Considering the human cost and environmental devastation wrought by the firing range in Tosa Maidan, it would be tragic if the J&K government allots an alternative range near Yusmarg to the Army.
By Ahmad Riyaz
The Army’s proposal to set up an artillery firing range at Bajpathri in the meadows of Yusmarg has run into rough weather amid strong opposition from civil society groups in the Valley. And legitimately so. Considering the devastation wrought by the firing range at Tosa Maidan, it would be tragic if the government offers an alternative range to Army at Bajpathri, a potential tourist destination close to well-known health resort Yusmarg.
The Army had recently taken up the case at the Civil Military Liaison Conference headed by J&K Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and the government is understood to have assured a positive consideration of its request. However, tourism players in the Valley have warned about the adverse fallout of the range on the environment and the tourist sector in the area. Environmentalists have raised alarm about the destruction of the natural springs and the water bodies. And the civil society groups like Kashmir Civil Society for Development Studies, Tosamaidan Front (KCSDS) and Save Yusmarg Movement have decided to resist the move.
The KCSDS held a roundtable conference of environmental experts, civil society organisations, rights activists, lawyers, doctors, mountaineers and student representatives on December 26 in Srinagar to chart a future course of action. The conference unanimously resolved that 11 out of 51 field firing ranges in India being located in J&K is not only unacceptable but highly deplorable as it impacts fragile environment, biodiversity, water bodies, flora and fauna, livestock and on top of all, human lives in myriad ways. The group also called on the state government to roll back the existing firing ranges in eco-fragile environs and desist from allocating new ones in Bajpathri or any other part of Jammu and Kashmir.
“Should Bajpathri get allotted as firing range, at least 24 water supply schemes are bound to get affected by arsenal waste leading to water borne diseases and chances of depleted uranium affecting not only present but future generations,” the KCSDS statement said. “Hence any such move will be fiercely resisted by all sections of society by launching a mass movement,” it said.
Earlier, Tosamaidan, the magnificent meadow which also falls in Kashmir’s Budgam district, had become a bone of contention between the Army and the local population. The Army had been using the meadow for military exercises for past five decades and its lease expired in early 2014. The unexploded shells littered on the meadow’s slopes killed 63 people in 48 years and disabled many others. And all the victims belong to the villages surrounding Tosamaidan which has been their pasture for centuries.
Tosamaidan was leased to the Army in 1964 for military exercises for 50 years. And for all these years, the meadow used to become a scene of warfare for six months between May and October. The villages reverberated with ordinance barrage and deafening explosions in the period, forcing the villagers to stay indoors for most of the time.
It was the pressure mounted by the village level associations, mohalla and mosque committees, backed by the Panchayat committees, which led to a rethink within the government on extending the lease. Their sustained campaign forced the J&K Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, to admit in J&K House that 63 people had lost their lives in the area in last half a century due to unexploded ordinance.
Tosamaidan villages have a long history of suffering to draw up on, most of it poignant. On September 8, 1992, three children, aged eight, nine and 12, went to the fringes of Tosamaidan to graze their cattle when they were drawn to an abandoned solid object. When they started playing with it, the object exploded, blowing their bodies into smithereens. The villagers had to collect the pieces of flesh and bury them. What is more, the Army reportedly paid no compensation to the family.
With the talk of Bajpathri being made into another firing range, an obscure place which never made it to news pages for its resplendent natural beauty, has become a recurrent part of the public discourse. The state government has a responsibility not to decide in a rush. The potential tourist places like Bajpathri do not deserve to be turned into a firing range. As Tosamaidan experiment proves, this is fraught with consequences for the local population. After losing lives in Tosamaidan, we can ill afford a firing range in the area girded by human settlements.
Besides, before the government decides another firing range for Army, it should ensure that the people are taken on board. Already when 11 of the 51 field firing ranges are located in J&K, there should be no need to add yet another. And, as highlighted by the civil society groups, allotting mountainous areas as firing ranges also violates the ‘Paris Protocol’ on environment to which India is a signatory.