glacier outside the Polar Regions.  The glacier is situated at an altitude of 5,573 meters above sea level. Located at the southern part of the great watershed, the area is so glaciated that it has earned the name 'Third Pole'. The Siachen Glacier has an approximate length of seventy-two kilometres and originates near the Indra Koli Pass on the Pakistan-China border, about 70km southeast of K-2 (Chogori), the second highest peak in the world; From here it runs along the Saltoro Range in a south easterly direction till it turns into the Nubra River near Dzingrulma, a small village in Indian-held Kashmir (IHK) near Ladakh. On the south east of the Glacier is the Karakoram Pass with Pakistan, which connects Chinese central provinces. Much to the west, along the Karakoram Range and along the Hunza River runs the most strategic Pakistan-China link, the Karakoram Highway, connecting Central China specifically the Uguyar region, through the Kunjerab Pass.

Map Siachen by Amproehl / Flicker 

The Siachen conflict traces its history as far back as 1947 when the boundary commission could not proceed further than a point known as NJ9842 north of the Shyok River within Saltoro Range and made an ambiguous and imaginary demarcation line. Under the Karachi agreement the border extended to a point known as NJ9842 'and thence north to the glaciers'. Thus the status quo remained vague and undefined for many decades later till 1984.

Siachen has always been part of Pakistan since independence in 1947. Mountaineering and trekking expeditions to the Siachen area routinely applied for, and obtained authorization by the government of Pakistan. The renowned American journalist, Martin A. Sugarman in his book "Siachen - War Above the Clouds" quotes many examples and authorities which prove Pakistan's possession and its claims over the area. According to Mr Sugarman, "As early as 1957, the imperial College of London asked Pakistani authorities for permission to send an expedition to Siachen. Many other international expeditions, including one by an Austrian team (in 1961) and three by Japanese groups (in 1962, 1975 and 1976), sought Pakistani authorization to visit Siachen's nearby mountain peaks and glaciers. In addition, many international mountaineering and trekking journals and guidebooks refer to Pakistan as the governmental authority in the Siachen area".

American and British maps and atlases including the Britannica Atlas, the National Geographic Society's Atlas of the World, The Times Atlas of the World, and the University of Chicago's Historical Atlas of South Asia" - show the Ceasefire Line/Line of Control running from NJ 9842 in a straight path north-eastward to the Karakoram Pass on the Chinese border, with Siachen Glacier clearly inside Pakistan".

In addition, Sir Own Dixon, first UN Representative to India and Pakistan, indicated in his comprehensive report on Kashmir to the Security Council in 1950 that Siachen Glacier fell within the northern Areas of Pakistan. The highly regarded account was including in a book published in 1958 under the title "Essential Documents and Notes in the Kashmir Dispute", by the Indian writer P.L. Lakhanpal, who supported Dixon's findings. More evidence to back Pakistani claims comes from prominent Indian defence analyst Ravi Rikhye, who in his 1982 book "The Fourth Round: Indo-Pak War 1984", includes a map showing the Ceasefire Line running north-eastward to the Karakoram Pass on the Chinese border, again putting Siachen Glacier clearly inside Pakistani territory. 

Map showing Pakistan's stance as also explained by a map by US military in 1980s and even earlier maps - while Indian stance from Point NJ9842 showing Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) occupied by India in April 1984 

Even in the early 1980s, the USA military created a map of the area that continued the border all the way to the Karakoram Pass. The impact of this map was to effectively give the area to Pakistan. Around the same time, Pakistan had also started to grant permits and run climbing trips to K2. The area is known to be stunningly beautiful and the mountain is considered to be among the most difficult to climb. When the Indian Army learned of this, they immediately assembled a military mission to explore and setup camp along the Siachen Glacier.

In April 1984 Pakistan allowed some foreign trackers to climb into Siachen Glacier assisted by its para-military. The movement on the glacier was picked up by India, which interpreted it as a covert Pakistani operation to occupy the un-demarcated portion of the glacier that would provide Pakistani forces the ability to overlook Ladakh and the valley down below. India immediately air-dropped hundreds of specialized troops on the Saltoro Range and occupied large portions of Range and the Glacier and some of the dominating and commanding heights. Quite naturally Pakistan Army retaliated and moved its troops too. And it is since then that the troops of both the countries have been fighting an endless and fruitless war on the highest battle ground of the world with positions located on heights between 10,000 to 22,000 feet.

Since 1984, almost 6,000 to 8,000 troops from both sides have succumbed to this bloody war. But most of the casualties are not from shells and bullets - but weather hazards like the one that recently occurred. Soldiers have died from falling in crevasses, their limbs removed due to frostbites and those who do survive develop diseases peculiar to high altitudes that take a heavy toll of their health for the rest of their lives.

Many efforts have been put in for the vacation of the Siachen Glacier and leave the glacier as it has been till Indian moved in 1984. But there has always been a strong resistance from the Indian Army as it does not want to leave the strategically important heights it has captured and for the fear of their re-occupation by Pakistan Army. The only agreement that India is willing to accept is the status quo, like the line of control in Kashmir, since Indian Army believes it is in commanding position in Siachen and has the right to dictate terms in India’s favour.

In his book “Siachen: Conflict Without End”, Lt-Gen V R Raghavan (Retd.) has written: “The [Siachen] theatre of conflict, as is now widely accepted, did not offer strategic advantages... It is clear that neither India nor Pakistan wished the Siachen conflict to assume its lasting and expensive dimensions.”

The only good thing that has happened has been the cessation of military operations in 2004. Although the guns and rifles have gone silent, the weather has not. Temperatures in winters drop to as low as -40°C in non-glaciated areas and -60°C in glaciated areas. Beyond 5,400m, temperatures as low as -70°C to -80°C have been experienced. The wind in the valleys blows at 70-80 knots and when the wind-chill factor is added to it, it pierces through the human body, making it numb and insensitive. When it snows, the high speed winds turn into blizzards that bury igloos, shelters and weapons emplacements under heaps of snow. Such severe weather conditions, extreme cold, blizzards, avalanches, crevasses, frost bites and diseases continue to take lives of soldiers from both sides almost every other day.

Siachen Glacier in fact has become an ecological disaster. Since 1984 the Glacier has shrunk by 10 kilometres and has become a dumping ground of human waste and litter. As per one estimate, almost 2,000 pounds of human waste is being dumped into the crevasses daily by the Indian army. Since the Pakistani troops are lesser in number, the waste from Pakistani side could be anything between 1,000 to 1,500 pounds per day. Besides human waste, polythene bags, metals, plastic, empty food tins are being dumped into the glacier since last almost three decades and have become a part of the glacier.

The melting waters of the Siachen Glacier first go to the Nubra River in Ladakh, India and a part is bifurcated to falls into the Shyok River. The latter then drains out in the Indus River, which is the lifeline for Pakistan. As the glacier melts every year, the pollutants dumped by the militaries of both Pakistan and India also flow down into the Indus River on Pakistan's side and pollute the water considerably - seriously endangering the ecology, wildlife, fish and the wildlife dependent on the Indus water.

And the cost of maintaining troops has been enormous. Estimates reveal that it takes millions of rupees to maintain and sustain a soldier on the glacier. Now imagine since 1984, it has been 28 years and how much money has been wasted away in a war that has not brought glory to either side. Beautiful, tall, well-built sons of the soils from both sides have perished forever leaving behind scars on the lives of their families for the rest of their lives.

Isn't it time now that sanity should prevail and both Pakistan and India pull back from this area - where not even a strand of grass grows? 
Why cannot we use this awesome lot of money for the wellbeing of our future generations rather than squandering it away for the lust of the war mongers? 
Why don't we leave this glacier to the nature so that it again becomes environmentally and ecologically friendly to the wildlife and the humans? 
Why cannot we leave a small observer group of scientists from both sides to use the area for studies that may assist  the people of both countries - rather than occupying the glacier which is shrinking due to mere presence of thousands of troops and is being polluted with human and material waste?

The tragedy that befell on those unlucky 138 soldiers and supporting civilians, which is as sad and lamenting as any other disaster that strikes us. Should not this disaster open up discussion through media on both sides of the border on the fruitlessness of the Siachen war and its ramification on life and humanity?

Let us all raise our voice to persuade our respective governments to demilitarise Siachen Glacier to its pre 1984 status and leave it to the God forever to repair the damage we humans have inflicted upon it.



Shirazi said...

My heart and soul is with the bave comrades.