Tosa Maidan: Where Summer Isn’t Welcome
By Taha Mirani
09 July, 2013
You know you live in a firing range when the sound of exploding grenades wakes you up a thousand times before the cuckoos’ cackle. This is Tosa Maidan firing range where people don’t wish summer to come.
Seems it was only yesterday the locale buzzed with people like any other place inhabited by men. But as of now, only a few souls could be seen in the distance, walking hesitantly in different directions. The houses all stand sullen under the scorching heat of the sun which gives the impression of having nobody inside. The cattle and the birds too seem to have abandoned the meadow. Despondency which had come some five decades back still persists in the heart of the land.
Every year with the onset of summer the government issues a fresh notification to the 16 adjoining villages of Tosa Maidan, asking them to keep indoors. “We have been advised not to enter the range area for collection of firewood/metal scrap or for grazing cattle as the villages fall in the danger zone,” says Zahoor Ahmad, a local resident. “It happens every summer.”
Tosa Maidan is a rich pasture located in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. It has been given to Indian army on lease for firearms practice in 1962. Since then, the whole region has flipped backwards several centuries. “The heavy artillery firing and continuous explosions in the area creates gaps in the walls, due to which we have to get the houses repaired every year,” says Zahoor Ahmad, pointing towards a narrow fissure on a wall.
Apart from the damage to the houses, the continuous gunfire and explosions have rendered scores of people dead and several others injured. Moreover there are more than two dozen people who have been left permanently disabled. On July 5 in the last year, during the firearms practice in the range, Fatima Begum of Chill Brass Beerwah got splinters in her leg while collecting brass pieces in the wee hours of the morning.
In another incident, an unexploded shell went off inside the makeshift shelter of Muhammad Ali Khan, killing him on the spot and critically injuring his wife, Zeba Khan. Khan had brought home some artillery and mortar scraps from the pastures of Tosa Maidan which included an unexploded shell.
Another local resident, Bilal Ahmad who had gone to bring home his cattle from the pasture accidently stumbled against an unexploded grenade and was hit in the leg. “I had gone to bring my horses back from the pasture when I stamped upon an unexploded shell. The wound is still there.”
Every year the meadow loses someone dear. It usually happens when people accidently stumble against the leftover ammunition. “We aren’t against the exercise, but the area should have been without a life. And this area is settled,” says Gulzar Ahmad, in a querulous tone. “Can anybody answer why have only we been chosen for this living hell?”
Not only has the human and animal life been at stake because of the drill in the area but the environment is also deteriorating with each passing hour. A high proportion of the ammunition is left to clutter up the shooting range which presents a substantial threat to the environment. Aquatic life also remains largely affected.
Pollution comes primarily from the spent shells fired into the air which constitute potentially hazardous wastes. Apparently when the natural flow of rain carries the metal scraps to the water bodies surrounding the pasture, it adds to the contamination. “The springs in Tosa Maidan are considered to be safe for irrigation purposes,” says Bilal Ahmad. “But the used up shells and mortar scraps which remain scattered in and outside the range area eventually find a way into those springs, thereby polluting them.”
“The state has jurisdiction to open up such shooting ranges anywhere in the valley, or in the country,” says Dr Pirzada Muhammad Amin, HOD Department of Social Work, University of Kashmir. “But we need to see the social durability as well since the area is surrounded by a huge population. Also some of the famous tourist destinations lie close to Tosa Maidan. And given the history of violence in the region, the continuous firing in the area can communicate a wrong message to the tourists. Taking cognizance of that kind of fallout, the authorities must reconsider the location.”
Over the last 50 years, tons of millions of waste has been poured downrange, recklessly, ignoring the public health risks. Several people have developed hearing problems, heart and other ailments because of the noise coming from the continuous firing in the area. The authorities seem to have kept the despondency of the people in limbo for the last five decades.
“The firing range has primarily affected the environment,” says Dr Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, Convener, Right To Information Movement in Kashmir who has spent whole summers trekking in and around Tosa Maidan for more than ten years. Dr Sheikh argues that the presence of guns and grenades has devastated various aromatic and medicinal plants in the area apart from inflicting damage to life and property. “The timber smugglers are also on the rise, for the forest department seldom sends any patrols to the area,” says the trekker.
The constant noise has made people experience bouts of emotional trauma and symptoms of anxiety. “Men, women, and children are terrified to sleep at night especially when the firearms drill is on,” says Shafaat Ahmad, a local resident. People have reported disruption of daily activities for the imminent danger of being killed. Children avoid going to schools. “When the children grow up with such impression in their mind, it causes changes in their behavior,” argues Dr Sheikh. “They might possibly become aggressive over time.”
The constant firing and explosions have a profound psychological effect on those living nearby. Many psychiatrists believe that living under constant violence leads to psychological trauma, on the basis of the learning theory of formulation of torture, that “exposure to inescapable and uncontrollable stressor events that threaten physical and/or psychological well being lead to a state of total helplessness.”
The causalities can’t be simply dismissed as collateral damage though. The whole process is rather a “mass torture.”
“Every time an untoward incident happens in the villages because of these explosions, people take to the streets,” says Muhammad Ismail, a local resident. “But nobody pays a heed to our desperation. Inside our frail bodies, the heart laments its hard fate,” says the 70-year-old man, plaintively. Poverty seems to have snatched from them the right to complain against their misfortunes. All they have been doing for keeps is protest. Reports have it that the family of the deceased doesn’t even get the ex-gratia relief.
Pertinently, poverty has made it difficult for people to move to safer places or leave the area. They have witnessed a massive decline in their work and activities since 1962. “The area isn’t financially stable. People don’t have a permanent source of income. Since the ammunition is made of copper, people risk their lives to collect the scraps to later sell in the market for a few kopeks. A hard means of subsistence, you see. If measures are taken to recreate the area into a tourist spot, people would find a way to make a living,” says Dr Sheikh.
The agreement between Revenue Department, District Administration Budgam and Army to use Tosa Maidan pastures for artillery drill will end in April 2014, it is important that the Government adopts a broader perspective on the entire issue, to mitigate the suffering of the people by considering not only the casualties that happen but also the severe health, economic, social and environmental consequences of the shooting range.
Taha Mirani is a Freelance Feature Writer. Feedback at: email@example.com
An edited form of the story has appeared in Greater Kashmir
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