KEERNI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – One day when he was young, Mohammad Deen was ploughing his field with a pair of oxen, in the mountain village of Keerni in Poonch district, which sits just on the Indian side of the Line of Control that separates Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir from Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Torrential rain the night before had washed an old landmine onto the field. Unaware, he stepped on the explosive, and lost his left foot and an eye. Unable to marry or work, he eventually became a street beggar, with no one to look after him in his old age.
Millions of anti-personnel mines have been buried periodically along the border as a result of tensions between India and Pakistan. Notably, unlike 160 other countries, India and Pakistan are not signatories to the Ottawa Treaty, officially known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines, which came into force in 1999.
Despite a ceasefire on the Line of Control, landmines continue claiming the lives and limbs of villagers and their livestock, turning vast tracks of agricultural and grazing land into danger zones, disrupting farming and restricting the ability of local people to access natural resources in the area.
And as increasingly extreme rainfall hits the mountainous region, the problem of land mines washing off the hillsides and into new positions – often in more populated agricultural land – continues to grow.
In 2010, a court in Kupwara district directed the government of India to pay 1.2 million rupees ($26,199) to Gulzar Mir, a double amputee who lost his legs to an antipersonnel mine in 2002 while grazing livestock in village of Warsun. However, it was a rare case; the majority of victims don’t get any compensation.
“The mines in my fertile land have rendered me landless,” says Faqir Mohammad, who lost a leg to a mine on his farm in Shahpur village in Poonch district. “The landmines have ruined my life,” he said.
Children are particularly vulnerable to the mines, especially in the mountains where flood waters can push buried landmines to the surface. Ashiq Hussain of Khardi Karmara village near the Line of Control lost both hands and an eye in a landmine blast last year. The boy was playing in a stream that runs his grandfather’s watermill, about a kilometre from an Indian-Pakistan cross border trade centre at Chakkan da Baag.
Similarly, in 2009, while playing in fields close to their home at Noonabandi village, a group of children including Shaheen Fatima and her siblings were critically injured in a landmine blast. Shaheen’s right eye was completely damaged and her one hand had to be amputated whereas her sister Zaheen’s left eye suffered critical injury.
“I sold off the only piece of land that I had, at a throwaway price, for the medical treatment of my children,” says Aslam, the father of the children.
The stray landmines also have turned grazing lands into killing fields. A teenaged girl, Zahida Parveen of the border village of Jandrola in the same area, lost her leg while grazing her cattle. Gulkhar - a middle aged widow and mother of six daughters - lost three buffaloes, the only family asset and source of income, when they wandered into a landmined pasture in a village near the Line of Control in the Bala Kote village last October.
“Most of our land is landmined; the rest is rocky and arid. Only a small portion is cultivable,” she says, noting she now survives only with the help of her relatives.
DIFFICULTIES OF CLEARING LAND
Imtiaz Sheikh, a researcher at the University of Jammu, believes the Indian government is not adequately protecting people living near the Line of Control against landmine injuries.
“The government is not doing enough to de-mine the agricultural lands along the border with Pakistan,” he said, pointing to nearly a thousand kilometers of border area in need of help.
“The Army could not even completely restore the affected agricultural land in the plains along the international border. The real challenge lies in clearing the mined agricultural land that remains in the mountainous areas like Rajouri and Poonch in Jammu region and Baramulla and Kupwara in the Kashmir valley,” he said.
The government does not have a clear idea of the total agricultural land contaminated by mines. In April 2013, in a written reply in the state assembly, it stated that about 2,000 hectares of irrigated land has been turned into mine fields in Akhnoor sector alone.
“For defence purposes, the Army laid landmines in a large number of villages in approximately 28096 kanals (3512 hectres) of land”, the then home minister, Sajjad Ahmed Kichloo said, adding that the villagers were shifted to temporary camps.
He also stated that 12040 kanals (1,505 hectres) of land had been returned to the owners by the Army after de-mining.
Regarding payment of “rental” compensation for the mined land, the minister stated in April that the Revenue Department had sent documents to the Defence Estates Officer, Udhampur. The rent would be paid to the owners once payments were cleared by the Ministry of Defence.
In May this year, Deputy Chief Minister Tara Chand sought the intervention of Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde in de-mining land in the border area.
But de-mining is never an easy job. “Complete mine clearance is not possible as their dispersal is random and scattered. Due to age, rain, rodents and other natural hazards, the landmines get de-located from their emplacements making it difficult to detect them in rugged mountainous topography,” admitted one senior Army officer on the condition of anonymity.
“The tedious process of de-mining is fraught with risk to life, and time consuming. The de-mining process is being carried out in phases in the plains of Akhnoor, whereas in hilly areas it is nearly impossible,” he added.
Experts say de-mining and compensation to affected farmers can never be a permanent solution. What is more critical, they say, is to ensure both countries accept the international convention against land mines and stop laying any additional mines.
Ashutosh Sharma is an independent journalist and media fellow with the National Foundation for India, currently reporting on conflict in Jammu and Kashmir.