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Fresh avalanche in Kinnaur kills 1, traps 5: 'Operational risks' take their toll on soldiers deployed in higher ridges

  • In February 2016, 10 soldiers died when an avalanche hit an Army camp in Siachen glacier and in January 2017, 20 soldiers died in Gurez and Machchal sectors

  • An Indian Army Major, Nisheet Dogra, lost his life in a snow blizzard in North Sikkim while he was going for deployment in a tank regiment

  • Admitting that climate change in high altitude areas was having an impact on soldiers there, govt said the impact is visible in form of avalanches

The armed forces across the borders are not the only threat that the Indian Army faces. It has a bigger enemy — the avalanche. For soldiers posted at high altitudes and in mountainous terrains, an increasing number of avalanches has become a real challenge.

One jawan of the Indian Army's Jammu and Kashmir Rifles unit died and five others were trapped in a fresh avalanche on the India-China border in Himachal Pradesh's Kinnaur district on Wednesday, officials said.

In February 2016, 10 soldiers died when an avalanche hit an Army camp in the hostile Siachen glacier. The 10 soldiers were buried under nearly 30 feet of snow when the avalanche hit the Sonam post of the Army, at an altitude of around 20,000 feet. One of them, Lance Naik Hanamanthapa Koppad, was found alive. He had been trapped under the snow for nearly six days. The Lance Naik later succumbed to a multi-organ failure at the Army Research and Referral Hospital in New Delhi.

In January 2017, as many as 20 soldiers died in avalanches in Gurez and Machchal sectors. In December 2017, three soldiers and an Army porter were killed while two soldiers went missing in two avalanches that hit north Kashmir's Kupwara and Bandipora districts.

Whereas in February 2018, three soldiers were killed and another injured after an avalanche in the Machil sector in north Kashmir's Kupwara district. Earlier, an avalanche in 2014 at Dalang, had killed two soldiers belonging to the Border Roads Organisation (BRO).

 Fresh avalanche in Kinnaur kills 1, traps 5: Operational risks take their toll on soldiers deployed in higher ridges

Representational image. News18

According to reports, about 300 avalanches take place every year in the Kargil region alone, resulting in not only army casualties but also causing damage to important tactical defence operations along the Line of Control (LoC). In the Dras region alone, there are about 80 to 100 avalanches every year which cause immense damage to military infrastructure along the LoC. The avalanches also block important routes to the posts.

As many as 150 army roads get blocked due to avalanches every year, an Economics Times' report stated. Since 1984, when India first occupied the icy heights of Kargil, till 2016, about 1,000 soldiers died on the glacier, as per official records. Only 220 of them were felled by enemy bullets.

An Indian Army Major, Nisheet Dogra, lost his life in a snow blizzard in North Sikkim while he was on his way to deployment in a tank regiment on Saturday. Dogra, who was commanding an independent tank squadron, was hit by an avalanche on the Tibetan plateau in North Sikkim and later, his body was found under five to six inches of snow.

According to the Sikkim State Disaster Management Authority, the state receives heavy snowfall in the higher altitude regions all through the year, especially during the winter months, from January to March. The snow line ranges from 20,000 feet in the north to 16,000 feet in the south and the region has reported frequent avalanche incidents. Most of the time, the victims have been army personnel patrolling the high posts, mountain climbers and tourists. Many of these regions are remote and lack proper communication channels which further aggravate the situation.

Retired Colonel N Kumar, who is also called the "Siachen Saviour", had told ANI that the army has an operational requirement to patrol the glaciers. Not doing so would allow Pakistan to occupy the Indian side of Siachen pickets. "Now, once you go out to patrol, and if it starts snowing and you sit and rest for a moment, an avalanche will get triggered. A patrol usually takes about 10 days. This is an operational risk which we have to take," the retired colonel said.

"There are many kinds of avalanche: fresh snow avalanches, ice avalanches, and so on. Avalanches are very dangerous for patrolling parties because they can only wait for a couple of hours, when it is always advised to wait for 48 hours after a snowfall. Two hours is the minimum we do...If a patrolling party is setting out, they have to carry on once they are given a task even if it is very dangerous for them," he added.

In the military, Colonel Kumar said, they have indicators to tell when an avalanche has caused damage to a troop. Avalanche rods are also used to probe and find out where the casualty is. "But the safest method is the use of avalanche dogs. What 100 men can do in 100 yards, these dogs can do it in few minutes. Their sniffing power is strong," he said.

Colonel Kumar said officers are trained at High Altitude Warfare School which has special classes on avalanche and instructs every battalion as to what kind of precautions are taken in the event of an avalanche. "But it all depends on operational requirement, as you cannot wait. There are problems with the Army that way; they cannot wait for three days. We have more than half of the Himalayas and our borders are always on the Himalayas and we have to deploy there," he stated, adding that despite having such precautionary teams, it is difficult to for the patrol teams to ascertain the possibility of an avalanche.

"If there are layers of snow caused by first snowfall, second snowfall and so on and if water from the top layer percolates down, then the surface we walk on will become slippery. Avalanches can happen as a result of that as well. Normally avalanche study teams dig a pit to find how many layers were there and what are the conditions of those layers. But I am afraid patrols cannot do that and if they are given a task to go from one place to another, they have to do it," he said.

Meanwhile, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat said in an interview with PTI that global warming, ecological changes and heavy shelling by Pakistani troops are triggering avalanches in places such as Jammu and Kashmir, which had until now not reported such instances. He blamed Pakistani ceasefire violations and the use of heavy weapons to shell Indian military posts and villages. "Many times, it affects the soil and loosens it up. When there is a heavy snowfall on such loose soil and if there is a slope, it triggers the danger of an avalanche," Rawat had said.

The army usually withdraws troops from places at risk of avalanches, but that cannot be done in positions vulnerable to insurgency.

The army, however, has been taking the help of the Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment, a laboratory under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), to map avalanche-prone areas. Apart from this, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has developed the world's lightest insulating material and also high-powered search and rescue beacon technologies that save the lives of Indian soldiers serving on the world's highest battleground.

Despite upgrades, Indian soldiers still wear very heavy clothes, but scientists at ISRO have developed an ultra-lightweight material that acts as an effective insulator. Another game changer could be their handheld "search and rescue" radio signal emitter device that can be detected by satellites which can in turn help in an effective pinpoint of the location of soldiers lost or buried in avalanches, The Indian Express reported.

Another measure is the avalanche mitigation wall, which is made of stone and is about five feet high. It is placed in layers around a post and takes the impact of an oncoming avalanche. The army also does not allow snow to accumulate at an avalanche-prone area, so it artificially triggers avalanches from safe distances by firing at the accumulated snow. Plans are also in place to use an avalanche bag system (ABS) that inflates like a balloon and ensures that the soldier wearing it can "float" over the avalanche, says the Economics Times report.

Meanwhile, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in a reply in the Lok Sabha had said, "Indian Army soldiers deployed in extremely harsh terrain and weather conditions are suitably equipped and properly trained to undertake operational challenges and carry out their mandated tasks."

Admitting that climate change in high altitude areas was having an impact on soldiers stationed there, the government told the Lok Sabha that the adverse impact is visible in form of avalanches and cold injuries. In a written reply to the Lok Sabha, Minister of State for Defence Subhash Bhamre had said that special clothing and training is being provided to soldiers to mitigate the impact.

"High Altitude Army Bases have been created over the years after due reconnaissance and detailed evaluation of the terrain conditions," Bhamre said.

"The adverse impact of climate change is in the form of avalanches, cold injuries like frostbite and chilblains, snow slides and scarcity of water," he said.

The Minister said adequate safety precautions are exercised by the ground troops at such Army bases. "Special extra-cold climate clothing and survival training against avalanches are also provided. Special medical care is provided to troops located in such inhospitable terrain," he had stated in the Parliament.

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Updated Date: Feb 22, 2019 09:31:56 IST