Thursday, February 3, 2011

Stories of amputated lives on Indo-Pak border

Tripti Nath
19 October 2009
Landmines continue to pose serious threat to the lives of civilians living close to Indo-Pak border. The repeated assurances by the army have failed to allay the fears of people in Punjab, who are now struggling with disability and poverty in a region known for its soil fertility.

Fazilka, Punjab: The rural folk of Fazilka, a sub-division in Punjab, have often had to pay a high price for living in perilous proximity to the Indo-Pakistan border.

Many have lost their lives to landmines laid in innumerable villages along the international border in Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan and Punjab by the Indian Army during 'Operation Parakram', following the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001.

Villagers lucky enough to have survived the mines – said to have been laid at a density of 1,000 mines per square kilometres – narrate the pain of disability, and the pressing need for prosthetic aids and government support.

Seven years back, Raj Kaur, 55, an inhabitant of village Bhamba Wattu in sub-division Fazilka, just six kilometres from the Pakistan border, unknowingly stepped on a landmine while trudging along a narrow mud track leading to her village. By the time she could fathom what had gone wrong, she had stepped on to another landmine.

Today, Raj Kaur is confined to an agonising existence: She has lost both her legs below the knees. This once-active earning member of the family now sits on a 'charpoy' (a straw cot) guarding her lifeline – prosthetic aids and walker.

Recalling the tragic day that changed her life, Raj Kaur says her husband, Balbir Singh, rushed her to the civil hospital in Jalalabad, 33 kilometers away. The civil hospital administered first aid and then referred them to the army hospital in district headquarters, Ferozepur, 85 kilometres away, where she received prosthetic aids that served her for some time. It was only last February that she succeeded in getting proper prosthetic aids at a camp organised by Rotary International and the Society for All Round Development (SARD), a Delhi-based NGO.

While the family has received financial assistance, it has been inadequate. The compensation from the government that Balbir Singh secured after running from pillar to post was just Rs 1,50,000 (US$1=Rs 46.8). Using the interest-free loan of Rs 10,000 granted by the Delhi-based Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, courtesy the intervention of SARD, the couple helped their younger son, Jaswant, open a barber's shop. Bemoans Raj Kaur: "I was earning almost Rs 4,000 a month as an agricultural labourer. The accident has left me incapacitated. We have no land."

Another landless labour, Surjeet Kaur of village Behak Khas, about eight kilometres from the border, has been coping with disability for almost six years. "I had gone to fetch fodder for the livestock when my right foot slipped and I stepped on a landmine. All that is left of the foot today is the heel."

Surjeet Kaur already had a handicap in her left foot. One of her toes had been amputated when she was six as a result of a snake bit.

"I had learnt to manage with an amputated toe but it is difficult to manage without a heel. The army helped me get a prosthetic aid from Chandigarh but over time it lost its utility. I have three daughters and a son. The government gave us a compensation of Rs 1,50,000, which was spent on our daughter's marriage."

Struggling to make ends meet, Surjeet Kaur's husband, Harbans Singh, moves from village to village in search of work as a daily wage agricultural labourer. Surjeet Kaur, too, is now camping in Kheo Wali Dhab – 15 kilometres from her home, with the children being left in the care of her mother-in-law – to earn a living.

So why doesn't she simply take time out to get a prosthetic? "The choice is between two square meals a day or prosthetics. Before the landmine accident, I was working as an agricultural labourer," answers the victim, matter-of-factly, as she explains that she has no money to travel.

A mere two kilometres from the border, in Jhangal Baini village, Mitoo Bai, 35, lives with her pre-teen children. Mitoo was in her 20s, when lost her right foot after stepping on a landmine seven years ago when she had gone to the fields to gather fodder. Today she hops around the house with the help of a rod. While she has had prosthetic boots made twice over since then, she feels they are no good, "Now I wear sports shoes and walk with great difficulty. When my foot hurts a lot, I take pain-killers."

Like the other women, Mitoo struggles to make ends meet. "We got Rs 1,50,000 from the Centre but that is not enough compensation for life-long disability. Should the state government not be sensitive to our condition?" she asks.

Sources in the army say that the Ministry of Defence gives ex gratia compensation to civilian victims of landmine casualties: "The policy has been in place since January 2003. The army gives Rs 250,000 to next of kin in cases of casualty; Rs 200,000 in cases of 100% disability; Rs 150,000 in cases of disability assessed between 50 to 100%; and Rs 100,000 in cases where disability is below 50%. The Ministry of Defence continues to lend this assistance. The paper work, of course, is very exhaustive."

The army disagrees with the victims' grievance that it has not cared to follow up on prosthesis: "No patient has come back to us. If they approach us, follow-up action will be taken. If we have gone all the way for getting prosthesis fitted, nothing really holds us back from organising a follow-up. Funds for the expenses incurred on transportation, accommodation, diet, treatment, including cost of prosthesis, were provided by the services concerned. Artificial limb centres in Chandigarh, Bhavnagar, Jaipur and Ludhiana, were paid by the army for providing prosthesis."

It also rejects the criticism that warning markers on several acres of land along the India-Pakistan border were either missing or were not legible.

Sources in the army said: "During Operation Parakram, the army had laid landmines, which were absolutely in consonance with very well-practised, relevant and standard operating procedures. These include physical verification of the mines, meticulous drill of laying the mines. Special emphasis was laid on the recording and marking of each minefield to prevent civilian casualties.

"The army made special efforts to ensure safety of the civilian population. Caution notices were given to all border villages, state and district administration. Local police was informed of the presence of minefields. Prominent perimeter fencing with barbed wires and conspicuous marking with perimetre marking and warning signs both in English and vernacular language at close intervals of the entire space of minefield to indicate presence of minefields to alert civilians. Constant monitoring of minefields was carried on by the physical guarding of civilians and patrolling."

The army claims that almost all minefields were de-mined after Operation Parakram: "Yes, drifting mines are there due to melting of snow or sub soil erosion. Whenever, it comes to our notice, we take care."

Yet, repeated assurances by the army of landmine clearance from agricultural fields fail to allay the fears of civilians. Many among them now struggle with disability and poverty in a region known for the high value of its fertile agricultural land but troubled by hidden danger.

No comments: