NEW DELHI: Unfortunately, the death of courageous Lance Naik Hanumanthappa Koppad 19 Madras who was rescued alive from under the 35 feet snow avalanche after five days has not made the strategists rethink the deployment of troops at Siachen. Nine of his colleagues also lost their lives under the same avalanche on February 3, 2016 at an altitude of 20,500 feet.

The human and economic cost of military presence in the area has been high for both India and Pakistan. India has lost nearly one soldier every month due to avalanches or extreme climatic conditions at the Siachen Glacier. Overall, 869 Indian troops died serving at glacier between 1984 and December 2015, according to the data presented in the Lok Sabha.

India has spent Rs 6566 crore between 2012-2015 on clothing and mountaineering equipment, which is imported for the soldiers at those heights, and a sum of Rs 5 crore per day is spent for the maintenance of the troops. Despite this the equipment is not adequate.

The casualties on the Pakistan side are not known, however, on April 7, 2012, an avalanche hit a Pakistani military base in Gayari Sector in Siachen trapping 129 soldiers and 11 civilians under deep snow. The incident occurred at an altitude of about 13,000 feet and 180 miles northeast of Skardu (capital of Baltistan).

These deaths have again brought into focus wisdom of deploying soldiers on the world’s highest battlefield in the most inhospitable conditions. However, national security apart, it was the loss of lives from natural disasters that led to the debate of demilitarisation. By replacing human security with technological capabilities like cc cam, IOT sensors, will serve the larger interest.

It is no secret that both the countries India and Pakistan have held many rounds of talks on demilitarising the glacier, where Indian and Pakistani troops face each other at elevations between 15,000 feet to 22,500 feet in sub-zero temperatures. The subject has also been part of peace talks between the two nations since 90s after India captured vantage positions in the area.

The roots of the conflict over Siachen lie in the non-demarcation on the western side of NJ9842 (the end point of the Line of Actual Control fixed in the 1972 Shimla agreement). The 1949 Karachi agreement and the 1972 agreement presumed that it was not feasible for humans to survive north of NJ9842.

In the early 1980s, Pakistan permitted several foreign expeditions on this glacier to reinforce its claim on the area, as the expeditions arrived after obtaining a permit from Pakistan. As a result, India launched ‘Operation Meghdoot’ on April 23, 1984, when the Kumaon Regiment and the Indian Air Force went to the glacier. Pakistan quickly responded with counter deployments and what followed was a race to the top.

Within a few days, the Indians were in control of most of the glacier. Two passes — Sia La (18,000 feet) and Bilfond La (19,000 feet) — were secured by India while the Gyong La (16,000 feet) pass remained under Pakistan’s control. Since then Pakistan has launched several attempts to displace Indian forces from the vantage positions, but in vain.

What is at stake actually is that Pakistan wants India to give up the Saltoro Ridge, a stretch extending nearly 120 km which runs on the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) from the border of India with Pak-ceded Chinese territory in the north to India’s Kargil sector (east).

The strategic significance of the Saltoro Ridge and the Siachen glacier is: India has strategic and terrain domination over Pakistan’s so-called northern areas (J&K territory merged into Pakistan) and Pakistan-ceded Kashmir territory to China.

Indira-Col, the northern most part of Siachen, directly overlooks Chinese occupation that was illegally ceded by Pakistan to China. Having a foothold on the ground this is the only way for India to legitimately dispute Chinese illegal presence there. With such strategic significance, any statement de-emphasising Siachen is both puerile and sterile. However, if both the countries agree on demilitarisation of the glacier at the future peace talks it will be a great relief for both for saving precious lives of soldiers who are dyeing without firing a bullet and colossal expenditure on their maintenance could be saved.

That was precisely what the 1992 drafts and the unsigned agreement that followed had ensured. Pakistan proposed an upturned demilitarised triangle — marked by Indira Col in the northwest; point NJ9842, where LAC ends in the south, and the Karakoram Pass in the northeast. A joint commission would delineate the LAC beyond NJ9842 after the troops withdrawal.

India agreed to the delineation of the LAC, but insisted on the definition of “existing positions” of both sides and the places where they would deploy. The area so vacated would be “a Zone of Disengagement” bounded by the specified “existing positions.”

Faced with deadlock, Pakistan amended its offer to read: “The armed forces of the two sides shall vacate areas and re-deploy as indicated in the annexure. The positions vacated would not for either side constitute a basis for legal claim or justify a political or moral right to the area indicated. The delineation of the LoC from point NJ9842 to the Karakoram Pass will form part of the comprehensive settlement to follow the re-deployment of troops.” According to Indian negotiators, the idea that the delineated LoC must end up at the Karakoram Pass was not pressed by Pakistani side.

Now, surely to specify existing points to be vacated and record them in an annex is to “authenticate” them. This does not differ from India's draft, which provided: “India: The Indian Army shall vacate their existing positions at … and … redeploy at … Pakistan: The Pak. Army shall vacate their existing positions at … and … redeploy at …”

Pakistan’s revised proposal fully met India’s insistence on authentication of existing positions. The deal was struck between India's delegation, led by its Defence Secretary, N.N. Vohra, and his Pakistani counterpart. The then Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit repeatedly testified to the accord in public. Matters did not end there. In the technical talks that followed thereafter, it was agreed that: (1) India would withdraw to Dzingrulma and Pakistan to Goma, at the base of the Bilaford Glacier; and (2) surveillance was to be conducted by helicopter.

On January 24, 1994, India confirmed in a non-paper to Pakistan that in 1992 “a broad understanding had been reached on disengagement and redeployment, monitoring, maintenance of peace and implementation schedule. … Both sides agreed that to reduce tension in Siachen, the two sides shall disengage from authenticated positions they are presently occupying and shall fall back to positions as under: …” Ancillary details were set out.

P.V. Narasimha Rao scuttled the deal in 1992. Benazir Bhutto followed suit in 1994, resiling from the concession on authentication. She denied the agreement and cited, instead, the India-Pakistan Joint Statement on June 17, 1989, which India had earlier resiled from: “There was agreement by both sides … on redeployment of forces … The future positions on the ground so as to conform with the Simla Agreement … the Army authorities of both sides will determine these positions.”

At that time, in 1989, Pakistan's Foreign Secretary, Humayun Khan, had told the media the accord envisaged relocation of forces “to positions occupied at the time of the Simla Agreement.” India's Foreign Secretary at the time, S.K. Singh, said he would “endorse everything [Humayun Khan] has said.” The very next day, however, the Ministry of External Affairs was instructed to deny the deal. The then Army Chief insisted in the talks being held on July 10, 1989, that existing positions be identified. An effort was made during Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's visit to Islamabad on July 16, 1989, to resolve the deadlock by extending the LoC northwards. India's offer, described by Iqbal Akhund, Pakistan's National Security Adviser, was a fair one. The line “should run due north, that is, up to the Chinese border in a ruler-straight line,” dividing the zone. But nothing came of it.

Under the prevailing circumstances, the 1992 draft agreement for demilitarising the glacier should now be revived and taken up at the next foreign ministers meeting.

A textual analysis of the drafts presented by India and Pakistan during the talks on the Siachen issue in New Delhi in November 1992 reveals how a virtually done deal on this costly dispute was scuttled exactly 20 years ago.

On April 18, 2012, Pakistan’s Army Chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, referred to the several rounds of talks since and said, “You know that they were close to a solution but then nothing came out of it. We want this issue to be resolved and it should happen. It is a tough mission for us and them, which has its costs.”

Hopes were revived when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the jawans at the Siachen base camp on June 12, 2005 that “the world's highest battlefield” should be converted into a “peace mountain.” He added: “Now the time has come that we make efforts that this is converted from a point of conflict to a symbol of peace.”

Why not take this idea a bit further and make it an international destination for glacial research and other scientific experiments? Indeed, while international scientific presence would act as a deterrent against any potential Pakistani attempts at occupying the territory, it could also check the Chinese activities in the greater Karakoram region. This perhaps is the best option that will not only save hundreds of lives from inhospitable weather but also save colossal expenditure.

(Dr Vasudeva is a defence analyst and commentator.)