The army is starting a massive combing drive, which will be spread over two months, starting from Friday, in areas closer to the army’s controversial Tosa Maidan firing range in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, to detect and defuse unexploded explosives and artillery shells.
“A major clean up drive for unexploded shells will start from Friday. Every inch of the area, which also comprises steep forest slopes, will be combed. It will take around two months to clean up the area,” army’s spokesman Colonel Brijesh Pandey told the Hindustan Times.
This is for the first time since 1964, when the artillery firing was established, that the army will carry out such a large scale operation.
It comes after the July 16 incident, in which a 26-year-old youth, Hilal Ahmad Parray, was hit by a littered shell and killed.
In May, the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) had also issued notices to the police and state administration to file report in the death of a minor girl, Simran Riyaz, following an explosion near the firing range.
Three people have died in year 2013-14 due to littered explosives in the area. “The operation is being started on a humanitarian ground. There are many myths among locals about the range. No artillery explosion will leave a person injured. Two, the firing range is in a depression and a shell cannot land outside it, on the forest slopes,” said army spokesman colonel Pandey.
A meadow, Tosa Maidan, 30 km away from Srinagar, is spread over 11,200 hectares of forest land. The army uses around 1,809 hectares of the land for training in simulated battlefield conditions. The lease for the same ended on April 16, 2014. The army has already applied for extension of the lease.
However, the government has formed a committee, headed by chief secretary Mohammad Iqbal Khandey, to look into both extension and relocation of the firing range from Budgam district. The government reportedly suggested fresh locations for the firing range, which includes north Kashmir’s Gurez area, around 200 km away from Srinagar.
On Thursday, a series of meeting between army officials and the government was held in Srinagar to iron out differences and find out a suitable solution to the problem.
There is anger brewing among locals over the firing range, which they alleged, killed 70 people in the past five decades and left dozens mained, an allegation refuted by the army.
“It is a welcome step on the part of the army to clean up the area…However, we will not bow till the lease is cancelled and an order is issued in black and white. The area has huge tourism potential,” said Farooq Kuthoo, spokesperson of the state RTI movement and the Tossamaidan Bachave Front.
A Valley-based civil society group, Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies (KCSDS), accused the army of devastating the biodiversity by filling the area with “all sorts of military waste”.