Inaugurating India's highest altitude all-weather bridge on Shyok River in Eastern Ladakh — named after Colonel Chewang Rinchen — defence minister Rajnath Singh said on Monday, “Ladakh has tremendous potential in tourism. Better connectivity in Ladakh would certainly fetch tourists in large numbers. The Siachen area is now open for tourists and tourism. From the Siachen Base Camp to Kumar Post, the entire area has been opened for tourism purposes.”
The move, Singh asserted, would give a boost to Ladakh tourism and allow people to appreciate the tough work done by army jawans and engineers in extreme weather and inhospitable terrains.
As per reports, the Indian Army had moved a proposal for opening up Siachen to tourists with a focus on showcasing the working conditions of troops serving in the sector, and the government gave its nod.
This information appears to be false because the army doesn’t need to showcase the troops’ working conditions to gain public appreciation, unless the 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. The Jammu and Kashmir 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 are 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 the Base Camp, tourists till now were permitted to Warshi, beyond Panamik having hot springs.
Annual expeditions with a mix of civilians were permitted to the Siachen glacier till 2016. But annual expeditions are different from the opening of Siachen glacier for tourism. In Sikkim, 40 civilian vehicles are permitted to visit Nathu La daily – does the government plan on doing 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 excited to experience the Siachen glacier. Pakistan opened many northern areas and in Gilgit-Baltistan for tourism years back, but these are away from the military establishments. Our government would like to open Siachen to tourists immediately to increase public appeal, but doing so without creating tourist infrastructure and taxing the army for it would be a folly. The Centre and UT Ladakh could study tourism organised by the government of Gilgit-Baltistan.
There are implications to opening tourism to Siachen Base Camp and beyond up to Kumar and they 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 to melting snow and the river changing its course. This can pose problems for lighter vehicles.
A part of the Base Camp next to Snout of the glacier, which tourists would like to visit, was moved back due to enemy shelling and has limited army infrastructure. Situated at 11,000 feet, overnight stay of tourists is not advisable. But the 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 a feel of the glacier and move them back is an option, but it should not interfere with army’s activities, including fixed wing drops. A 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 a 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 the tourists. But the real problem is non-degradable waste on the glacier added by the tourists. The 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. The 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 is for the wise men in the South Block to decide.
(The author commanded Siachen Brigade during the Kargil conflict. Views expressed are personal.)