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Chilling reality


By Imtiaz Gul

The News , April 15 ,2012

The deadly avalanche that struck the battalion headquarters of the Northern Light Infantry (NLI) in Gyari sector of Siachen Glacier on Saturday, April 07, 2012 underlined the appalling human and economic costs of the protracted bloody conflict over the possession of the terribly inhospitable 50 miles glacier.

This, the world’s highest battleground, has eaten up over 8,000 Indian and Pakistani soldiers since April 1984, when the Indian Army carried out a covert operation code-named ‘Meghdoot’ and established permanent posts at the Siachen Glacier situated at the height of 22,000 feet.

On April 7, the nature delivered yet another bitter reminder to both India and Pakistan when a massive avalanche buried 135 soldiers of the Northern Light Infantry (NLI) of Pakistani Army alive. This means, in one go, the nature deprived 135 families of their near and dear ones in a region where no living creatures can survive.

Certainly, it is not the fault of nature but a direct consequence of national egos in New Delhi and Islamabad/Rawalpindi.

Both nations continue to stick to their stated positions, thereby prolonging a conflict that, we believe, was close to resolution in 1989 as a result of foreign secretary talks in Islamabad.

Historical facts support India committed aggression but still wants to retain the actual ground position line (AGPL) that is slightly over 100kms. For the Indian military, Siachen holds such a strategic value that prohibits it from thinking of demilitarising the glacier — which is essentially a massive swathe of useless territory comprising rocks and snow, where no living creature can survive without proper protective gear.

According to careful estimates by defence analysts, Pakistan spends approximately Rs15 million a day to maintain three battalions at the Siachen Glacier, which makes Rs450 million a month and Rs5.4 billion a year. On the other hand, the deployment of seven battalions at the Glacier costs India Rs50 million a day, Rs1.5 billion a month and Rs30 billion a year.

On an average, defence experts say (reported in The News by Amir Mir), one Pakistani soldier is killed every third day on the Siachen Glacier, showing approximately 100 casualties every year on an average. Similarly, one Indian soldier is killed every other day on the Siachen Glacier, at an annual average of 180 casualties. According to unofficial figures, over 3,000 Pakistani soldiers have lost their lives on the bloody Siachen Glacier as against over 5,000 Indian casualties. At present, there are approximately 7,000 Indian Army troops and about 4,000 Pakistani troops stationed at the Siachen Glacier.

Both Pakistan and India must urgently assign technical and legal experts to discuss complex technicalities and legalities of the Siachen conflict which has become a global environmental concern as well. Both the countries would do a great service to humanity and the environment if they declared the disputed region as a Peace Park and let international legal experts and scientists deal with the consequences of the military presence and the impact of their activities in the region. Both the countries must abide by Principle 19 of the June 1992 Rio de Janiero Declaration and address threats to the survival of lower riparian countries such as Maldives and Bangladesh.

The Principle 19 commits member states to provide prior and timely notification and relevant information to potentially affected states on activities that may have a significant adverse trans-boundary environmental effect and shall consult with those states at an early stage and in good faith. (Rio Declaration on Environment and Development made at the the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, 3 to 14 June 1992).

To prevent any further militarisation of what is at the moment considered as the highest and coldest battlefield, both India and Pakistan can resort to an already existing  mechanism i.e. United Nations Military Observers Group for India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP).

Ahmer Bilal Soofi, prominent lawyer of international law, told a round-table at the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) in Islamabad that given mutual trust, technical and legal experts from both the countries must first thrash out a couple of options and place them for the consideration of politicians. It is not impossible, he said, because there are clear guidelines in international law for the solution of such disputes.

Looking at the history and facts of the conflict, Pakistan is in an advantageous position. It can take the issue to the International Court of Arbitration because in this case India aggressed into the Glacier Region in 1984. What goes in favour of Pakistan is the fact that in many pre-conflict atlases produced by international organisations and encyclopedias Siachen was shown as part of Pakistan and mountaineers needed Pakistani permission to trek up to the Saltoro range.

Engineer and water resource expert, Arshad Abbasi, opined that the accident might have been the result of a glacier surge due to rising temperatures, movement of military men and possible tectonic plate movements in the region. India occupies three passes. The glacier is under stress due to rising temperature in the area. There are three airfields on the Indian side of the glacier and burning of fuels there is contributing towards spike in temperature. Chemical blasting of the mountains for making camps for the soldiers is also hazardous for the glacier. Total mass of the glacier has dwindled considerably during the last two decades. Moreover, in 2001 India laid down kerosene oil pipelines on her side of the glacier and further made the situation climatically worst.

Abbasi suggests handing over glacier to the UNESCO scientists for studying and assessing climatic impacts. He also pleads for a third-party mediation to settle the dispute and save the vital glacier from further damage.

Must Pakistan bleed itself and continue losing precious human and financial resource by sticking to its principled position on a useless stretch of rocks and snow? By taking a legal position in reference to the UN Security Council Resolutions on Kashmir, and adopting ill-thought mechanisms to pursue that objective, Pakistan has already created multiple socio-political problems, economic adversity and international isolation.

Must the present and future generations of Pakistan be hostage to such principled positions? After all, Pakistan lost East Pakistan too. Did it matter to the people of Pakistan? Did it help improve governance and economy?

Must we care for useless swaths of land or secure the future of young boys who committed suicides (the Charsadda incident) because their parents cannot afford books and uniforms anymore? Must Pakistan squabble over a treacherous forbidding piece of land or try spending that precious resource on the education and well-being of young and resource-less Pakistanis?

Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and is currently a Fellow of International House of Japan/Japan Foundation, Tokyo

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk