J&K Government and Ministry of Defense needs to carry out an exhaustivesanitation program in the scenic meadow to clear it off the ‘live shells’ lying litteredin it, before the place is thrown up for tourists

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|| DR. RAJA MUZAFFAR

                    The vast and beautiful Tosamaidan meadow which is located in central Kashmir’s Budgam district was being used by Army and paramilitary forces for filed firing practices for 50 years before the government decided against extending lease to the forces in 2014. While Artillery drills and other firing practices in and around Tosamaidan is now a history, the danger still looms over the meadow as well as nature loving people who have started to visit the scenic place. The lease agreement between Army and J&K Government which ended in 2014 was not further extended due to strong public resentment in scores of villages located at the foothills of this vast alpine meadow. Artillery and mortar ammunition that would reach expiry date would be used in Tosamaidan during summer months for filed practices. During 2013 villagers from Khag, Drang, Lassipora, Sugen, Chill, Brass and other villages launched a massive peaceful agitation against Government against extending the lease to the forces for that was to expire in March 2014. The public movement began at an appropriate time as 2014 was the year of state assembly elections. The then government lead by former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah didn’t want to have another 2010 type agitation in the Valley over Tosamaidan issue. In addition to it, he wanted to get political benefit out of this issue as well. The decision indeed helped Omar politically as he contested 2014 Assembly elections from Beerwah assembly segment and won in spite of the fact that he was a stranger in Beerwah, located near Tosamaidan. ‘Operation Fallah’ During August 2014 Army started cleansing Tosamaidan meadow from unexploded shells to avoid future casualties. The operation was given name

“Operation Fallah “

The idea of the operation was to clear around 1000 Hectares of the land from live artillery, mortar shells and other unexploded shells. During that time army had reportedly used sophisticated machinery for this work, but that should have continued for several months. The machines were used to detect and then destroy the shells. The then GOC of Srinagar based 15 Corps Lt. Gen. Subrata Saha had personally monitored the operation which locals thought would clear the whole area of all the live ammunition. This did not happen though. The operation was undertaken only for a month or so. The Army’s Bomb Disposal Squad (BDS) did not search the whole 1000- 2000 hectare area. As I am aware about the topography of that area the BDS officials did not go to many places where unexploded shells can still be found. It was indeed a difficult task but not at all impossible. It was not at all possible to sanitize the area

within a month or two. On June 26th, 2016 I along with few of my friends visited Tosamaidan meadow. We trekked up to Wat Daer and Shup Naag and on the way we found as many as one dozen live artillery and mortar shells. I captured these shells in my camera with full proof. I in fact submitted the photographs as a proof before National Green Tribunal (NGT) New Delhi where I had filed a petition against Ministry of Defense and J&K Government seeking that they should clear Tosamaidan meadow of such kind of ammunition and its residue material. NGT Steps In On July 10th 2016 Principal Bench of National Green Tribunal (NGT) headed by Chairman of NGT issued an order directing Ministry of Defense and J&K Govt to sanitize the area by August 10, 2016. But unfortunately the Tribunal order hasn’t been adhered to. Nobody can make an excuse that because of unrest the work could not be done. It is important to mention here that as many as two Army companies are posted in Tosamaidan area during summer months and there was no security threat for the Bomb Disposal Squad (BDS) of Army to act on the order of the Tribunal. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) order dated July 10th 2016 r eads a s: “ Learned c ounsel a ppearing f or M inistry of Defense submits that they have cleared the field from firing equipments and disposal in 2014. He further states that they would clear the entire field from any waste and remnants expeditiously and in any case not later than 10th August, 2016. In fact it is stated that they (government) have started using the said field for tourism purposes. We dispose of this Application with a direction to the Respondents (Ministry of Defense) to ensure that the field is not only clean but is kept clean and free for any waste and environmentally and ecologically friendly. All steps should be taken prior to 10th August, 2016,” reads the order. The Ministry has however misled National Green Tribunal (NGT) by claiming that area has been cleared in 2014.

Conclusion     

       I have earlier also found few live shells from Drang village located under the foothills of Tosamaidan. In 2011 I, along with some of my friends, got one huge mortar shell weighing around 6 to 8 kgs destroyed by the BDS who came to the village within no time after I personally informed them. In May 2014 a girl Simran (6) died in her own village Drang while as her brother Fayaz (4) was seriously injured – he is now permanently handicapped as his legs had to be amputated. It is good decision of Government to develop Tosamaidan as an eco tourism destination but before tourists are encouraged to visit Tosamaidan, it is the duty of the Government to ensure whole area is cleared of all the live ammunition like mortar and artillery shells. Those injured or dead have to be adequately compensated as well by the authorities. It is urged upon Ministry of Defense to send its team to Tosamaidan and undertake a mega sanitization operation in the area through a team of experts using hi-tech machines.

Author can be reached at :- muzaffar.rti@gmail.com