Recently ten Indian soldiers died due to an avalanche on the Siachen Glacier. Some years back more than 150 Pakistani soldiers had been killed by a similar avalanche in the area. Siachen in Balti language means land of abundant roses. However, the glacier itself is nothing like the land of roses. Rather it has proved to be a real bed of thorns for all the soldiers posted there. The dispute has an interesting history. Wikipedia describes Siachen Glacier dispute as,“The Siachen Glacier is located in the eastern Karakoram range in the Himalaya Mountains at about 35.421226°N 77.109540°E, just northeast of the point NJ9842 where the Line of Control between India and Pakistanends. At 76 km (47 mi) long, it is the longest glacier in the Karakoram and second-longest in the world's non-polar areas. It falls from an altitude of 5,753 m (18,875 ft) above sea level at its head at Indira Col on the East Turkestan border down to 3,620 m (11,875 ft) at its terminus. The entire Siachen Glacier, with all major passes, is currently under the administration of India since 1984, while Pakistan controls the region west of Saltoro Ridge.After the ceasefire of Indo-Pak Conflict a Ceasefire Line was established by the UN. The line followed various features held by the two warring sides. The 1949 Karachi agreement only carefully delineated the line of separation to point NJ9842, after which, the agreement states that the line of separation would continue “thence north to the glaciers”. According to the Indian stance, the line of separation should continue roughly northwards along the Saltoro Range, to the west of the Siachen glacier beyond NJ9842, as the international boundary lines that follow mountain ranges often do so by following the watershed drainage divide such as that of the Saltoro Range. The 1972 Simla Agreement made no change to the 1949 Line of Control in this northernmost sector”.
However, the line was never formallydemarcated on the ground beyond point NJ9842 but shown on US and Pakistani maps straight to Karakoram passthat left the Glacier on the Pakistani side. India believed it to be a cartographic error. The entire area being the most inhospitable frozen wasteland nobody bothered about it for quite some time. In late seventies and early eighties, the famous mountaineer Colonel Narinder (Bull) Kumar led some mountaineering expeditions to various peaks in the area. He in fact went to Indira Col and even brought some equipment left by foreign climbing expeditions which had gone to the area from the Pakistani side. He convinced General Prem Hoon, the Corps Commander to send patrols into the area and establish posts along the Saltoro Range to claim Indian sovereignty on the area.
“In 1984, India launched Operation Meghdoot, a military operation that gave India control over all of the Siachen Glacier, including its tributaries. Between 1984 and 1999, frequent skirmishes took place between India and Pakistan. Indian troops under Operation Meghdoot pre-empted Pakistan's Operation Ababeel by just one day to occupy most of the dominating heights on Saltoro Ridge to west of Siachen Glacier”. For either country it is impossible to launch any large scale operation.
The life on the glacier especially on the higher posts is like living in a cold hell. Minus 60 degrees Celsius temperature, snowstorms for weeks on end depositing sometimes more than 30 feet of snow, frost-bite and metal bite and above everything else the lack of oxygen causes cerebral and pulmonary oedema. Mountaineers climb to these heights after acclimatization and in good weather and do not stay more than a week or so. Here, the soldiers continue to stay for months on end with rotation to higher posts every twenty days or so. The guns need to be fired every few hours to prevent the firing mechanism from freezing. There have hardly been any casualties in armed conflict. Most of casualties have been due to the severe climatic conditions. Hundreds of soldiers on both sides have been disabled due to extreme living conditions.
Apart from being a cold hell, the area is quite costly to maintain. The high-altitude equipment, dry rations, kerosene for heating apart from the consumption of ammunition to maintain guns in working condition are quite costly. It is said that it costs rupees five hundred to fly a litre of kerosene by helicopters to the area.Specialized mountain equipment has to be imported at exuberant prices. Incidentally, the same West European high-altitude equipment manufacturing firms are supplying equipment to both the warring sides!
Finally, the worst fallout is the extreme pollution of the environment. Almost one metric ton of waste is dumped into the crevasses of the glacier by the soldiers every day. Apart from normal garbage, empty ammunition shells, parachutes and so on are dumped. The snows have blackened in many places. Major portion of the waste is plastics, metals, chemicals which affect the water going into the Shyok River. In fact, Siachen is the source of water going through Indus. All these pollutants have effect on the water. It is becoming the highest junk yard after the Everest base camp. Huge military presence has adversely affected the flora and fauna in the area.
There have been many attempts to sort out the dispute but so far these have failed. Manmohan Singh was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Siachen. He suggested peaceful resolution of the dispute. In fact, environmentalists have suggested that Siachen should be declared a Peace Park. The resolution of the dispute is stuck up. The Indian side wants Pakistanis to authenticate on a map the positions held by them at present. It may be worthwhile to ask the top Political and Army brass to hold the talks on the glacier itself so that they realize the actual ground conditions. Both sides may thenagree to leave the area alone and bring an end to this high-altitude madness! The sooner it happens, the better for both the suffering soldiers and the fragile environment.