This week, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh announced that the Siachen Glacier will be open for tourists, between the base camp and Kumar logistics base. A look at what has been allowed so far, and what will change now:
What does opening of Siachen Glacier to tourists entail?
As of now, civilian tourists are restricted to the Nubra Valley, which is the gateway to the Siachen Glacier, and well away from the base camp and the Siachen Battle School. Now they may be permitted to venture farther in small batches. In fact, between 2007 to 2016, the Army Adventure Cell had operated the ‘Siachen Trek’ in which small numbers of civilians were allowed to venture between the base camp and Kumar. Read in Tamil
Today, tourists are allowed up to Warshi (towards Siachen Base Camp) and also Tyakshi village ahead of Turtuk. These two villages were part of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir until the 1971 war, and were off limits to civilians until 2010, with tourists then allowed only up to Panamik in the Nubra Valley.
Under what conditions was the Siachen Trek conducted?
It was a 30-day trek, and participants had to undergo extreme conditioning before they were allowed at the extreme heights of the glacier. The base camp is at an approximate altitude of 11,000 feet while the Kumar post is at 16,000 feet. The trek was organsied between August and September, and entailed acclimatisation at Leh and farther ahead, with a strict medical fitness regime. The trek was open for any civilian below age 45 and also included cadets from Indian Military Academy, National Defence Academy and military schools. The distance between the base camp and Kumar is 60 km and the return trek takes nine days.
What are the challenges involved in allowing tourists on the glacier?
There are environmental issues that would need to be addressed if tourism is allowed in greater numbers. The Army presence on the glacier, which is a combat zone, causes the addition of nearly 1,000 kg of waste everyday, as per one estimate. Tourists will add more waste and measures will have to be taken to dispose of it. A higher number of vehicles running close to the base camp, which itself is close to the snout of the glacier, entails the risk of increased heat and hastened retreat of the glacier. Tourism will also mean a greater logistical load on the Army. With hardly any civilian administrative arrangements there, the Army or IAF will be responsible for addressing medical needs including evacuation in an emergency.
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What kind of medical facilities exist in the area?
There are rudimentary civilian medical facilities in the Nubra Valley, but at some distance from the Siachen Glacier. There is a Sub-District Hospital at Diskit, 120 km from Leh, which is centrally heated and has a bed strength of 50 with X-ray, ultrasound, and laboratory facilities as well as a dental unit. More advanced treatment is available at the Military Hospital in Hunder and SMH Memorial Hospital in Leh, which has a bed strength of 150.
How peaceful is Siachen Glacier now?
Until the ceasefire came into effect in 2003, the Siachen Glacier was the highest battlefield in the world with artillery duels taking place almost every day, with raids and counter-raids by both armies. Today, the artillery guns have fallen silent, but there is no let-up in the vigil at posts located as high as 23,000 feet on the Saltoro Ridge, which dominates the glacier.
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