Meadows of Pain

Relentless artillery exercises in Tosa Maidan meadow is a tragedy. They must stop now.


For the last few months now, the hapless people living around Kashmir’s Pinpanjal mountain range are making a fervent plea: for Heaven’s sake stop the military artillery exercises in the Tosa Maidan meadows. It is after years of bearing the untold loss of life, limb, nature and money quietly that these people have begun to speak out. They need to be heard.
While traversing through splendid natural landscapes in the Pacific countries of Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea since last month I happened to realize how daunting it is for nature and humans to recover from the effects of toxic explosives.  These are the countries that witnessed some of the most horrendous battles between the Allied and the Japanese forces in during the World War II. The flora and fauna of these landscapes were devastated by the bombings all sides did. Some elders on an island told me that they do not see the animal life which they would see before the war anymore.
Kashmir’s Tosa Maidan is said to be a fairy meadow, situated some 50 kms west of Srinagar. Nestled in the wilderness of the Pirpanjal range between Gulmarg and picturesque Doodhpathri, it has strong resemblance with Europe’s Alps, and is mystical.
Like most people of my generation, and also the younger ones, I have never been there. The land first caught our imagination in 1988 during Tyndale Biscoe School’s trekking expedition from Yusmarg to Pirpanjal’s Sunset Peak via Roomshi. Such is the magic of Roomshi – located above the tree line - that it would make any first-time visitor fall in eternal love with the place instantly. Serene and virgin, its lush green grass is dotted with mystical red flowers – making the meadow look like a giant heavenly carpet. Its streams have crystal-clear water oozing from the glaciers in sight. At the far end of the meadow rise the peaks of Pirpanjal. The peaks look at a hand’s distance.
This alpine paradise is in the news now almost every year – not for its beauty or tourist interest but for the military exercises that take place there. Little attention has been paid to what all has been happening there. This meadow is in pain. It needs attention.
In 2011 the Army in a statement, perhaps for the first time, said that a military exercise, involving use of heavy artillery and other ammunition, will commence in Tosa Maidan, and warned inhabitants of the area not to venture out. This year the people living around Tosa Maidan are organising a campaign – making the outside world know the loss they bear.
Artillery exercises in an alpine meadow above 10,000 feet are an environmental disaster. There are huge implications, some of which are irreversible.
Firstly, there are human costs: they force thousands of civilians from the areas of Lachmanpura, Khipura, Lasipora, Drang, Habar, Kadlabal, Khanpora, Shunglipora, Rugaun Kharian, Sutharan, Satgalipora, Chill, Gutlipora, Khandpora, Pakhanpora and Batapura inside their homes for days altogether. Given the deafening sounds which the artillery explosions generates the psychological impact on children and the physically weak is considerable.
The army normally allowed movement of the people between 4:30 in the afternoon and 7 in the evening, meaning a very limited human activity during the exercise. Unexploded ordinance (UXO) is regularly seen littered in a large area, restricting civilian movement and putting the lives of civilians, especially children, to risk. Let us don’t forget that civilian - in particular that of children - death from UXO in Kashmir is now a routine affair. Fixing accountability for that remains elusive.  
The environmental costs of the exercise are colossal, and mostly irreversible. Tosa Maidan is a critical bio-diversity sanctuary. Some of the most critical glaciers of the Pirpanjal Mountain Range lie in the area. Some key fresh water streams flow through the pastures which are used for drinking water and irrigation purposes downstream in the Valley. Given its ecological make up, Tosa Maidan is home to an exquisite range of flora and fauna. Artillery firing over the years there must have made quite some wildlife there to vanish. Its soil and water must be suffering from toxic effect from explosive materials used. Heavy artillery explosions must have changed the physical make up of the landscape as well.
When it comes to economic costs, they are huge too. This exercise hampers economic activities, including agriculture and livestock activities, in a vast area in the Pirpanjal Mountain Range for many days. The sounds from explosions even reach tourist destinations like Gulmarg, Tangmarg, Doodhpathri, Nilnag and even Yusmarg, creating an unpleasant atmosphere.
Some parts of Tosa Maidan are also used for regulated grazing. For most of the part, its use for military purposes has denied the locals a grazing area which they have been using for centuries before its military use.
Tosa Maidan could in itself be an amazing tourist destination if unprohibited civilian access is made possible.
From a military point of view drills and the testing of live artillery may be an operational necessity, but the question is: is such an activity warranted in a place like Tosa Maidan? There must be many officers in the Indian Army with love and respect for nature. There is reason to believe that they recognize that the loss from this exercise is too heavy for the people and the nature alike.
It would be nice if the state government and the Army start a formal process to evaluate the human, economic and environmental costs of these exercises in Tosa Maidan. These activities may even be violating India’s own environment and forest laws.
Any credible social and environmental impact assessment would easily conclude that these artillery exercises in Tosa Maidan are harmful, and must stop. Let people and nature in Pirpanjal mountain range live in peace.
The columnist is a technical consultant in international development, and a contributing editor with Greater Kashmir 

Lastupdate on : Sat, 7 Sep 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sat, 7 Sep 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sun, 8 Sep 2013 00:00:00 IST

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