| Army personnel with a bomb-squad dog search for mines near the border in Amritsar. (PTI)
Chandigarh, Dec. 8: The skies in Punjab and Rajasthan may have cleared of war clouds after the de-escalation, but not the fields.
For residents of villages along the Pakistan border in these states, walking on a mine is an ever-lurking danger.
The army had laid the mines in fields and at homes to deter the enemy. Though it has been struggling to clear the fields, the danger of overlooking a few mines is real.
So the people have to leave life to chance whenever they step out of home. Army officers don’t hesitate to admit the danger.
The figures tell all. Most casualties from mine explosions in Punjab have been reported from Ferozepur: 30 dead, 22 maimed. Unofficially, the figures are much higher.
Mines have also killed and injured many Indian Army and Border Security Force personnel when they were laying the explosive devices. According to Western Command sources, 50 soldiers died and 95 were hurt in the three months till March 7.
Late last December, three armymen were killed in Batala when a landmine they were laying exploded accidentally.
Soon after, 14 soldiers were killed and four injured in another mine accident near Lambawal village, close to Jaisalmer.
Again in December, a soldier was killed and five injured in two landmine blasts near the Line of Control in Jammu. A jawan was blown up when he stepped on a mine during an exercise.
On January 5, at least 18 people, including 15 soldiers, were killed while transporting mines in Amritsar.
Reports showed that inept handling of the devices while unloading had triggered the mishap.
The same month in Amritsar’s Mahawa village, at least three soldiers were killed and seven injured when a truck carrying mines accidentally ran over an anti-vehicle device waiting to be assembled.
Though army and civilian casualties till November 30 are yet to be tabulated, sources have blamed equipment failure for the large number of deaths.
Border villagers may now be relieved at the de-escalation but they are still scared in regions which the army and the district administration have declared “mine-free”.
The villagers, bracing for a long winter ahead, keep away from their fields for fear of stepping on an “undetected” mine.
“Most anti-personnel mines operate with a cell and are considered useless after a certain period,” an army officer said.
“But the anti-tank and anti-vehicle mines remain live for long because most don’t need cells to activate them. They are the killers. Even those with cells are known to kill months after their expiry dates,” he said.
In most border areas, mines have been laid a couple of kilometres inside Indian territory. Though the movement of men and material in these areas has been on for long, many families there had refused to move out.
Now, however, even those who had steadfastly refused to quit home, are left with no choice. “Had there been a war, we would have joined our jawans willingly,” said Kulwant Singh of Jalalabad.
“We offered them our tractors, trailers and even homes. But the mines…,” he trails off. Kulwant is recuperating after stepping on a mine a few months ago.
Women, too, have refused to let their husbands, sons and brothers venture out into the fields. “The battalion that laid the mines here has been relocated,” said Surjit Kaur of Fazilka.
“Those who have taken their place may not know exactly where the mines have been embedded and may miss some. How can we allow more people to die'” she said. Surjit too was injured in a mine blast.
Many of the injured are the sole bread-earners of their families. Now, most of them are demanding from the Centre jobs, pension and free education for their children.
The figures of the number of mines laid, their location, and total area thus occupied are still unavailable.
The picture that the media and other sources have put together is incomplete. A report in July, on the commencement of mine clearance, said 173,000 acres along the LoC in Kashmir was mined.
In January, the Ferozepur deputy commissioner said the army had acquired 27,127 hectares — including 350 villages — along the 210-km-long International Border to lay mines or construct fortifications.
In April, the army evacuated some Rajasthan villagers from densely mined stretches after rising temperatures set off a series of explosions.