A magnificent meadow in Budgam district of Jammu & Kashmir has become a bone of contention between local residents and the army. Tosa Maidan was leased to the army in 1964 for setting up an artillery firing range. With the 50-year lease about to end in 2014, the locals are up in arms against its extension.
The villagers’ opposition to the firing range stems from the fact that in the past five decades, 63 people have been killed and many others disabled in several accidents related to unexploded shells littered on the meadow’s slopes. All the victims belong to the villages around Tosa Maidan.
For centuries, Tosa Maidan had served as grazing land for the villagers’ livestock. But, since 1964, for six months from May to October every year, the meadow sees scenes of simulated warfare carried out by the army. During this period, the villages reverberate with the barrage of shelling and deafening explosions, forcing the villagers to stay indoors most of the time.
The human cost of the military exercises is now causing an outcry not only in the affected villages but across the Kashmir Valley. Even Mustafa Kamal, a senior leader of the ruling National Conference, has urged the government “not to renew the lease to the army”.
At the forefront of the protests is the Tosa Maidan Bachao Front formed by headmen of the villages in the vicinity of the meadow, who are demanding that the government should relocate the firing range. “We will continue with our struggle,” says Raja Muzaffar, a member of the front. The front has already filed a petition with the State Human Rights Commission. “We also plan to meet the defence minister and may even move the high court,” adds Muzaffar.
Village-level associations, including mohalla and mosque committees, are also mounting pressure on the government not to extend the lease. And these groups are now backed by the local panchayat committees too.
It was this sustained campaign that forced Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah to admit in the Assembly that 63 people have lost their lives in the area in the past 48 years due to unexploded shells.
Giving strength to the villagers’ demand is a long history of suffering caused by their living in close proximity to the firing range. On 8 September 1992, three children aged 8, 9 and 12 went to the fringes of Tosa Maidan to graze their cattle when they were drawn to an abandoned object. But when they started playing with it, the object exploded, blowing their bodies into smithereens. “We had to collect the pieces of flesh and bury them,” says their brother-in-law Nazir Ahmad Sheikh, the chairman of the Awami Ittihad Forum, who is now part of the campaign to shift the firing range. “The army paid no compensation to the family.”
Similarly, this July, 40-year-old Ali Khan was killed and 60-year-old Zeba was wounded when an artillery shell accidentally went off. Villages such as Drang, Shunglipora, Arizal and Harthpanzre are also full of people who have been disabled or grievously injured by accidental explosions.
Bilal Ahmad Dar of Drang village lost his right leg in one such explosion. “I had gone to the area to collect firewood and bring back our cattle. I stepped on something accidentally and it exploded,” he says.
The army, which has already applied for extension of the lease, says it will have no problem if the government relocates the firing range to any other place. “If the government offers us another place for the exercises, we will be ready to shift,” says army spokesperson Colonel Naresh Vij, adding that civilian casualties take place when some ammunition lands outside the firing zone. “We have disposal units that are tasked with clearing the area, but then some shells and bombs fall outside the firing range or are lost. This is what creates the problem. People step on them and are harmed.”