Tosa Maidan, a beautiful meadow converted into firing range by army during 60s became death trap for scores of locals as unexploded shells lay scattered among virgin locals. Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat, a prominent RTI activist visits the area to see how people are living on the edge.
On 9th May 2012 I got a phone call from an RTI activist Bashir Ahmad a resident of Drung village located on the foothills of Tosa Maidan in Khag Tehsil of District Budgam. He informed me that a live heavy mortar shell has come down from the Tosa Maidan meadow probably with the gush of rain waters. I reached Drung village along with my friend Bashir and found this deadly Mortar Shell resting between some rocks just 50 to 70 metres away from the residential houses.
I immediately informed the local Army unit at Beerwah (53 RR) who sent their Bomb Disposal Squad (BDS) and within two hours this bomb was defused. The intensity of the blast was so strong that whole village shook that time and the sound of the blast was heard within a radius of 10 kms. Had Bashir not located this deadly live bomb or mortar shell, it would have caused havoc in the area. In fact I took a video of that live bomb as well. In Drung and its adjoining villages like Shongli Pora, Kuker Bagh, Suthaharan more than two dozen people have died due to accidental blasts while scores are left disabled for life.
Background of Shelling & firing in Tosa Maidan
Tosamaidan is a huge pasture located in the Pir Panjal mountain range near Gulmarg. This area is far bigger than Gulmarg.
Due to availability of such a huge chunk of land, the Army decided to use a large part of it for its firing practices and drills. During early 1960s, an agreement has been made between State Government and the Ministry of Defense wherein more than 3000 kanals of Forest land was leased out to the Army . Since 1960s the Army’s Artillery wing undertakes firing drills in the area. Even ammunition from the Bofors guns are fired from Hard-e-Panzu Arizal areas towards the Tosa Maidan meadow in summer months. During the summer months the whole area of Tosa Maidan and its adjoining villages look like a war zone as one can hear continuous blasting sounds. While the Artillery firing is on some shells remain unexploded after being fired from the bofors and other artillery guns. These shells remain hidden under bushes in the Tosa Maidan area and when it rains, these shells come down rolling towards residential areas. In the Tosa Maidan Forest area locals collect artillery ammunition scrap left over in the pastures and sell it in the market. There has been cases where some unexploded shells were found in scrap causing many civilian causalities.
But what could one do to stop it? State Government had given permission for all this by signing a lease agreement till 2014.
Why are shells fired?
The artillery shells have a particular date of expiry and before that date the shells need to be destroyed and the majority of the firing exercises undertaken by the Army in Tosa Maidan are done to destroy such shells. In addition to it the shelling is done also to keep the Artillery unit of the Army fully in touch with their nature of job.
Beauty of Tosa Maidan
Tosa Maidan pasture is visited mostly by locals from Beerwah and Khag and some adjoining areas.
The reason Tosa Maidan remained confined to people of these areas only is huge military presence. A large part of Tosa Maidan is off the bounds for locals making its beauty inaccessible to Kashmiris.
The area has a great potential for adventure tourism due to its perfect location. On side one can trek to Gulmarg from Tosa Maidan and towards its South-West, one can reach Poonch via Noor Pur Galee and China Galee. The famous village of Lohran in Poonch district is just a few hours journey from Tosa Maidan. Due to its beautiful slopes, Tosa Maidan could also be developed as a winter sports destination in future.
According to official sources of the Forest department and the District Administration Budgam, the agreement on the usage of Tosamaidan as a firing range comes to an end in 2014. The locals have been urging authorities to ensure that no extension is granted for the same.
With election round the corner, it would be interesting to see if chief minister Omar Abdullah can convince Government of India to vacate Tosamaidan after its lease expires.
In adjoining assembly segments like Beerwah and Khansahib, Tosamaidan is already a political issue which many believe will affect the fate of 2014 elections in the area.
People are eagerly waiting that local politicians especially sitting MLA Dr Shafi Ahmad Wani and former transport minister Mohammad Hakeem Yasin would oppose extension of lease to army.
Will the opposition PDP raise this issue in the upcoming session of the assembly? Would the MPs from Kashmir be able to speak out about Tosa Maidan in the Monsoon session of the parliament?
We have filed a petition in the J&K State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) as well. It is hoped that the SHRC takes up this matter very seriously and the Government is directed not to extend the lease agreement beyond 2014.
(The author is an RTI / Social Activist and founder of J&K RTI Movement)