The avalanche that struck the Siachen Glacier in Jammu and Kashmir last week claimed the lives of ten soldiers including a junior commissioned officer and nine army personnel from the Madras Regiment.
Located on the northern edge of the Himalayas in Kashmir with altitudes reaching as high as 22, 000 feet, Siachen is world’s highest and coldest militarized zone. Sudheesh B, a resident of Kollam district in Kerala was also killed in the mishap that occurred on the northern side of the glacier early morning on February 3. It is not the first time a disaster hits Siachen, an icy desert that is prone to avalanches. The area is patrolled by troops from both India and Pakistan who have been battling for the glacier since 1984. According to the estimates, about 4000 soldiers belonging to both the nations have lost their lives due to adverse climate in the region than combat. Human habitation is impossible due to extreme cold in the 78 square km glacier that forms the tri-junction of India, Pakistan and China. No country has so far tried to impose sovereignty in the region due to the difficulty in establishing control. There was no mention of Siachen in the Karachi Agreement of 1949 or the Simla pact of 1972. The Indian authorities began to contemplate the necessity of imposing control over the region only after some explorers from Pakistan travelled via Siachen to the Himalayan peaks in the 1970s and 1980s. Since then the glacier has been a topic of contention between both the countries. India and Pakistan since 1984 have battled all adverse conditions and stationed the army personnel in the region. There were frequent conflicts as well. At present, Sia La and Bilafond La belong to India and Gyong La comes under Pakistan. Both India as well as Pakistan has 150 outposts along the glacier and about 4000 soldiers have been deployed in the region. Food and other necessary commodities are transported using helicopters.
No effective discourses have taken place between both nations about demilitarizing the glacier or to prevent the loss of lives in the region. It’s high time we initiate discussions to find out what both the neighbouring countries have gained by spending a huge amount of money from the exchequer. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has said that since it’s an issue pertaining to the security of the nation, withdrawing troops from Siachen was not a solution. He said that the loss of lives in Siachen had come down and that the tragedies similar to the recent ones were ‘unpredictable in nature’. But the military and defense personnel who are experts in the field and knows the core of India-Pak conflicts says that both the nations were wasting money in Siachen and sacrificing the precious lives of soldiers. Given the impossibility of lives in the region due to extreme climate, the authorities should have taken necessary steps at least, for the redeployment of the forces to safer zones. Despite a science and technology institution functioning under the Defense Research department to study about the avalanche, authorities admit their failure in issuing warnings when necessary and in contributing towards minimizing the impact of avalanches. The experts warn of changes in the glacial sheets due to global warming and the rate of melting of snow has plummeted to dangerous levels. Avalanches are a threat to both Indian as well as Pak soldiers. The defence ministry refuses to withdraw the troops due to the region’s significance. Threats are posed not just from Pakistan but also from China. It’s natural for China to get annoyed due to India’s military moves in Karakoram mountain pass and Aksai Chin. The Pak government has always been obstinate whenever issues like Siachen and Sir Creek conflicts have been raised in the India-Pak discussions. Steps should be taken to initiate discourses between the nations about redeploying the soldiers to safer zones and demilitarizing the region within the specific time limit. Otherwise it would be the soldiers who would pay the heavy price.