National Green Tribunal has issued notices to Union Ministry of Defence and J&K Government over the proposal to set up an artillery firing range at Bajpathri in Budgam district. The Tribunal has directed the State and Defence Ministry to respond to the notice within two weeks. The notices were issued in response to a petition filed by the social activist Raja Muzzafar Bhat. The petition had urged the NGT to direct the state government and defense ministry to not handover the meadow to Army for artillery practice as it would damage the environment, forest and wildlife in the area. NGT bench headed by its chairperson, Justice Swatantra Kumar, has accepted the plea.
The Armys proposal to set up an artillery firing range at Bajpathri in the meadows of Yousmarg has run up against strong opposition from civil society groups in Valley. And legitimately so. Considering the devastation wrought by the firing range at Tosa Maidan, it would be tragic if the government offers an alternative range to Army at Bajpathri, a potential tourist destination close to well-known scenic resort Yousmarg. Army had sought Bajpathri as the alternative firing site at the Civil Military Liaison Conference headed by the then J&K Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and the government was understood to have assured a positive consideration of the request.
Tourism players in the Valley have warned about the adverse fallout of the range on the environment and the tourist sector in the area. Environmentalists have raised alarm about the destruction of the natural springs and the water bodies. And the civil society groups like Kashmir Civil Society for Development Studies, Tosamaidan Front and Save Yousmarg Movement have decided to resist the move.
The reason for this widespread public alarm is the adverse fallout on the surrounding villages of the Armys use of Tossamaidan as the firing range for 50 years. The lease expired only in early 2014. The unexploded shells littered on the meadows slopes have killed 63 people and disabled many others. And all the victims belong to the villages surrounding Tossamaidan which has been their pasture since centuries. The meadow would become a scene of warfare for six months between May and October. The villages reverberated with ordinance barrage and deafening explosions in the period forcing the villagers to stay indoors for most of the time.
With talk of Bajpathri being made into another firing range, an obscure place which never made it to news pages for its resplendent natural beauty has become a recurrent part of the public discourse. Government has a responsibility not to decide in a rush. Besides, before government decides another firing range for Army, it should ensure that the people are taken on board. The potential tourist places like Bajpathri do not deserve to be turned into a firing range. As Tosamaidan experiment proves, this is fraught with consequences for the local population. After losing lives in Tossamaidan, we can ill afford a firing range in the area girded by human settlements.
Already when eleven of the 51 field firing ranges are located in J&K, there should be no need to add yet another. And as highlighted by the civil society groups, allotting mountainous areas as firing ranges also violates the Paris Protocol on environment to which India is a signatory. NGT intervention is therefore welcome and it is hoped that the good sense prevails both on the Army and the state government.
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