by Reema Shaukat

SIACHEN is considered as the world’s highest battlefield which is located in the east Karakoram mountain range of Himalayas, which gives border to India, Pakistan and China. The entire Himalaya region has the world’s second largest glaciers which are dispersed over the area of 76 km. In 1984, India started positioning its army over the Siachen glaciers and secretly tried to capture some posts in eastern Karakoram which then compelled Pakistan to place its troops there to protect its side of the territory. Ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan was done in 2003, whereas India often with its hegemonic nature violates such agreements. Indian troops are stationed on the upper part of the glacier while Pakistani soldiers are based on the lower part of the glacier. The biggest challenge at Siachen is not arms and ammunition but the harsh and worst climate and soldiers have to wear special uniforms, boots and gloves to protect themselves from frost bites and extreme chilly winds and lack of oxygen because of high altitude and where temperature falls below minus 40 degrees Celsius and snowfall exceeds 30 feet. That is why Siachen is often called as the bed of wild/black roses.

According to historical facts, ‘1949 Karachi Agreement’ and then ‘1972 Simla Agreement’ mentioned that it is humanely impossible to survive in this area. The conflict began in 1984 with India launching ‘Operation Meghdoot’ during which it gained control of the Siachen Glacier from Pakistan and forced the Pakistanis to withdraw west of the Saltoro Ridge. India established control over the 70 kilometre long Siachen Glacier, all its tributary glaciers and the three main passes of the Saltoro Ridge which are immediately west of the glacier and named as Sia La, Bilafond La and Gyong La, while Pakistan controls the glacial valleys immediately west of the Saltoro Ridge. According to media sources, India gained more than 1000 square miles of territory because of its military operations in Siachen, the source for the 80km-long Nubra River, a tributary of the Shyok, which is part of the Indus River system. It is important to note that the volume of the glacier has been reduced by 35% over the last 20 years. Global warming and military activity have been cited as the main reasons for the receding of the glacier. Apart from retreating of glaciers, the frequency of avalanches in this region is quite high and many soldiers on both sides have lost their life against this natural calamity.

India in the past has always issued statement that it will never withdraw its forces from the Siachen area and now recently Indian Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, announced that the Siachen Glacier will be open for tourists, between the base camp and Kumar logistics base. In the past, civilian tourists were restricted to the Nubra Valley, which is the gateway to the Siachen Glacier, and well away from the base camp and the Siachen Battle School. Now they may be permitted to venture farther in small batches. In fact, from years 2007 to 2016, the Indian Army Adventure Cell had operated the ‘Siachen Trek’ in which small numbers of civilians were allowed to venture between the base camp and Kumar. Now the tourists are allowed up to Warshi (towards Siachen Base Camp) and also Tyakshi village ahead of Turtuk.

India has opened up this glacier for tourism purposes without realising how dangerous and risky this zone is. According to official data, Indian military has suffered more than 5000 casualties, not in battle, but due to the severe winter and rough weather at glacier. Since the announcement of opening of Siachen as tourism spot, many concerns regarding environmental hazards are popping up. According to Indian media, there are environmental issues that would need to be addressed if tourism is allowed in greater numbers. The Army presence on the glacier, which is a combat zone, causes the addition of nearly 1,000 kg of waste everyday, as per one estimate. Tourists will add more waste and measures will have to be taken to dispose of it. A higher number of vehicles running close to the base camp, which itself is close to the snout of the glacier, entails the risk of increased heat and hastened retreat of the glacier. Tourism will also mean a greater logistical load on the Army. With hardly any civilian administrative arrangements there, the Army or IAF will be responsible for addressing medical needs including evacuation in an emergency.

Pakistan considers Siachen as an area under conflict zone and foresees that India cannot guarantee peaceful tourism under such circumstances. Rather, Pakistan is viewing this step of tourism as an attempt to settle or legalise Indian occupation and further tense the relations between India and Pakistan. One cannot deny the fact that China claims its control over some parts in Ladakh region and issued statements condemning India’s illegal step on abrogation of Articles 370 and 35-A in occupied Kashmir and warned India for any such kind of activity on disputed territory of Ladakh. It is also pertinent to mention that during Modi’s visit to China, Chinese PM did not speak about J&K issue, giving clear indication to Indian authorities about its perspective and clarity on the Kashmir dispute and supported Pakistan’s stance whenever, wherever possible. Recently, Indian Defence Minister also inaugurated the newly constructed “Colonel Chewang Rinchen Bridge” at Shyok River Ladakh which according to India will provide all weather connectivity in the region and will also be a crucial strategic asset in border areas. China is also viewing this Indian step as a threat to border security management in border areas near China, such as Aksai Chin, Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. Hence, such initiatives by India in the name of tourism and connectivity are quite alarming where in future through these tactics, India can challenge the sovereignty of nation-states.

The writer works for Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, a think-tank based in Islamabad