The valley was cloaked in deep silence. Howling icy winds would occasionally break the monotony of stillness and drive the lone solar windmill for a few minutes in the nearby Gunji village. But that’s about all the movement you will notice the whole day. Unless, you are at the Sashastra Seema Bal border outpost.
Situated at an altitude of 10,555 feet, the meditative lull in the valley of Gunji is briefly disrupted by the pace of activity from 6 am onwards. The soldiers from the 11th Battalion line up in a single file on a whistle, ready for physical training classes. “Now, they’re going to tackle an 18-obstacle course carrying their weapons,” says Commandant Rajesh Thakur. The air was thin, and I took one long gasp every five seconds. “Unlike on the Pakistan side, the India-Nepal border is usually peaceful. Maintaining status quo is the most important. So our soldiers have to prepared for any eventuality,” adds Thakur.
The Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), a part of the Central Armed Police Force of India, organised a 184-km expedition to their high altitude posts situated along the Indo-Nepal international border in January this year. Approximately 30 officers from all across the country traversed the distance on foot to boost up the morale of the jawans doing duty in extreme weather conditions.
The route moves along the swirling waters of river Kali, which form the international boundary between India and Nepal. This is also the same route that goes to Kailash Mansarovar. The expedition was flagged of by Sh Shyam Singh, IG Ranikhet Frontier and Commandant Rajesh Thakur 11th Battalion Didihat SSB. Some of the notable places on the way were, Malpa (7200 feet), Lamari (7702 feet), Budhi (8516 feet), Chia Lekh (10,895 feet), Gunji (10555 feet), Kalapani (12,146 feet), Navidhang (16640 feet) and finally Om Parvat (20,311 feet).
Why is the trek to Om Parvat important to the SSB?
This the path taken by a patrolling party that travels from Elagad in Dharchula to Om Parvat. “It helps to show the strength of security forces in the area. Through this manoeuvre, we dominate the international border and it acts as a deterrence for our enemies. The mere presence also boosts the morale of the local population as well as the jawans serving the nation at high altitude. It’s a way of saying “we care for you”, explains Commandant of the 11th Battalion Rajesh Thakur. “Such treks also apprise officers with the shortfall in infrastructure at our high altitude posts and border villages. Besides, it’s also a way of tracking the improvement in food transportation system and equipments like sleeping bags, ration etc for our jawans,” adds Thakur.
What is the strategic importance of the border with Nepal?
After the advent of Maoist activities in Nepal and the likelihood of anti-national elements trying to infiltrate the border, the Indian government decided to deploy a people-friendly force on the Indo-Nepal border. In 2001, SSB was given the charge of managing the Nepal border. The more than 1800-km of open border with Nepal is inhabited by people who have had close “Roti-Beti” relationships since centuries. This border is the homeland of ancient tribes such as the Tharus, who have deep cross border relationships. Nepal is also completely landlocked and largely dependant for its daily needs on India. A huge chunk of Nepalese population work in India. Almost 50 per cent of the border is covered by thick forests and a rich source of bio-diversity. Thus, SSB, which is said to be a people-friendly force, was deployed on the border to cater to their needs.
How do jawans train in high altitude?
SSB soldiers undergo a basic acclimatisation process. After every 1000 meters of altitude gain, soldiers are given rest. “During summers, soldiers wake up at 5 am, go for a 5-6 km jog, do obstacle course training and then finish it off with some physical training, where they do isolation exercises that involve exercising one body part at a time in a given day,” says Thakur. An SSB soldier’s day is divided into 7-8 periods, during which they have to perform a variety of tasks like map reading, exercising along with their weapons, refreshing their knowledge of weapons and artillery, learning basic first aid etc. “Exercising with weapons means tackling a course with 18 obstacles such as scaling walls, balancing on beams, climbing ropes, tarzan jumps, crawling under barbed wires etc. After this, they start their weapon classes where they refresh their knowledge of weapons and artillery. They end their day with map reading and patrolling on their designated areas, where soldiers learn how to mark patrolling points on maps and extensively study the area contours,” adds Thakur.
How long is the tenure of posting?
Typically, a company of SSB personnel is deployed in these high altitude posts for a continuous stretch of not more than two months. Once the mandatory two months are completed, for example, a company which is currently based at Kalapaani, will come down to a lower altitude post thereafter. Once their tenure is over, they undergo an annual firing practise in Didihat. In this manner, all the men and women of the battalion are slowly rotated amongst themselves. On completion of two years in a high altitude battalion, a force personnel is given the option of getting his or her choice posting in any other SSB location in the country.
How do rescue and relief operations take place at high altitudes?
“It’s the most challenging. In case of emergency situations, like landslides, or avalanches we first give out a requisition for chopper, provided the climatic conditions are conducive. If that doesn’t work out, we carry the patients on stretchers on foot to the nearest medical station. From Kalapaani the nearest road point is Garbadhar, which is nearly 8o kms,” says Thakur. Says Assistant Commandant Bharat Kumar Choudhary: “There’s no way to evacuate people immediately and we don’t have a doctor here at Gunji (10,500 feet). We do have a battalion-level doctor who visits sometimes, carries out a routine check and goes back to base. We have a medic who only gives basic first aid. But if someone has a serious problem and if there’s no chopper available, then soldiers have to carry that person on a stretcher and trek down. It takes 2-3 days for the ill to reach the battalion for treatment and chances of survival in such cases drop drastically.”
In case of a natural disaster such an avalanche, landslide, how does an SSB personnel prepare for such an event?
“As a doctor in the batallion, I make a list of how many people there are in the team and then carry high altitude sickness-related medicines for them. We have to be prepared for any sudden temperature drop,” says Dr Ajit of the 11th Batallion. For avalanches, the rescue team carries equipment like ropes, stretchers, snow pittons, oxygen cylinders, resuscitation kits etc.
Soldiers from within the team are identified for rescue ops beforehand. They mark out the danger points, let us say from point A to B, and inform the closest border outpost. Quick reaction teams from the nearest BOP are formed who carry out their requisite duties and take the aggrieved to the nearby health center.
“At high altitudes every person is susceptible to different degrees of cold. So we recommend each soldier to change his/her socks every day and keep their terminal parts like finger tips, toes, nose warm at all times. Aside from this, some soldiers also develop temporary snow blindness during snowfall, so we suggest soldiers to wear polaroid dark glasses and in severe cases, we ask them to rest for an hour to recover,” says Ajit.