Why Indian Army should vacate Siachen?

By S. M. Hali

It was expected that following the Gayari incident, the India would agree to drawdown its forces from Siachen and give political leadership a chance to negotiate the settlement of the twenty-eight years’ old dispute. However, once again Indian obduracy prevailed and the issue, which has claimed over 8,000 precious lives, the majority of which are Indians and due to inclement weather, failed to move them. The thirteenth round of talks between Pakistan and India, which was conducted between the Defence Secretaries of the two countries, failed to achieve any breakthrough. Unfortunately, Indian political leadership, while accepting so-called professional advice from their military establishment, felt it expedient to stick to their stated positions during the 11-12 June 2012 Pakistan-India Defence Secretary level talks on Siachen.

Saner Indian opinion builders, which include Lieutenant General (Retd.) Dr. ML Chibber, the GOC Northern Command, who had executed the illegal occupation of Siachen in April 1984, is today one of the leading voices in demanding a complete withdrawal of the forces from the highest battlefield in the world.Siachen is not merely a military issue between Pakistan and India; environmentalists note with serious concern that continuous military activities on Siachen are causing enormous melt down with catastrophic effects on flow of waters in Indus basin. One of the major reasons which negatively affected weather pattern contributed to the catastrophic floods in Pakistan in 2010 & 2011.  

Studies indicate that the glacier was uninhabited before 1984, and the presence of thousands of troops since then has introduced pollution, while in order to facilitate the troops, glacial ice has been cut and melted through application of chemicals, causing it to recede at a rate of 110 meters per year. It has also been brought out that the dumping of non biodegradable waste in large quantity and use of arms and ammunition has considerably affected the ecosystem of the region, which may lead to “glacial retreat”. Preliminary findings of a survey by Pakistan Meteorological Department in 2007, based on satellite images, revealed that the Siachen glacier has been retreating for the past 30 years and is melting at an alarming rate of about 110 meters a year and that the glacier size has almost reduced by 35 percent. In an eleven year period, the glacier had receded nearly 800 meters, and in seventeen years about 1700 meters. It is estimated that the glaciers of the Siachen region will be reduced to about one-fifth of their current size by 2035. While in the twenty-nine year period (1929–1958), much before the military occupation, the glacial retreat was recorded to be about 914 meters. One of the reasons cited for recent glacial retreat is chemical blasting, done for constructing camps and posts. In 2001 India laid oil pipelines (about 250 Kilometers long) inside the glacier to supply kerosene oil and aviation fuel to the outposts from base camps. As of 2007, the temperature rise at Siachen was estimated at 0.2 degree Celsius annually that causes melting, avalanches, craters in the glacier.

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The additional bio-hazard of waste dumping has compounded the problem. The waste produced by the troops stationed there is dumped in the crevasses of the glacier. Mountaineers who visited the area while on climbing expeditions witnessed large amount of garbage, empty ammunition shells, abandoned parachutes and other items dumped on the glacier, which can neither decompose nor they can be burned because of the extreme climatic conditions. About 1000 kilograms of waste is produced and dumped in glacial crevasses daily by the Indian forces.

Ironically, the Indian army is said to have planned a "Green Siachen, Clean Siachen" campaign to airlift the garbage from the glacier, and to use biodigestors for biodegradable waste in the absence of oxygen and freezing temperatures. Almost forty percent (40 %) of the waste left at the glacier is of plastic and metal composition, including toxins like cobalt, cadmium and chromium which eventually pollute the water of the Shyok River (that finally enters the Indus River near Skardu.) The Indus is the main source for drinking water and irrigation. Research is being conducted by scientists of The Energy and Resource Institute, to find out ways for successfully disposing the garbage generated at the glacier using scientific means. Some Indian scientists of DRDO, who went on an expedition to Antarctica, are also endeavouring to produce bacteria that can dwell in extreme weather conditions and can be helpful in decomposing the biodegradable waste naturally.

Messing with nature was bound to take its toll. The flora and fauna of the Siachen region are also affected by the huge military presence. The region has been home to rare species like snow leopard, brown bear and ibex which are facing extinction owing to the military incursion. One solution, which is internationally gaining ground, is the idea of declaring the Siachen region a "Peace Park". In September 2003, the governments of India and Pakistan were urged by the participants of 5th World Parks Congress held at Durban, to establish a peace park in the Siachen region to restore the natural biological system and protect species whose lives are at risk. An Italian ecologist Giuliano Tallone proposed the establishment of Siachen Peace Park at the conference. After a proposal of a Transboundary Peace Park was floated, the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation and the International Union for Conservation of Nature organized a conference at Geneva and invited Indian and Pakistani mountaineers Mandip Singh Soin, Harish Kapdia, Nazir Sabir, and Sher Khan. The region was nominated for inclusion in the United Nations’ World Heritage List as a part of the Karakoram Range, but was deferred by the World Heritage Committee. The areas to the east and west of the Siachen region have already been declared national parks: the Karakoram Wildlife Sanctuary in India and the Central Karakoram National Park in Pakistan. Let the Siachen Peace Park be dedicated to all the brave soldiers who have laid down their lives at Siachen so that our next generations can have a peaceful environment friendly future.