SRINAGAR: On April 4 three labourers were killed and one injured when an unattended landmine went off in Rajouri district. The tragic incident came as a grim reminder about a harsh reality that thousands of acres of land along the borders in Jammu and Kashmir continue to remain infested with mines.

It was not an isolated incident but part of a feature that has been hanging like a sword over the heads of tens of thousands of people who live along the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border in the state. These mines do not differentiate young and old, leaving their targets either dead or crippled.

The areas on the Indo-Pakistan border in Jammu and Kashmir are perhaps the most heavily mined in the world. Mines are usually employed as part of war strategy and have been used by both India and Pakistan for a long time. But with the outbreak of armed rebellion in Kashmir, these were used along the LoC in abundance to counter infiltration from across the border. Despite having so much of the area mined by the Army, has the infiltration stopped completely? This is the question which merits an answer.

Rajouri incident is not just a reminder. It also tells about a long forgotten part of adversity that has come with the conflict. There are scores of young boys and girls who have fallen victims to this menace and have lost their limbs and are not in a position to lead a normal life.

In recent times, the biggest exercise of mining along the IB and LoC was taken up by India in the aftermath of attack on parliament in December 2001. An unprecedented build up along the borders known as “Operation Prakaram” had the mining as one of the important counter-offensive measures against Pakistan. And this was not limited to Jammu and Kashmir only but to other border states of Rajasthan and Punjab as well. Between December 2001 to July 2012, the Indian army deployed an estimated two million mines along the northern and western border with Pakistan during this operation.

The anti-personnel mines and anti-vehicles mines were laid on cultivable lands around the LoC and International Border, which directly affected more than 6,000 families across 21 villages, according to a report by Landmines Monitor.

According to unofficial estimates, around 16,000 acres of land in Jammu region and 173,000 acres in Kashmir are covered by these remnants of battle that never was. About 150,000 families had to be displaced from their villages in Jammu before India and Pakistan committed to peace in 2004. However, Army authorities continue to insist that a vast portion had been de-mined and people have returned to their villages.

India’s Engineer-in-Chief’s Staff Directorate reported in 2009 that “all mines laid during Operation Parakaram were recovered/cleared (99.32%) by 2006.”

It stated that the very few stretches where demining was not possible “due to terrain conditions” were fenced in accordance with the UN protocols. Media reports In February 2010 suggested that Indian Army had transferred to farmers more than 360,170 m2 of land along the Indo-Pakistan border near Akhnoor, 35km north of Jammu, after two months of clearance operations.

However, the casualties prove that these areas continue to be threatened with mining. Switzerland based Landmine Monitor in its report based on field visits to Jammu and Kashmir stated that mines continue to pose threat for civilians residing close to the border areas, near the Line of Control and that causalities continue to occur while performing livelihood activities such as collecting firewood, shepherding and farming.

As per the latest report published by Landmine & Cluster Munition Monitor, a total of 3143 (1074 killed and 2068 injured) casualties have been reported by end of 2012. A total of 78 causalities from mines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) were reported in 2012, which is higher than the causalities reported in 2011 (51 causalities).

Operation Prakaram came with a high cost as far as casualties on account of these mines are concerned. According to an April 2005 report of the Lok Sabha Standing Committee on Defence, the Indian Army suffered 1776 casualties while laying and removing its mines on the border between December 2001 and April 2005.

The total number of civilian casualties remains unknown. However, a survey by an Indian NGO in 2004 reported at least 1295 civilian casualties from Operation Parakaram-laid mines. (The Hindu; March 19, 2015). The Army is clueless about these mines and that is why accidental explosions have become a routine in the border areas. Lack of awareness and sensitization is compounding the threat to the civilians. Government is also silent about the action it would take as far as demining is concerned.

The biggest hurdle in having minefields cleared is India’s reluctance in signing the Mine Ban Treaty (MBT). In November 2012, India reiterated its long-held position by stating, “We support the approach enshrined in Amended Protocol II of the CCW (Convention on Conventional Weapons) which addresses the legitimate defense requirements of states with long borders. However, we are fully committed to the eventual elimination of anti-personnel landmines.”

It was in 1996 that India voted in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution urging states to vigorously pursue an international agreement banning anti-personnel mines. But in 1997 when the Mine Ban Treaty came into existence, India chose to remain outside it. Even as this significant contemporary disarmament measure has saved thousands of lives, India’s reluctance to be part of it also indicates its intentions. Eighty percent of governments in the world have joined this treaty and the UN Secretary General has acknowledged it as a ‘near universal’ convention.

India did join an Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons, a limited disarmament measure on anti-personnel landmines. The protocol does prohibit use of undetectable mines but does not comprehensively ban the weapon.

Since these minefields continue to pose a threat, a mechanism needs to be in place to clear these areas so that the civilian population whose livelihood depends on their movements in the fields can live peacefully. Till the time India agrees to sign the treaty, the hapless population that continues to live in perpetual danger needs a break so that the incident like that of April 4 does not recur. Land mines do not discriminate between a civilian and an army man. In this case the victims were from Bihar who had come to earn their livelihood, so even the borders don’t matter when a mine goes off in a field.