Frost, inhabitable conditions and sub-zero temperature are deadlier than bullets at the world's highest military post " Siachen " which is part of a disputed region between India and Pakistan. The latest incident where four Indian Army personnel and two porters died after an avalanche hit their post, brings to fore the rising number of death at the the world's highest battlefield where not a single death has occured due to a bullet wound since 2003.
The Siachen Glacier in the Karakorum range virtually divides the Himalayas between Indian and Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, claimed by both countries in its entirety. Thousands of Indian and Pakistani troops contest an area at altitudes above 20,000 feet where they have to deal with altitude sickness, high winds, frostbite and temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius. The The four soldiers and two porters, who were victims of Monday's tragedy also succumbed to severe hypothermia (extreme loss of body's core temperature).
The recent casualty brings focus back on the futility of militarising a non-vegetative inhabitable cold dessert where both India and Pakistan have poured in billions to maintain troops, with India spending comparatively much higher amount because its troops are camped on a glacier and have to be supported by a fleet of helicopters.
A study released in 2005, though dated, gives a conservative estimate to the amount of money that has been spent over just the upkeep of the troops in ten years. It says that India may shell rupees 7,200 crore and Pakistan at least 1,800 crore in keeping their troopers alive in the arid region where oxygen is so scarce that soldiers some time have difficulty even lighting a fire for cooking purposes. And the cost incurred is not just monetary.
Between the troops of the two countries, an estimated 8,000 troops have died on the glacier since 1984, almost all of them from avalanches, landslides, frostbite, altitude sickness or heart failure and not because of combat, local media reports have said. India alone has lost more than 165 army personnel in the last 10 years. This does not include the numbers of those who were incapacitated due to frostbite and other weather-related conditions.
The glaciated area presents temperatures ranging from a minimum of minus 42 degrees Celsius in the night to maximum of minus 25 degrees Celsius during the day. In face of an avalanche or a blizzard, the temperatures drop further making survival even more difficult.
Experts say that the strategic Dras region alone witnesses 80 to 100 avalanches per year. Speaking about the hardships faced during an avalanche, army officials told The Economic Times, "If the avalanches are big then several of our equipment and rations get buried under the snow. At that moment, there is no time to save them and even completely protect ourselves. After the avalanche is over, we have to quickly dig out any equipment that can be found. But this is difficult, because the temperature quickly freezes the snow and makes it hard. There is also the risk of an immediate second avalanche. That is why several of our equipment lost in avalanches are found during summers when the snow melts."
Furthermore, in this region a snow blizzard doesn't mean featherlight wafts of snow floating down, but literal displacement of blocks of ice. Avalanches can block important routes to the posts severing communication lines, a chance for calling in reinforcement, and any scheduled redeployment to one of the most adverse outposts; the medically advisable maximum tenure of a soldier is three months in this region, which often gets prolonged due to adverse weather condition. Conservative estimates suggest about 150 army roads get blocked due to avalanches each year.
An army doctor told BBC , "Life at high altitude can cause ailments including dizziness, fatigue, loss of appetite, swelling of the lungs and brain, insomnia, memory loss and depression. The sense of seclusion and distance drives people to clinical depression and insanity." Speaking about the life on high altitude, an army man who was back after a long posting says that in absence of electricity or gas, the soldiers have to rely on kerosene oil. "Trivial tasks such as shaving, going to the bathroom or brushing your teeth are treacherous because using cold water in extreme cold can lead to frostbite or, at worst, amputation. Preparing food is essentially a full-time job because the high altitude and low atmospheric pressure mean it takes three or four hours to cook lentils and rice," the article notes based on experience of Indian and Pakistan Army personnel who have survived a posting at the glacier.
Keeping the high costs in mind military experts have time and again said that the inhospitable climate and avalanche-prone terrain have claimed more lives than gunfire. They insist the glacier has little to no strategic value as it is impossible to manoeuvre large troops from the inhospitable terrain. Until 1984, neither side had troops permanently stationed there. However, the situation changed at the end of the 1947-1948 war due to the ambiguity in Karachi agreement.
According to The Hindu, the agreement did not delineate the boundary beyond grid reference NJ 9842, which falls south of the Siachen glacier, to the Chinese border but left it as "Chalunka (on the Shyok River), Khor, thence North to the glaciers". This was perhaps the practical thing to do given that the entire area was not inhabited and extremely difficult to demarcate. Indian and Pakistani sides have since interpreted the phrase "thence North to the glaciers" very differently. Pakistan argues that this means that the line should go from NJ 9842 straight to the Karakoram pass on the Sino-Indian border. India, however, insists that the line should proceed north from NJ 9842 along the Saltoro range to the border with China. Between these two interpretations lies a substantial amount of glaciated territory that both sides want control of. This contrasting representation have made negotiations difficult even as both countries agree on a need to demilitarise the glacier. Thus attempts to reach any agreement have been unsuccessful.
Retired Indian Army Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal, writing in the journal of the New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies suggests that the area be demilitarised, and "after demilitarisation has been successfully completed, the Siachen DMZ (demilitarised zone) can be declared a 'science park.' However, the talks on demilitarisation are suspended as relations remains fraught with difficulties in view of recent developments such as the Pulwama attack and India abrogating Kashmir's special status.