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Revisiting the Indian Policy on Antipersonnel Landmines

Dr Medha Bisht is Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi; and former Associate Fellow, Manohar Parrikar IDSA.Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 30, 2009

    The use and impact of anti-personnel landmines is least discussed as far as the security debate in India is concerned. While the latest Landmine Monitor Report which was released in Geneva on November 12, 2009, noted that India supports the vision of a world free from the threat of anti-personnel mines, references were also made to the limitations that constrain India from being part of the Mine Ban Treaty. These arguments have to be analyzed critically if any headway is to be made on proposing substantive policy suggestions regarding the problem of landmines in India. India’s official stand on the Mine Ban Treaty is three-fold. Firstly, India has legitimate security concerns as it shares long borders with Pakistan and China. Therefore landmines are needed to defend its long borders. Second, India has consistently argued since 2005 for the availability of cost effective -alternative technologies and proposes that once such technologies are available it would ban anti-personnel landmines. Third, India has always argued that it perceives landmines as defensive weapons and believes that they are primarily laid to check infiltration and stop hostile movement from across the Line of Control. This is confirmed from the statement made by the Indian Defence Minister in 2007, who declared that, “India had concluded mine clearance operations along its northern and western borders and all arable land had been cleared and returned to its owners, except land required "for operational purposes.”

    The question that remains essential therefore for policy formulation is whether India could do without landmines and if it could, then what would be the steps it needs to undertake in order to be a party to the Mine Ban Treaty. Civil society associated with raising awareness on landmines in India has argued that effective alternatives are available to counter the use of antipersonnel landmines. It is argued that one could use command detonated mines or smart mines to replace anti-personnel landmines. Anti-personnel landmines, it is argued need replacement because they often outlive the duration of the conflict and in the long run can have enormous social, economic and human costs. Anti-landmine activists also contend that antipersonnel landmines are ineffective in checking infiltration. For instance if one does a reality check, it is found that despite the presence of landmines infiltration has actually continued. Though the afore-mentioned arguments have a point to make, a potential area which is often left unexplored is the difficulty in undertaking de-mining.

    India laid landmines in the 1947, 1965, 1971 wars with Pakistan and in 2002 during Operation Parakram. In the latter instance, two million mines were laid. Most of the mines planted in 2002 were plastic (M14) mines, which have very low metallic content. This in turn disqualifies them from detection provisions under the Mine Ban treaty for recovery in the future. In fact unofficial estimates cited in Landmine Monitor state that the contaminated area in Jammu and Kashmir could be around 160km2 for Jammu and around 1,730km2 for Kashmir. Most contaminated areas are in villages along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir and the villages along the international border in Punjab and Rajasthan. Some reports state that Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh had also been mined to some extent. Though official sources state that most of the mines have been recovered, landmine casualties continue to maim people. Also the mines laid in the Valley region and in parts of Poonch have been planted on steep slopes. This fact is important as the nature of terrain could be the main obstacle for demining operations.

    An important factor which would potentially discourage demining operations in the Jammu and Kashmir region is the inherent nature of landmines. For instance the M-14 mines are very light and shift during heavy rain, hail storms and snow. This is because once the soil which covers them loosens during rainy weather conditions they flow with the water, often reaching fields of civilians living near border areas. This is particularly so in the terrain of the Kashmir valley and parts of Poonch and Mendhar sector in Jammu, where some mines moved downslope—gathered at one place injuring three to four people.

    Another factor which could again pose difficulty to demining operations is the existing mines present in the region. Though most people believe that mines can be traced on the basis of records and maps, often this is not the case. Most often on the ground, maps and records prove ineffective, as markings are often washed away due to changing weather conditions. Safe marking can only be assured if it is done on an annual or a six monthly basis. Generally in hilly terrain there is always a possibility of heavy vegetation growth. Once thick growth occurs and this is particularly true of the Valley it is impossible to recover mines as markings and fencing are of no use. Also the recordings and markings prove to be ineffective during earthquakes as mines shift to an unknown location.

    Forest fires are yet another issue which has complicated the location of mines and hence demining operations. For instance when there is a forest fire, markings and recordings are lost and it is impossible to locate mines again. Due to this mine infested land becomes a danger zone for years to come. In the past there have been frequent instances of forest fires in the Jammu and Kashmir region.

    Thus even if India signs the Mine Ban treaty, these factors could complicate potential demining operations in the future. It also needs to be noted that the last demining initiative took place in the Chhamb area in 2007. Chhamb has flat terrain and it can be de-mined primarily because of the terrain.

    Keeping these constraints in mind it would be useful to revisit the Indian policy on landmines. In the recent book launch of Landmine Monitor at the Control Arms Foundation of India, various experts came together to discuss the reasons behind India not signing the Landmine Treaty. Maj. Gen. Nilendra Kumar, a lawyer with the Indian Army brought to attention the stipulation clause which binds state parties to demine the affected areas within a period of five years. He considered this as the main drawback of the Mine Ban Treaty. He also brought to attention the multiple agencies including the DRDO, and ordinance factories involved in developing landmines and pointed to the lack of an effective mechanism in India to deal with the problem of mines in a systematic manner.

    Given these constraints it would be desirable if the Indian civil society adopts a phased policy approach towards the issue of landmines in India. The first milestone towards this approach should be to draw attention of the government to existing mine survivors. Though the Indian government claims that survivors are provided with compensation, employment and assistance, in a field visit by Landmine Monitor, it was observed that survivors often lament that they have to struggle a great deal in order to get compensation and access rehabilitation and healthcare services, which are either based in urban areas or lack the necessary equipments. It is also time India reformulates its victim assistance policies especially at the national level. For instance there are landmine survivors who haven’t been able to receive adequate compensation at all. Further the pensions which are given to them as part of the larger policy towards disabled people remain miniscule. In addition to this they receive pension money only for six months. Lack of government attention towards the issue and the debate between pro ban and anti-ban camps has not only overshadowed the plight of these survivors, but also made them despondent with the government’s response. The only statement one hears from them is, “its better that we are shot collectively as we have no alternative livelihood options.” Maiming for one, they argue has made them dependent on their family members, which is worse than death. Given the fact that most of these victims live in hilly areas, where one has to walk long distances, it is imperative for the government to cultivate confidence with people inhabiting border areas. Its time that the government pays attention to the needs of these mine survivors, and initiates compensatory mechanisms in a time bound, that is well regulated and accountable. At present there is no existing data base on the landmine victims in India. The government could fund programmes which provide a detailed study of the landmine victims in India. Organisations already working on the issue could undertake further research. For instance the Composite Regional Centre, established by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment is quite active in providing free services and artificial limbs to a number of landmine victims in Jammu and Kashmir and could perhaps fill this gap. This would also enable the concerned departments to draft appropriate policies. Also the Army should expedite the process of providing compensation to mine victims. Often files of mine victims lie idle at the District Magistrates office for many years. It is important to note that most of the mine injuries are caused in the fields owned by survivors. The mines shift into their land and landmine survivors have not been maimed due to illegal encroachment. It is important therefore that the government feels accountable and addresses the problem expeditiously.

    India has been an observer to the Mine Ban Treaty since 2003. While it is important that anti-personnel mines should be banned, it is also important to recognize and understand the constraints behind India’s landmine policy. Given these constraints it is important that India initiates effective delivery measures at the national level so that the plight of survivors can be alleviated to some extent. Thus, to start with a phased approach towards drawing attention to existing mine survivors should be the primary agenda of civil society.

    NOTE: Maj. Gen. Nilendra Kumar is no longer with the Indian Army.