Picking mines on the border

Print edition : February 14, 2003

More than a year after Operation Parakram, the Army is grappling with the treacherous and expensive task of extracting over one million mines planted along the India-Pakistan border.

in Atari

A Sapper plants a red flag to mark a relocated mine.-PICTURES: ASIT JOLLY

FIELD rats are sabotaging the Indian Army's efforts to extract over one million mines which had been planted along the Pakistan border over a year ago during Operation Parakram when the nuclear rivals came close to war at least on two occasions.

Sappers who are responsible for clearing anti-personnel and anti-tank mines that had been laid hastily mostly on farm land at strategic locations along the 3,200 km-long frontier, said rodents had secreted out thousands of the smaller explosives into distant burrows. Officers in charge of de-mining operations in Punjab said that this could pose a potential, long-term threat to farmers and villagers.

The locally manufactured NMM-14 plastic anti-personnel mines that the rats have hijacked contain 28 grams of explosive each and can blow one, if not both the legs, off anybody weighing more than 20 pounds that steps on them. The heavier, ND-MkI, anti-tank `Bar' mines require significantly heavier weight on them before they explode.

The thieving rats have forced the Sapper details not only to prod every bit of the explosive-laden fields but expand their search for the lethal booty to the surrounding areas. Given the handicaps, the de-mining operation that began in December 2002 is unlikely to be completed before the year-end.

"Rats have made our painstaking task more arduous and time consuming," said an officer near the border village of Rajatal in Punjab, barely 300metres from the frontier and just 10 km from Lahore. He said that many mines had sunk deeper into the earth or drifted away during the monsoon rains last year making the de-mining process more laborious. It had also reduced the certainty of a near complete recovery of mines, the officer admitted.

A defused anti-personnel mine.-

India and Pakistan began mining their borders in the contiguous border States of Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat after their armies were mobilised following the suicide strike by five gunmen on Parliament House in New Delhi in December 2001. India blamed Pakistan-backed insurgent groups fighting in Kashmir for the attack and began preparing for war. Pakistan reacted similarly.

"Mining borders is the final link in the chain before offensive operations begin," a senior military officer said admitting that the Army was in "hot war" mode last January and, by June was awaiting political clearance from New Delhi. The two armies began pulling back to peacetime locations in October 2002, except in Kashmir, where they remain in a heightened state of alert along the international border and the Line of Control (LoC).

The last time that India and Pakistan undertook such extensive mining was in 1971, before their third war after Independence. The two countries, which are not signatories to the Ottawa Convention, which seeks a complete ban on land mines, claim that "long unfriendly borders" and security concerns prevent them from being party to such an agreement.

In Punjab alone, 16,885 acres (6,754 hectares) of land, which spreads across the adjoining border districts of Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Ferozepur, were mined affecting hundreds of farming families in 135 villages. District officials said that Rs.21.29 crores had been disbursed to farmers as compensation from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for taking over their land and that later this year, an equally large amount would be given as reimbursement for the unplanted kharif crop. Bureaucratic delays and wrangling over the amount owed were being negotiated, officials said. District authorities have worked out the reparation per acre to farmers at Rs.11,840 for wheat, Rs.17,815 for sugarcane, Rs.10,000 for fodder and Rs.7,200 for pulses and other intermediate crops such as gram, vegetables and mustard seed.

Meanwhile, the Defence Ministry claimed that around 25 per cent of the mine recovery operation had been completed and that in another seven months the entire process would be "satisfactorily" concluded and the entire land commandeered would be returned. But Army officers said that it would take "much longer" because of "adverse ground and environmental circumstances" and the shortage of specialised de-mining gear.

Army spokesman Brigadier Shruti Kant said that one soldier had died, while four out of 28 persons who had been injured in the de-mining operations were maimed badly. In January 2002, 81 persons including 60 soldiers had died and 242 were injured during mine-laying operations that were completed within 10 days.

Eighteen soldiers died at Longewala in Rajasthan, close to the Pakistani border on December 28, 2001, when one of the mines that they were checking exploded, detonating 96 others. The same day, 15 Armymen from the Bombay Sappers and the 16 Dogra infantry unit, besides three civilians, died near Atari, adjoining Amritsar.

The Defence Ministry had then blamed the mishaps on the "unsatisfactory performance of mines and fuses held in inventory for a long period", but military sources alleged that toy manufacturers had made several of the components used in the defective ordnance. An investigation into the supply of defective mines, like all similar inquiries with regard to faulty military equipment, has not led to any revamping of the procurement procedures.

A Sapper wearing a protective headgear before undertaking mine-clearing operations.-

"Accidents are bound to occur. It pains everyone, it hurts everybody... the point is that we are for all practical purposes on the frontlines," Defence Minister George Fernandes said soon after the accidents. "Mines are pretty tricky things and sometimes something can go wrong. Accidents will happen when you play around with mines," said General S. Padmanabhan, who was the Army Chief at the time of the incidents.

Officers involved in the mine-laying manoeuvres said that the ordnance was planted at night in late December 2001 and early January 2002, under the cover of thick winter fog using laser pointers and compasses that were barely visible.

The Minefield Record Form that is acting as a guide in the recovery process, details the exact location of each mine. The mines were laid out in strips, with anti-personnel mines approximately at 3 m apart and anti-tank mines around 12 m apart. "The Army is trying to deploy the same troops in mine-recovery operations as those that were responsible for laying them," an Army press release stated. Postings have been held in "abeyance to ensure this aspect", it added.

BEFORE embarking on "setting out" a minefield or finding a safe pathway through it, Sappers in elevated, thick rubber-soled overshoes, crash helmets with visors, and bulletproof jackets, pray at a makeshift shrine located at the entrance. Each soldier files silently past this place of worship into the minefield where the tension is palpable.

"We are not harvesting potatoes, but a deadly crop where one false step can be fatal and need all the help we can get," said an officer near Rajatal village, 150 m from the border. The delicate operation requires perseverance, patience and above all, nerves of steel, he added.

Once a safe trail-way has been charted and marked with white tape, individual mines are located by detectors and by gently and methodically prodding the ground. The location of each mine is indicated by planting a red flag on the spot.

Thereafter, in what is the most dangerous part of the operation, the anti-personnel mines are defused and the anti-tank mines are recovered. Tanks fitted with trawls are driven repeatedly across the field to detonate any mines that may have escaped detection. The undergrowth is set alight after sniffer dogs survey the area. Sometimes this results in the discovery of undetected ordnance, an officer said. Finally, tractors till the entire field repeatedly before handing it back to its owner in the presence of local officials. Army officers said that it took a 40-50-member Sapper team which includes at least two officers, several non-commissioned and junior commissioned officers and a medical detail with a mobile hospital around three weeks to clear a minefield spread across three acres.

Nevertheless, there was no "firm guarantee" that all the lethal mines had been harvested successfully. "Despite the Army's best efforts, there remains the frighteningly real possibility of a few mines remaining undetected," said Iqbal Sidhu, Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar district, where nearly 17,000 acres (6,800 ha) stretching across some 170 km along the border, were mined. He said that the district administration was apprehensive about `rogue' mines that were "time bombs" waiting to be stepped on, adding that the Army had told local people that any left-over ordnance could explode even after two or three years.

"We are scared that all the mines may not be removed," said Dalip Singh, headman of Mahawa village, 32 km northwest of Amritsar and a few 100 yards from the Pakistani border. He also feared that since tension with Pakistan persisted, the Army might soon return to mine their fields.

"For us the war with Pakistan did take place," said Charan Kaur, the half-blind mother of Sahib Singh from Mahawa who died in the mine accident along with the Sappers. "We are just unfortunate pawns caught inescapably in the cynical game of governments," her husband Karnail Singh said. .

SENIOR serving and retired Army officers have questioned the efficacy of mining the borders, given that Operation Parakram achieved little or nothing other than "persuading" Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf to admit obliquely to Islamabad's involvement in fuelling cross-border terrorism in Kashmir. The financial cost of mobilising the Army alone is estimated conservatively by military officers at around Rs.6,500 crores ($1.3 billion).

This vast amount, which equals around 10 per cent of the Rs.65,000-crore Defence budget for 2002-03, excludes the incalculable wear and tear of soldiers and their machines, the enormous cost of demobilising, de-mining the borders and compensating civilians for use of their lands for nearly a year. The fortune spent in deploying the Air Force and Navy for war for months on end, severely degrading their highly sophisticated equipment, too has not been taken into account. Imported ordnance such as precision guided munitions (PGMs), for example, lose 80 per cent of their operative life once they are loaded onto combat aircraft such as Mirage 2000. The Indian Air Force mounted these PGMs twice, in December 2001 and June 2002. They now need total replacement.

But officers concede that all these complicated financial calculations fail to take into account the overall depletion of India's war fighting ability that has been curtailed severely for an extended period.

"The objectives of Operation Parakram were not clear," General Ved Prakash Malik, former Chief of the Army Staff and member of the National Security Advisory Board, said recently. "We did not, for instance, lay mines even at the height of the Kargil conflict," Malik said at a lecture on `India's politco-military establishment and decision making' at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. It is something that will haunt not only the military but also thousands of border residents for years.

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