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4th January '2009
The Forgotten People
(The nightmarish experience of the people recently stuck in Suru valley is a stark reminder of the hard life led by these unfortunate people living in the remote areas of the State during winter)

A number of populated spots in the remote areas of the State such as Kargil, Zanskar, Wardwan Valley of Kishtwar, Gurez, Tulail, and Karnah remain totally cut off during winter from six to eight months due to heavy snowfall. For this period the people living in these places are totally isolated from the outside world and are virtually at the mercy of the Almighty God. They face really tough living conditions. The only access is through some courier flights operated by the Indian Air Force and paid for by the State Government. There is no regular or a dependable link for the inhabitants of these remote regions especially during winter. Before the closure of routes during the approaching winters many people try to get out of these isolated places. Quite often they get stuck en route by untimely snow blizzards. Recently such an incident occurred in the Suru valley when a group of 30 persons (18 children and 12 adults) got stuck in a shelter shed near the Shafat area in the vicinity of the base camp of the famous 7035 meter high Kun peak. The group consisted of children being taken for winter coaching to Leh. After five days of departure from their villages near the famous Buddhist Monastery of Rangdum, the group failed to reach Kargil and a missing person’s call was given out by the district administration.

The IAF helicopters located the group and dropped food and blankets to the besieged immediately to give some relief as it was not feasible to evacuate them due to bad weather conditions. Subsequently some of them, mostly children, were airlifted in a number of sorties carried over a period of few days. A few persons are reported to be still stuck up at the same spot. Earlier also a group coming from Zanskar had got stuck near Rangdum Gompa and was evacuated by IAF helicopters. Air Force and Army are the only saviours of these people in the difficult winter conditions. They are doing a commendable humanitarian activity. However, there are some places where there are no permanent defence establishments such as Wardwan valley of Kishtwar. The people here remain virtually forgotten during winter. The incident in Suru reminded me of a number of rescue missions in which I had personally taken part some years back. At that time, the Department of Tourism had set up a High Frequency Radio link between Padam, Kargil, Leh, Jammu, Srinagar, and Delhi.

The Department had also been given special authorisation to call for aerial evacuation of mountaineers and trekkers in distress. These measures had been taken in co-ordination with the Indian Mountaineering Foundation with which I had been associated since 1971. I had the opportunity of organising and personally participating in a number of rescue sorties for foreign mountaineers and trekkers frequenting these areas both in summer and winter. I remember two missions very distinctly. One was undertaken in December to evacuate two French tourists that had been stuck in a village in Zanskar due to an early snowfall. The couple was in extreme distress and the man was bleeding through nose due to high-altitude dryness. We evacuated them but got into trouble due to a hydraulic leak in the helicopter. We had to make an emergency landing near Rangdum Gompa but eventually reached Srinagar with the foreign tourists. The other was a sortie in February to Padam in Zanskar to rescue a Swiss photographer suffering from severe frostbite. There were some other missions but less dramatic. Subsequently, I was also looking after the operation of Pawan Hans helicopters taken on lease by the State Government. These helicopters were used in winter for courier services to Kargil, Gurez, and Tanghdar.

I had the opportunity of flying with these to all the three locations. It gave me the opportunity to see the pathetic condition of the local inhabitants in winter. There were sometimes fights among people to get a seat on the helicopter. After the Pawan Hans operations were discontinued due to prohibitive cost, we started through the State Tourism Department MI-17 services in winter to Tanghdar, Gurez, Kargil, and Zanskar. It too was quite expensive and cost the state government almost couple of crore rupees every winter but still it was worthwhile keeping in view the urgency as well as the humanitarian aspect of the service. Later on the government decided to set up its own Department of Civil Aviation for starting helicopter services to all the remote areas on a regular basis. A couple of helicopters and a small fixed wing aircraft were purchased. However, instead of utilising these for rendering succour to the forgotten people, these were used for ferrying Ministers and other VIPs. For connecting Kargil to outside world the local runway was upgraded and a terminal building constructed by the Union Ministry of Civil Aviation after spending over rupees forty crores. However, instead of operating a small civilian aircraft like Bombardier or Dornier which had already conducted trial landings with Ghulam Nabi Azad as the then Civil Aviation Minister on board, the runway was handed over to the Defence Authorities.

This is a usual story with many projects. After completion some hitch comes up and the project gets shelved because of security reasons. One may ask why the hitch was not considered before investing such a huge amount of money. One could start a full fledged helicopter company with such funds. These days the IAF operates an AN-32 Aircraft to ferry civilians. They have to go through a number of humiliations before taking the flight. Firstly, they are called very early and asked to carry their own bag to the aircraft where they are weighed along with the bag. Both the passenger and the bag are weighed together as the flights are operated by tonnage and not as passenger flights which is normal civil aviation procedure. Such practices are bound to continue until a proper Civil Aviation Company takes over the task of connecting all the remote areas of the state by operating helicopters and small aircraft under normal Civil Aviation procedures. Such a service can easily be clubbed with general public utility services like a bridge across a river or a road to a remote village which are normally paid for by the Government. Last year the Government had once again mooted a proposal for setting up of an organisation to cater for these services. In fact a tender was floated in the newspapers for inviting a private company to provide these facilities. It is not known what happened to the proposal and in the meantime, the people in the remote areas continue to remain “forgotten!” Now that a new government, young and dynamic fully acquainted with the people living in the remote mountain areas is taking over the reins of power, it is hoped that the “forgotten people” in the remote areas will receive the due attention which they not only aspire for but also deserve as equal citizens of the State! This will be the first step towards good governance promised to one and all.

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