The base camp of Siachen glacier, the world's highest and coldest battlefield, was opened on Monday for domestic tourists on the occasion of World Tourism Day.
The announcement came two years after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had stated that the government was looking at opening up the Siachen Glacier, one of the most difficult terrains on Earth, to tourists.
Opening up the Siachen Glacier
The cold desert of Ladakh, which lies beyond the mighty Karakoram range in the Himalayas, has fascinated tourists from all over the world.
India took over the territory in 1984 during Operation Meghdoot.
As of now, civilians were only allowed to go till the Nubra Valley which is considered as a gateway to the Siachen Glacier. It is quite far from the Siachen Glaciar base camp and the Siachen Battle School.
Now, the trek has been opened for tourists between Siachen Glacier’s base camp and Kumar Logistics base. The Siachen Glacier base camp is situated at an altitude of 11,000 feet and Kumar post is at an altitude of 16,000 feet.
A kind of dry-run, before this announcement, took place between 2007 to 2016 where the Indian Army’s Adventure cell organised ‘Siachen Trek’ in which some civilians were allowed to visit Kumar and the base camp.
On Monday, Ladakh MP Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, inaugurated the opening of the Siachen base camp for domestic tourists.
CEC @tashi_gyalson flags-off 1st batch of tourists visiting #Siachen base camp led by MP @jtnladakh from #Leh.#Siachen base camp will be open for #domestictourists from tomorrow, on the occasion of #WorldTourismDay. @Angchuk5 @utladakhtourism@DIPR_Leh @prasarbharti pic.twitter.com/GAdVtRSJAJ
— LAHDC LEH (@LAHDC_LEH) September 26, 2021
The step has been taken 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, the officials said.
The decision to open up tourism in Siachen will benefit more than 30 villages on the bank of the Siachen river.
In 2019, when India announced that the base camp of Siachen Glacier will open for tourists, Pakistan had objected it. “India has made attempts to occupy the territory of Siachen. Pakistan claims that the Siachen Glacier was a disputed territory that could not open for tourism.
Concerns over tourism
One of the biggest challenges in opening up the Siachen Glacier to tourism would be environmental preservation.
According to reports, the Indian Army cleared more than 130 tonnes of waste from Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battlefield, since January 2018.
As per an Indian Express report, about 236 tonnes of waste is generated at Siachen every year, primarily because of the troops.
Presence of tourists will add to it and there needs to be a mechanism to dispose trash in an eco-friendly way. Furthermore, tourists would mean more vehicular movement which could generate more heat and risk hastened melting of the glacier.
Security is another major concern. Since 2003, the area has been peaceful after the ceasefire came into effect between the Indian and Pakistani armies. However, the Indian Army is vigilant and battle-ready.
Strong message to Pakistan, China
Many have noted that the opening up of the Siachen Glacier is a strong message by India to its neighbours, namely Pakistan and China.
Pakistan and India have seen military conflict over the disputed 2,600 square km territory of Siachen.
The conflict in Siachen stems from the incompletely demarcated territory on the map beyond the map coordinate known as NJ9842 (35.008371°N 77.008805°E). The 1949 Karachi Agreement and 1972 Simla Agreement did not clearly mention who controlled the glacier, merely stating that the Cease Fire Line (CFL) terminated at NJ9842.
However, Pakistan's aggression in the area by carrying out several mountaineering expeditions resulted in a conflict which began in 1984, with India’s successful Operation Meghdoot, during which it seized control of the Siachen Glacier.
Further attempts to reclaim positions were launched by Pakistan in 1990, 1995, 1996 and even in early 1999. However, Indians have been able to hold on to the tactical advantage of the high ground.
Finally, in 2003 peace befell the area after a ceasefire came into effect.
India’s control of the glacier prevents Chinese and Pakistani militaries from linking up and exposing Ladakh to a Sino-Pakistan attack and therefore it is considered a strategically important area.
Opening up the base camp to tourism sends a strong message across the border and even across the world that the glacier is rightfully India’s and every citizen of the country has a right to move freely in their own territory.
As the Deccan Herald noted in an opinion piece, "India wants the public to endorse the fact that its soldiers are present on the heights to the west of the glacier and that the Siachen Glacier is Indian territory."
With inputs from agencies