|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
The government has decided to open Siachen to the tourists. Inaugurating the Colonel Chewang Rinchen Bridge on Shyok River in Eastern Ladakh about 45 km from the China border on October 21, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh announced that the Siachen area, the world's highest battlefield, is now open to tourists. He said the government has decided to open the entire area from Siachen base camp to Kumar Post for tourism purposes, to boost tourism in Ladakh and give people a window to appreciate the tough work done by Army jawans and engineers in extreme weather and inhospitable terrains. He added, "The Ladakh MP in his address, mentioned about opening this area to tourism. And, I am happy to share that the government has decided to open a route from Siachen Base Camp to Kumar Post for tourist." He later reinforced the government decision by tweeting: "Ladakh has tremendous potential in Tourism. Better connectivity in Ladakh would certainly bring tourists in large numbers.
The Siachen area is now open from for tourists and Tourism. From Siachen Base Camp to Kumar Post, the entire area has been opened for Tourism purposes." He also said the move will give a boost to tourism in Ladakh and allow people to appreciate the tough work done by Army jawans and engineers in extreme weather and inhospitable terrains. According to media reports, the Indian Army had moved a proposal for opening up Siachen to tourists with a focus to showcase the working conditions of troops serving in the sector, and the government gave its nod. This appears utter crap because army doesn't need to showcase working conditions of troops to gain public appreciation, unless army's hierarchy acquiesced to a hint from the ministry, like recommending stopping IT exemption for war-disabled authorised to security forces and civilians since 1922. Ladakh certainly has tremendous tourism potential. J&K Government tourism map ends at Leh, beyond which it is all private operators. Tourists have been thronging areas north of Khardung La Pass. Tented camps and resort accommodation is available at Hundar (not far from Siachen Brigade HQ), beyond towards Zero Point short of Turtuk, and on the road leading to Siachen Base Camp that supports Northern and Central Glaciers. Towards Base Camp, tourists till now were permitted to Warshi, beyond Panamik having hot springs. Annual expeditions having mix of civilians were permitted to the Siachen Glacier till 2016. But annual expeditions are different from opening Siachen Glacier for tourism.
In Sikkim, 40 civilian vehicles are permitted to visit Nathu La daily – does government plan something similar? Incidentally, taxi operators from Gangtok charge tourists for lunch but after Nathu La take them to the free army langar at Baba Harbhajan Singh Memorial Temple. Indian youth are naturally excited about getting the opportunity to get a feel of Siachen Glacier. Pakistan opened many areas of Northern Areas and in Gilgit-Baltistan for tourism years back but these are away from military establishments. Our government would like to open Siachen to tourists immediately to increase public appeal, but without creating tourist infrastructure and taxing the army instead would be a folly. The Centre and UT Ladakh could study tourism organised by Government of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Importantly, there are implications to opening tourism to Siachen Base Camp and beyond up to Kumar, which must be understood. The road beyond Warshi passes next to or through artillery gun positions, which has security implications. At times, portions of this road come under waters of Nubra River in summer due melting snows and river changing course. This can pose problems for lighter vehicles. Part of the Base Camp next to the Snout of the glacier, which tourists would like to visit, was moved back due enemy shelling and has limited army infrastructure. Situated at 11,000 feet, overnight stay of tourists is not advisable. But movement on foot beyond to Kumar requires acclimatisation at Base Camp in addition to glacial training. Move to Kumar is along a narrow path and cannot be done in one go. The staging camp (s) in between having limited capacity should not be expected to cater for tourist flow.
Flying tourists by civil helicopters directly to Kumar to give them feel of the glacier and move back is an option, but should not interfere with army's activities including fixed wing drops. Separate helipad would be desirable for tourists but tourists without acclimatisation could develop medical emergencies and in case helicopters develop mechanical problems, emergencies could multiply. Flying on the glacier devoid of landmarks also requires special training. There are security implications in this case too and portion of the flying route will be under enemy observation from its observation post at Gyong La. With lackadaisical local administration and typical tourist culture within India, it is pitiable to see Hundar forest littered with muck and mounds of polythene left by tourist. But the real problem is non-degradable waste on the glacier added by tourists.
Army has been doing its best carting it down from the glacier as this contributes to faster melting of the glacier which is one of the biggest fresh-water sources of India. Finally, the security angle must be thoroughly examined with Pakistan going all out to destabilise India and the China-Pakistan nexus. MHA and MoD may be surprised to discover how many Chinese visit Ladakh annually including by road via Dras. Whether we should permit foreigners at all beyond Warshi and all the all the other issues discussed above need to be conjointly examined by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Military.