TOSA MAIDAN – In the line of fire

Tosa Maidan firing range is not only putting at risk the lives of people but also endangering the surrounding environment and aquatic life

MATTER OF CONCERN

TAHA MIRANI

Every year with the onset of summer government issues a fresh notification to 16 adjoining villages of Tosa Maidan, asking them to stay indoors.  A rich pasture located in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, Tosa Maidan was given to Indian army on lease for firearms practice in 1962.
“The heavy artillery firing and continuous explosions in the area creates cracks in the walls, due to which we have to get the houses repaired every year,” says a local resident Zahoor Ahmad, pointing towards a narrow fissure on a wall. “We have been advised not to enter the range area for collection of firewood/metal scrap or for grazing cattle as the villages fall in the danger zone,” he says. “It happens every summer.”
Earlier, the pasture buzzed with the activity of people. But as of now, only a few souls could be seen in the distance, walking hesitantly in different directions. Under the scorching heat of the sun houses seem lifeless and uninhabited. The cattle and the birds too seem to have abandoned the meadow.
Apart from the damage to the houses, the continuous gunfire and explosions have resulted in scores of casualties and several people have been injured. Moreover, there are more than two dozen people who have been permanently disabled.
On July 5 last year, during firearms practice in the range, one morning Fatima Begum of Chill Brass Beerwah suffered from splinter injuries in her leg while collecting brass pieces. In another incident, an unexploded shell went off inside the makeshift shelter of Muhammad Ali Khan, killing him on the spot and critically injuring his wife, Zeba Khan. Khan had brought home some artillery and mortar scraps from the pastures of Tosa Maidan which included an unexploded shell.
Another local resident, Bilal Ahmad, who had gone to bring home his cattle from the pasture, accidently stumbled against an unexploded grenade. He was hit in the leg. “I had gone to bring my horses back from the pasture when I stamped upon an unexploded shell. The wound is still there,” he says.
Every year the meadow claims some life. It usually happens when people accidently stumble against the leftover ammunition. “We aren’t against the exercise, but what about the inhabitants who live around this meadow,” says Gulzar Ahmad. “Can anybody answer why we have been chosen for this living hell?”
Not only human and animal life has been put at risk because of drilling exercises carried out in the area, but the environment is also deteriorating with each passing hour. A high proportion of the ammunition is left to clutter up the shooting range which is a substantial threat to the environment. Aquatic life also remains largely affected.
Pollution results primarily from the spent shells fired into the air, which constitute potentially hazardous wastes. When the natural flow of rain carries the metal scraps to the water bodies surrounding the pasture, it adds to their contamination. “The springs in Tosa Maidan are considered to be safe for irrigation purposes,” says Bilal Ahmad. “But the used up shells and mortar scraps which remain scattered in and outside the range area eventually find a way into those springs, thereby polluting them.”
“The state has jurisdiction to open up such shooting ranges anywhere in the valley, or in the country,” says Dr Pirzada Muhammad Amin, HOD Department of Social Work, University of Kashmir. “But we need to see the social durability as well since the area is surrounded by a huge population. Also some of the famous tourist destinations lie close to Tosa Maidan. And given the history of violence in the region, the continuous firing in the area can communicate a wrong message to the tourists.”  Taking cognizance of this fallout, he says the authorities must reconsider the location.
Over the past 50 years, tons of millions of waste has been poured downrange, recklessly, ignoring the risk to public health. Several people have developed hearing problems, heart and other ailments because of the noise coming from the continuous firing in the area. The authorities have ignored people and overlooked their problems caused by this firing range for the last five decades.
 “The firing range has primarily affected the environment,” says Dr Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, Convener, Right To Information Movement in Kashmir who has spent whole summers trekking in and around Tosa Maidan for more than ten years. Dr Sheikh argues that the presence of guns and grenades has devastated various aromatic and medicinal plants in the area apart from inflicting damage to life and property. “The timber smugglers are also on the rise as the forest department seldom sends any patrols to the area,” he says.
The constant noise has made people experience bouts of emotional trauma and they show symptoms of anxiety. “Men, women, and children are terrified to sleep at night especially when the firearms drill is on,” says Shafaat Ahmad, a local resident. People have reported disruption of daily activities given the imminent danger of being killed. Children avoid going to schools. “When the children grow up with such impression in their mind, it causes changes in their behavior,” argues Dr Sheikh. “They might possibly become aggressive over time.”
The constant firing and explosions have had a profound psychological effect on those living nearby. Many psychiatrists believe that living under constant violence leads to psychological trauma, on the basis of the learning theory of formulation of torture, that “exposure to inescapable and uncontrollable stressor events that threaten physical and/or psychological wellbeing lead to a state of total helplessness.”
The causalities can’t be simply dismissed as collateral damage though. The affected residents say living close to the meadow is like being subjected to “mass torture.” “Every time an untoward incident happens in the villages because of these explosions, people take to the streets,” says Muhammad Ismail, a local resident. “But nobody pays a heed to our problems,” says another 70-year-old local resident.  The poor local populace has many times raised their voice and protested against the authorities.  Reports say the families of the deceased living in this firing range don’t even get the ex-gratia relief.
Poverty has made it difficult for people to move to safer places or leave the area. They have witnessed a massive decline in their work and activities since 1962. “The area isn’t financially stable. People don’t have a permanent source of income. Since the ammunition is made of copper, people risk their lives to collect the scraps to later sell in the market for a few rupees,” says Dr. Sheikh. “A hard means of subsistence, you see. If measures are taken to recreate the area into a tourist spot, people would find a way to make a living,” he says.
The agreement between Revenue Department, District Administration Budgam and Army to use Tosa Maidan pastures for artillery drill will end in April 2014. It is important that the government adopts a broader perspective on the entire issue to mitigate the suffering of people. The government should consider not only the casualties that happen but also the severe health, economic, social and environmental consequences of the shooting range.
(Taha Mirani is an Izhar Wani Internee in Greater Kashmir)

Lastupdate on : Thu, 4 Jul 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Thu, 4 Jul 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Fri, 5 Jul 2013 00:00:00 IST




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