How Safe is Tosamaidan?
After death of a youth in explosion of a live shell in the meadow on August 12 question are being raised over claims of government and Army about having sanitised the pasture. In wake of the concerns the government has now started a fresh clearance exercise in the meadow
Beyond the village of Shunglipora and far ahead of last stretch of motorable road, a steep trek ends in a vast meadow atop a mountain. Circled by sky-touching pine trees, the oval-shaped pasture spreads endlessly like a green carpet. For tourists and trekkers the picturesque Tosamaidan was a major attraction till last week. But today, the silence that has enveloped this “king of meadows” speaks of the horrors that revisited it when a littered shell exploded on August 12, killing a youth on the spot.
The tragedy once again raised questions over the government and union defence ministry’s claims about having sanitised the meadow, which was used by Army as field firing range for 49 years before it was handed back to state in 2014. Located in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, Tosamaidan was officially thrown open to public by former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti on May 29, 2016. Ever since Tosamaidan Bachao Front (TBF), a body comprising of locals and RTI activists, who were on forefront of an agitation against extension of lease of meadow to army, has been organising annual festival “Jashn-e-Tosamaidan” in the meadow. This year, the five-day festival started on August 9. The meadow, surrounded by lofty mountains, was a favourite destination of nature lovers, like in previous years. The rush of visitors was only growing when an early morning blast on last Sunday left Wajid Ahangar of nearby Zoogu village dead, while three of his friends were seriously injured. Youngest among five siblings, Wajid had left home at break of dawn on the fateful day and was to join his brother Rameez Ahanger, who was camping in the meadow along with his friends. Such was the explosion’s impact that splinters had caused holes in the deceased youth’s chest. “He (Wajid) had died on the spot,” said Moulvi Maqbool Mir, his relative. Quoting an eyewitness, Mir, a former village head, said Wajid was blown away by the explosion caused by a littered shell. “They had found it (shell) somewhere there and before they could throw it away, it exploded,” he said. Wajid Ahangar was killed on August 12 after a littered shell exploded in Tosamaidan.
A few months after the government took possession of Tosamaidan in 2014, the army undertook an 83-day long ‘operation Falah’ to clear it of unexploded shells. The move was prompted by a local’s death in an explosion. “The initiative to clear Tosamaidan firing range of unexploded bombs and other dangerous objects came to a conclusion after 83 days. We can confidently say now that we have kept our promise of clearing the field,” then corps commander of Srinagar-based Chinar corps, Lt Gen Subrata Saha, had told media on October 22, 2014. Following the assurance, the tourism department began its initiative to put Tosamaidan on the tourism map, culminating with setting up of Tosamaidan tourism development authority for its planned development in 2017. The construction of a macadamised road to the meadow is underway. At no point of time during the past four years, have questions been raised over the decision to open the meadow to people, largely because there was no untoward incident. But now, voices are growing shrill that government should undertake a fresh and “serious” exercise to mop the meadow of live shells. “This exercise should be started as soon as possible,” demanded Dr Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, a doctor and reputed RTI activist, who is also the chief patron of TBF. He said Army had been in possession of 69 sq km (11,600 hectares) of land in Tosamaidan, out of which 49 sq km was used as field firing range. “The place where the explosion occurred is more than eight kilometers away from the area that was used as a firing range. We fail to understand how it happened,” he said. Mir however, blamed government’s “sheer negligence” for the death. “At least seven more live shells have been spotted in the meadow, but the government has not acted,” Mir claimed.
The immediate concern is welfare of scores of families from villages like Sitharan, Drang, Shonglipora, Lashpora and Khag who have moved to the pasture for six months of summer, along with their cattle, as part of an annual practice. “These families comprise of around 10,000 people, including those who have come from Poonch (Jammu). Such has been the government apathy that even a mobile dispensary hasn’t been set up there during the past four years,” said Mir. On other hand, chairman of RTI Movement Raja Muzaffar Bhat said in a statement that the fresh explosion makes it clear that the Ministry of Defence “lied” to National Green Tribunal (NGT) over clearing the meadow of explosive shells. The Tribunal had directed the army, through the ministry, to ensure the meadow was cleared of explosive substances in August 2016, after a petition was filed by the RTI movement. “Unfortunately the order was not at all respected and not a single team visited Tosamaidan, though the ministry told the NGT that they had cleared the meadow of explosive remnants. … the fresh blast has exposed these claims,” a statement by RTI Movement said. Around 80 villages around Tosamaidan are dependent on it, as most people earn their livelihood by grazing cattle in the meadow. Almost every village has a story of death and destruction caused by explosion of shells. Shunglipora is one such village which has seen the worst. At least 43 people from this village, comprising of around 1,200 households, have died in these explosions in past, the highest in any village, said Dr Rasool. His team of volunteers has documented death and injuries in every affected village. In total, there have been 66 deaths and over 300 people have been left maimed, he said. These deaths had earned Tosamaidan the name ‘meadow of death’.
Wajid’s killing has now opened old wounds, leaving villagers in shock and grief. “I feel like I have once again lost one of my own,” sighed Muhammad Akram, another village head. Akram’s brother and two close relatives were killed some years ago in the meadow, while he had a miraculous escape after he stepped on a live shell. People with disfigured faces and deep scars on limbs and other body parts are a common sight in the village. In nearby Drang, villagers still shiver while remembering how 12-year-old Simran died on the spot and her five-year-old brother lost both legs when they stepped on a littered shell that had been washed down to the village from the meadow through a stream. “In every village, you will come across families where aged parents have lost their sons, brides have turned widows overnight and children have been orphaned. We don’t want those horrors should return,” said Abdul Majeed who has lost three of his relatives to the explosions. Even after the latest death, government is showing no swiftness to take precautionary measures to any more tragedy. While the meadow remains open for visitors, the authorities haven’t sealed the areas where live shells were found or the spots believed to be vulnerable. “They could have put up warning signs or deputed tourism police to keep a watch. What more will it take to wake up this government,” questioned Muzaffar Ahmad of Sitharan.
After a series of meeting between top officials from state administration, Army and J&K police it has been decided to undertake a fresh sanitization exercise of the whole meadow. As per minutes of a meeting that was chaired by deputy commissioner Budgam Sehrish Asgar it was decided that Army would clear the meadow of unexploded shells. The meeting decided that Army, and the government teams, would work under overall supervision of sub-district magistrate Beerwah, continuously till 69 km radius Tosamaidan is cleared of unexploded shells.