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Siachen: All you should know about the world’s costliest battlefield

Life is tough at the Siachen glacier, spread over a 76 km area, due to sub-zero temperatures that dip below -60 degrees, constant threat of avalanches, crevasses on the glacier, high-speed winds and a range of potentially fatal altitude-related ai...

ET Online|
Nov 20, 2019, 04.20 PM IST
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Six people, including four Indian Army personnel and two civilian porters were killed two days ago after they were hit by an avalanche in the Siachen Glacier. This is not the first time when Indian Army or Pakistan Army — both present at what is the highest (around 24,000 feet) battlefield in the world — have lost soldiers due to extreme climate — in this region, conditions are so severe that even helicopters have to exceed their service envelope.

Life is tough at the Siachen glacier, spread over a 76 km area, due to sub-zero temperatures that dip below -60 degrees, constant threat of avalanches, crevasses on the glacier, high-speed winds and a range of potentially fatal altitude-related ailments.

Here is everything you should know about the history of the place and its strategic importance for India:

  1. Why is Siachen important?
    * The Siachen glacier demarcates central Asia from the Indian subcontinent, and separates Pakistan from China in the region. * The Saltoro Ridge of the Siachin glacier serves as a divide that prevents direct linking of PoK with China, stopping them to develop geographical military linkages in the area. Siachen also serves as a watchtower for India to keep a deep watch on Gilgit and Baltistan regions of Pakistan. * If Pakistan gets the location advantage in Siachen, it would become a big threat to India from the west in Ladakh in addition to Chinese threats from Aksai Chin of the east. *Due to its control over Saltoro Ride, India is better placed to strike a bargain while settling bilateral territorial disputes with Pakistan in the future. *Siachen also helps India to keep a close watch on China ’s activities as Beijing has vastly improved its infrastructure in this region. China has developed all weather rail and road links in the Shaksgam region, which was ceded to China by Pakistan in 1960s. *Ceding Indian-controlled Karakoram Pass triangle region to Pakistan would have further strengthened the Sino-Pakistan footprints on these strategic heights.
  2. Why Siachen is such a difficult area to defend?
    Besides the twin military threats from Pakistan and China, the climate condition is the biggest challenge for the armed forces. Temperature in Siachen glacier in winters drops to below -60 degrees. There are also constant threats of avalanches, crevasses on the glacier, high-speed winds. Soldiers stationed in the area are affected by a range of fatal altitude related ailments like frost bites, hypoxia, hypothermia and white outs.
  3. What’s the cost of staying at Siachen?
    * Both India and Pakistan have deployed around 5,000 troops (brigade strength). For India, costs of maintenance in the region is about Rs 5 crore a day. India has spent over Rs 7,500 crore for procurement of clothing and mountaineering equipment for soldiers. * In terms of human cost, as many 869 Indian soldiers have lost their lives in Siachen since 1984 due to climatic conditions, in comparison to around 2000 Pakistani soldiers. * In one of the worst-known incidents, 140 Pakistani soldiers were killed after an avalanche slammed into their army camp in Gyari region of Siachen in 2012.
  4. How and why India occupied Siachen through ‘Operation Megahdoot’?
    Pakistan was first to see the potential of this strategically-important unoccupied area. However it didn’t deploy troops till 1970 but used to send mountaineering expeditions to the glaciers. In early 1981, Indian Army Col Narinder Bull Kumar sounded the alarm over Pakistan’s expeditions in the region. After that the army gave him the permission to map the entire region. Sensing Indian Army’s interest in the region, Pakistan Army planned a mission to occupy the area but was hit by an intelligence failure. Pakistan had ordered mountaineering gears from a London company who was also a supplier for India. India got the information about Pakistan’s acquisitions. In April 1984, India urgently dispatched troops to Siachen under secret Operation Meghadoot. Indian troops reached the glacier a week earlier than Pakistan. By the time Pakistan soldiers reached the region, India had already got control of the glacier and the adjacent Saltoro ridge, using Col Kumar's maps. One of the key Indian installations in Siachen is named Kumar Base after him.

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