The Union government on Monday announced that the Siachen area, the world's highest battlefield, is now open to tourists. The step has been taken to boost tourism in Ladakh and give people a window to appreciate the tough work done by army jawans and engineers in extreme weather and inhospitable terrains, defence minister Rajnath Singh said.
However, promoting tourism on the world's highest battlefield may have unintended consequences — damage to the fragile ecology of the region.
Indeed, the recent effects of climate change on the region have been such that the snout of the Siachen Glacier has actually receded back by about 800 metres in the last one decade or so.
Even in the present circumstances, as noted in this News18 article, the army generates 236 tonnes of waste every year. As recently as September 2019, the Indian Army cleared more than 130 tonnes of garbage from the Siachen glacier that had accumulated in the last 19 months.
Out of the 130.14 tonnes brought down, 48.14 tonnes was non-biodegradable while 40 tonnes included plastic and glass waste. The metallic content, including shells of ammunition, was around 41.45 tonnes.
Many feel the entry of tourists into the region can hasten the retreat of the glacier. For instance, former northern command chief Lieutenant General (retired) BS Jaswal has been quoted as saying by PTI, "Tourism and other activities will see a surge in waste dumping. This will hasten glacier retreat. Due to the presence of the army, a lot of non-biodegradable waste is already present there and every day, about 1,000 kilgorammes is being added," Jaswal said.
Environmental experts have also supported the claim that the presence of armed forces has affected the ecology of the region. For instance, Neal Kemkar, a researcher in the United States was quoted by AFP as saying that 40 percent of the military waste was plastics and metal, and as there are no natural biodegrading agents present, metal and plastic waste "simply merge with the glacier as permanent pollutants, leaching toxins like cobalt, cadmium, and chromium into the ice". Kemkar made these statements in an article for the Stanford Environmental Law Journal.
Kemkar was further quoted as saying, "This waste eventually reaches the Indus River, affecting drinking and irrigation water that millions of people downstream from the Siachen, both Indian and Pakistani, depend upon."
Kemkar also warned the conflict had affected wildlife, with the habitat of the endangered snow leopard, the brown bear and the ibex — a type of wild goat — all threatened.
The death of ten Indian soldiers in 2018 in an avalanche in the critical Sonam post, located close to the Line of Control with Pakistan, was attributed to global warming.
"The entire incident (at Sonam) was because of climate change. Because, we generally don't have ice avalanches. Avalanches are generally snow avalanches... What happened in Sonam was that a hanging glacier, which was stuck to the ice wall had fallen off. That was just because in the last 15 or 20 days (prior to the accident), the temperature had been rising," Lieutenant Colonel S Sengupta, Commandant of the Siachen Battle School was quoted as saying at the time.
That said, only time will tell the extent of damage the arrivel of tourists will do to the Siachen glacier. According to reports, the army will regulate the number of people who visit the area. Also, it will do a background check of all prospective tourists, evaluating their medical condition and then decide who is fit enough to deal with the extremities of the glacier.
With inputs from agencies
Updated Date: Oct 23, 2019 23:22:03 IST