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In Siachen, now weather the only enemy

By Sameer C Mohindru in Siachen
Last updated on: January 27, 2004 10:49 IST
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The over two-month-old Indo-Pak ceasefire might have brought some relief to 'snow-warriors' but has in no way changed the tough lifestyle at the world's highest battlefield.

"We are happy about the ceasefire. Now, weather is the only enemy but soldiers are maintaining constant vigil," Brigadier H P S Bedi, commanding the forces in Siachen, told PTI.

The army is constantly upgrading the wherewithal to tackle the inhospitable climes particularly with improved clothing, which includes Swiss jackets and shoes, Italian gloves and Czech goggles.

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There was some problem with the gloves but Defence Ministry officials said multi-layered gloves would be provided, the number of layers used depending upon the work being done.

The 20-year-old strategic control of the region through 81-odd posts has not come cheap, as there have been numerous casualties, mostly due to the extreme weather conditions.

However, for the past three years there has been no death due to cold or pulmonary diseases, according to army medicos.

Some of the credit for this would go to Defence Minister George Fernandes who has been taking a personal interest in the well-being of troops stationed in the inhospitable mountains and forcing bureaucrats to respond quickly to their needs.

The glacier lies between Saltoro ridge line in the west and the main Karakoram range to the east. The major passes are Sia La at 20,000 feet and Bila Fond La at 19,000 feet. The battle zone comprises an inverted triangle resting on the NJ9842 with Indira Col and Karakoram Pass as the other two extremities.

The roots of the Siachen conflict lie in the non-demarcations of the Line of Control on the western side beyond NJ9842. The 1949 Karachi agreement and the 1972 Simla Pact presumed that it was not feasible for humans to inhabit areas beyond NJ9842.

Bedi said there was a misconception that Pakistan holds part of the glacier when in reality their personnel were only stationed in adjoining areas. The southern part of the glacier was always under Indian control. It was only the northern part that was manned after Operation Meghdoot, named after Kalidas' Sanskrit masterpiece, which was launched on April 13, 1984.

Under the control of the 102 Infantry Brigade, commanded by Bedi, 3,000 soldiers are deployed in the glacier on a stretch of over 220km near the Saltoro Range and covering the Nubra valley.

The Brigade here is nearly as large as a Division elsewhere and soldiers are deployed in stages with some manning the posts, others undergoing training and the rest acclimatising.

Traveling takes days together, mostly on foot or on scooters with a journey from Base Camp to FLB Kumar taking up to a fortnight.

The jawans man the heights but it is the technical staff, which many here feel are the true unsung heroes of 'Operation Meghdoot' of 1984 and the initiatives that followed.

The technical staff has to maintain helicopters in sub-zero temperatures when the skin sticks and peels off if any metallic object is touched.

Air maintenance starts from Chandigarh from where IL-76s and AN-32s ferry in supplies and men to Leh and Thoise. Thereafter, medium lift M-17 helicopters air drop supplies on to helipads on the glacier. The Cheetahs undertake the challenging task of ferrying supplies and men to helipads situated at about 20,000 feet.

During operational sorties, pilots have to brave temperatures as low as 35 degrees Centigrade, strong winds, acute shortage of oxygen and poor weather conditions in close proximity of mountains. There is always the threat of powerful downdrafts that pull the helicopters down.

Many recall with pride how Siachen (the place of roses) Glacier has become an area of numerous world records. One such feat was achieved when a Cheetah helicopter's engine was changed at 20,000 feet under threat of enemy fire.

The last 20 years have seen operations increase in size and intensity. One air force personnel described the earliest Siachen operations as 'rudimentary' compared to the present-day one, which is based on scientific planning and meticulous execution.

Soldiers now live in fibre glass-reinforced plastic huts, a far cry from 1984 when they had first moved in here. There are heavy-duty snow scooters, which can carry goods in attached sledges.

Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs) and Inmarsets are being used to communicate, enabling soldiers to keep in touch with their near and dear ones. There are plans to introduce better radio sets for communication between the base camp and forward posts and set-top boxes for soldiers to watch cable television in their huts.

Among the major changes in the last few years is a centrally heated hospital in Thoise.

Soldiers are happy about the ceasefire and said it ensures greater daytime movement. However, Bedi pointed out that movement is still preferable at night when the snow is frozen. During day time, even slight melting of snow can result in avalanches.

One jawan of the Madras Regiment, a native of Ranchi (Jharkhand) and at present based in 'FLB (Forward Logistics Base) Kumar', said it was an honour to serve in Siachen and he had, in fact, volunteered to come.

There is a debate on the human and economic costs of manning the region but military officials here said it ensures India has the tactical advantage of high ground.

"In a way, you can compare it to the advantage Israel has by virtue of controlling Golan Heights in West Asia," an official said.

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Sameer C Mohindru in Siachen
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