Operation Falah: Army in Jammu and Kashmir clears up explosive debris at Tosa Maidan
Given the "topography and size" of the meadow, Gen Saha said it will take 3 months to clear the area and that Operation Falah was purely humanitarian.
While they wait to hear from the government, the Army has decided to cultivate the local population through 'Operation Falah' (Arabic word for success, prosperity and happiness): clear the meadow of deadly explosives debris. The death of a young shepherd, Hilal Parray, could have played a part: he died a fortnight back when an unexploded shell burst under his feet.
Since 1965 when the first civilian was hit by exploding shells, 65 people have died. Many more have been maimed. Children in this belt exhibit a higher degree of deafness while cardiac ailments are routine.
The explosion that killed Hilal proved less fatal to another young man, Fayaz. He was treated at the 92-Base hospital in Srinagar and the Army has virtually adopted him.
"After the killing of a young man in July, we decided to clean up the meadow to avoid any further loss of life," Lt Gen Subrata Saha, the commander of 15 Corps, told reporters.
"We expect to clear it in two phases. In the first phase, shells from the peripheries would be removed and then the impact area will be taken care of." Given the "topography and size" of the meadow, General Saha said it will take three months to clear the area and that Operation Falah was purely humanitarian in nature.
The meadow is approximately 11,200 hectares and though the main simulated range is only 1,809 hectares, the forest has been scarred by frequent firing. Shells are found any and everywhere and it's the first time in 50 years that used shells have been collected.
While the Army rarely revealed the guns and the weapons it used to train its soldiers, the people living in the vicinity are aware of quite a few.
"Basically, the soldiers would use all types of mortars. There were heavy mortars, bonfires, RTs, launchers and aircells," said Mohammad Akram, who is part of the Save Tosa Maidan Front. "Then there were some bombs that aircraft would throw and one unexplored bomb once we saw was more than 200 kgs."
Apart from clearing the area, the Army wants to launch a massive afforestation drive as the explosions have denuded the thick forest cover. And in more goodwill hunting, it wants to launch medical and veterinary camps for the population living close by. The alpine meadow is home to 16 hamlets.
The Cavalry and the IAF train at the meadow for six months in summer, during which time the residents are restricted to their homes. By the time, the range falls silent, it is the start of winter. This enforced inactivity means the largely pastoral population is homebound for half the year, children are home schooled if at all and those who flout the rules face death or injury.
The deafening sound of bursting artillery and mortar shells have not only shattered nerves, it has also shattered any semblance of normalcy in the region. Hairline cracks on walls widen every year.
A few individuals who opted to become 'war ragpickers' sensing money in used shells, either suffered injuries or died hit by stray bullets.
Last year, locals formed the Save Tosa Maidan Front at about the same time the Army moved the state government to extend the lease beyond April 16, 2014. They quickly built up support among politicians as elections were coming. Though the government is yet to offer the Army an alternative (officials say many venues are under consideration), the sound of gunfire and shell explosions have stopped for the first time in half a century.
As work started on cleaning up Tosa Maidan, more than 100 curious villagers lined up to get front row views. Sophisticated machines at work, the dog squads and Army engineers in full bomb-disposal attire held them spellbound. On the very first day, some used shells were collected.
Given the fact that 40% of the trees have simply disappeared, the locals are working with the government to ensure early return of the grand old days of the spot. In the last one year, 10 timber smugglers have been jailed, 48,000 feet of the forest fenced and more than 95,050 trees planted.
Not just Tosa Maidan, the Army launched 'Mission Humsafar' in Kalith Field Firing Ranges in Akhnoor a week after Operation Falah. "During the mission, we will physical search the area, collect unexploded artillery shells and mortar blinds and destroy them," Lt Col Mehta, the Jammu-based defence spokesman said. The locals will also be educated about the dos and don'ts while the exercise is on.
The initiative has made residents of 20 villages located around the firing range happy. Set up in July 2011, this firing range is closer to the Line of Control in Jammu and is adequately compartmentalised as a result of which there has not been any civilian casualty.
Jammu & Kashmir is perhaps the only state that has the highest number of formal firing ranges. Of the 66 ranges across India, 12 are located here with Rajasthan playing second fiddle with six ranges. Karnataka denotified its only firing range last year.