The Siachen conflict: Bearing the high cost of human life
India and Pakistan maintain a permanent military presence at a height of over 20,000 feet, which has led to more deaths due to extreme weather conditions than to each other's military might, reports Amir Mir
The deadly avalanche that struck the battalion headquarters of Pakistan Army's Northern Light Infantry on the Siachen Glacier has brought to light the human and economic cost of sustaining a two-decade long bloody conflict for the geographically remote and climatically inhospitable area. The Siachen Glacier has claimed the lives of over 8,000 Indian and Pakistani soldiers between April 1984 and April 2012.
Saturday's avalanche at the highest and costliest battlefield in the world buried alive at least 125 people, most of them Pakistani soldiers from the Northern Light Infantry. Although rescue efforts are underway at the tragedy site to find signs of life in the deep snow, the rescuers are yet to find a single body or survivor in the remote area even 48 hours after the disaster. The catastrophe has once again highlighted the risks of deploying troops to one of the most unfriendly places on earth, reminding decision-makers on both sides of the India-Pakistan border that the longest-running armed conflict between two regular armies in the 21st century continues to bleed Pakistan and India dry for almost three decades now.
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Image: The Siachen Glacier
One Pakistani soldier is killed every third day on Siachen Glacier
The Siachen dispute has resulted in thousands of casualties on both sides, mainly because of adverse climatic conditions and the harsh terrain. This is despite the fact that leaders in Islamabad and New Delhi keep acknowledging the human and economic cost of the conflict. According to careful estimates by defence analysts, Pakistan spends approximately Rs 15 million a day to maintain three battalions at Siachen Glacier, which makes Rs 450 million a month and Rs 5.4 billion a year. On the other hand, the deployment of seven battalions at the glacier costs India Rs 50 million a day, Rs 1.5 billion a month and Rs 30 billion a year.
On an average, defence experts say, one Pakistani soldier is killed every third day on the Siachen Glacier, showing approximately 100 casualties every year on average. Similarly, one Indian soldier is killed every other day on the Siachen Glacier, at an annual average of 180 casualties. According to unofficial figures, over 3,000 Pakistani soldiers have lost their lives on the Siachen Glacier between April 1984 and April 2012 as against over 5,000 Indian casualties. At present, there are approximately 7,000 Indian army troops and about 4,000 Pakistani troops stationed at the Siachen Glacier.
The two neighbours maintain a permanent military presence at a height of over 20,000 feet, which has led to more deaths due to the extreme weather conditions than to each other's military might. In fact, human endurance is severely tested at altitudes above 26,000 feet because no human being can acclimatise himself to such harsh weather conditions. Since April 1984, when the Indian Army carried out 'Operation Meghdoot' and established permanent posts at the Siachen Glacier, the two nuclear-armed neighbours have confronted each other militarily for control over the highest battlefield in the world and its approaches in the eastern Karakoram mountain range, adjacent to the borders of India, Pakistan and China.
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Image: Pakistani soldiers, tied to each other for safety in hostile weather conditions, cross a snowy field on the Siachen Glacier.
Soldiers often suffer hearing, eyesight and memory loss
Originally known as Saicher Gharni, 'Siachen' means the place of roses (Sia-rose, chen-place of). The fight for the Siachen Glacier involves territory claimed by both States but not controlled by either until the mid-1980s. In 20 years of fighting, India and Pakistan have chosen to keep the war almost entirely out of the press. It is a war neither side wants to fight. Yet, it has lasted for almost three decades now. Thousands of soldiers from Pakistan and India stand muzzle to muzzle all along the Glacier, the disputed ice chunk between two hostile neighbours. India controls about two-thirds of the Glacier besides commanding two of the three passes while Pakistan occupies the Gyong La Pass, which overlooks Shyok and Nubra river valleys and India's access to the Glacier from the Leh district in Ladakh.
At 5,472 metres above sea level, the Siachen Glacier is located in the Karakoram mountain region, which has some of the highest peaks in the world. The northern mountains of the glacier mark the watershed between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Bereft of vegetation, the glacier happens to be one of the world's most inhospitable regions where temperature hovers around minus 40 degree centigrade. If bare skin touches metal, it binds as if with glue and can be torn off. In winters, strong winds from Central Asia can further bring down the temperature to minus 50 degrees. The glacier receives 6 to 7 metres of the annual total of 10 metres of snow in winter alone. Snowstorms can reach speeds up to 150 knots (nearly 300 km per hour).
The Indian Army controls Siachen heights, holding on to the tactical advantage of high ground. But the Pakistan army is slightly better off since it occupies a smaller portion of the glacier, and its road-head is only 20 km away from the farthest post. The Indian troops on the other hand are stationed about 80 km away from the road-head and have to be maintained entirely by air, which is not only cost prohibitive but also risky because of the adverse weather conditions most of the times.
Interestingly, the Pakistani soldiers cannot get up to the glacier and the Indian forces cannot come down. Soldiers brought down to base camp often suffer hearing, eyesight and memory loss because of prolonged use of oxygen masks. Many lose eyes, hands or feet to frostbite.
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Image: Indian soldiers near their base camp in Siachen
95 per cent of the casualties are due to harsh weather
While Pakistani troops stationed on the glacier are confronted with a less forbidding terrain as compared to their Indian adversaries, their military presence forces the Indian troops to retain their troops on the more elevated and hazardous mountain passes, resulting in higher attrition rates because of the dangerous altitude, weather and terrain. Daily existence at the glacier is simply agonising due to frostbites and other tribulations. Therefore, over 95 per cent of the casualties at the glacier are due to the extremely cold weather and forbidding terrain while only five percent fall in combat. The Indian casualty rate is a staggering 63 per cent -- of every two soldiers sent up to the glacier, one will be a casualty.
The Pakistanis are no better off since they lose fewer men to the hostile elements and more to the Indian firing. The Pakistani authorities had admitted in 1994 that their non-combat casualties since 1984 accounted for over 80 per cent of the total attrition. The Pakistani positions are, for the most part, at a lower altitude in the glacier area, ranging between 9,000 to 15,000 feet (some are at a much higher altitude such as Conway Saddle, at 17,200 feet, which controls the doorway to the glacier).
Over the last two decades, Pakistan has tried many times to displace the Indian forces, but had to retreat each time. The Indian troops have to do nothing but sit tight and periodically repel a Pakistani assault. Keeping in view all these facts, defence experts suggest that Pakistan and India should find a way to demilitarise the Siachen Glacier by withdrawing their troops from this futile war of attrition.
Image: Indian soldiers muster at the base camp after coming back from training at Siachen Glacier