New Delhi, Dec. 18: Operation Parakram, the longest and biggest deployment of the armed forces, has been officially wound down, but along the western front, the tragic wages of a war not fought will continue to be reaped for another four months. Army sources say clearing the minefields along the border could take that long.
The laying of mines by India and Pakistan after the forces were mobilised since December last year was one of the largest use of explosives in recent decades, says the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). Neither India nor Pakistan is signatories to the Mine Ban Treaty.
Since the deployment of the army, mines have been laid in “vulnerable corridors”, say army sources, along the international border from the Rann of Kutch to Jammu, in districts in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Punjab.
The Line of Control is mined at all times to discourage infiltration and the redeployment of forces now being carried out does not include the stretch in Kashmir.
“It is a very delicate job and there is practically no alternative to using the hands,” an officer involved in mine laying and mine clearing operations said. Typically, a minefield would be about a 1,000 to 1,500 metres wide in areas from where suspected enemy thrusts could have taken place.
The sizes of minefields are dictated by terrain conditions. In some parts along the border — like in Jammu — minefields do not follow an even pattern. In the desert, a minefield can be between three to 10 metres in width.
In January this year, an official in Punjab said the army had acquired more than 27,000 hectares spread over 271 kilometres in the border district of Ferozepur.
Uncleared or shoddily cleared minefields are a potential hazard for civilians and soldiers all along the border. The mining of the border has already resulted in hundreds of casualties. No up-to-date official figures are available but a report by the ICBL claims that there were 332 mine casualties in 2001 and another 180 till July this year.
Army sources said redeployment rules require battalions of the army to return with their full complement of forces to new locations. But because clearing the mines was proving to be such a painstaking and tardy process, most battalions — a battalion comprises about 800 troops — have had to leave behind detachments to clear the fields. These detachments are usually units of army engineer regiments (Bengal Sappers, Madras Sappers, etc.) or companies that have been trained to lay and clear minefields.
Going by the book, the unit that has laid the mines is required to clear them. However, despite this, the process will take a long time for several reasons. First, since the mines were laid, there have been rains and, in some parts, floods. The mines would have moved and cattle have strayed into minefields. Second, many of the plots in which mines have been laid are in farmland and have been overrun with vegetation. Third, army units have to make do with old or obsolete technology to trace and remove mines.
A typical mine-clearing operation involves “prodding” the ground at a 45 degree angle with an iron rod called a “prodder”. If the “prodder” strikes metal, the unit involved immediately takes cover and after further “prodding” undertakes the cumbersome task of digging and recovering the mine.
The army also uses mine detectors — an electronic device with a circular iron base at the end of a rod. This is a little different from a metal detector. Its sensors give off a signal in the vicinity of metal. Some mines that have explosive encased in plastic are not detectable by these machines. The army has only a “very limited number” of these detectors.
A third way of clearing the mines is by using dogs — trained Labradors — that sniff out explosives hidden underground. But most of these methods require the mines to be buried within inches of the surface. In many instances, mines have got buried deeper because of natural reasons (rains, floods and wind action). A fourth way of clearing minefields is by blasting with “mine trawlers”.
The army does not usually resort to blasting because it wants to recover the mines. Blasting is a risky and expensive method and would also lead to wastage. “It is not possible to count how many mines have exploded in a field through blasting because the mines do not get recovered and the method is therefore not foolproof,” one officer said. “Mine trawlers”, the equipment used for blasting, are rendered useless after two or three uses. The army has also used “mine ploughs” — ploughs attached to the front of tanks and armoured vehicles but this again is not a foolproof method.
The army uses two types of mines — anti-personnel and anti-tank. A third category — a type of anti-personnel mine — called “Jumpers” is also used. These explosives leap up to “man-height” (five or six feet) when triggered and explode to cause devastation over a larger area. Mine casualties can be fatal and frequently, limbs of victims have to be amputated.