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Siachen Resolution

Siachen Resolution

October 2011: Five years ago I wrote an article in these pages (Sanctuary Vol. XXV No. 1, February 2005) after a visit to Mumbai, suggesting a way for India and Pakistan to resolve the Siachen dispute through a carefully crafted agreement on creating a cryospheric research area that would be dedicated to science. This was a very practical solution modeled after the Antarctic treaty, which erstwhile adversaries such as the United States and the Soviet Union signed at the height of the Cold War. As the world's longest non-polar glacier, Siachen has particular importance for science and since this region is not habitable by humans, there is little value in terms of useful real-estate. In the age of military drones and cyber warfare, coupled with a massive nuclear deterrent, the strategic value of Siachen is also very limited. Contrary to popular opinion in both India and Pakistan, incursions such as the Kargil episode also have no connection to strategic advantage over Siachen.


Yet despite all these very pragmatic reasons provided, the resolution to the Siachen dispute has still eluded us. I had many high hopes for a distinguished Prime Minister (PM) like Manmohan Singh to work practically to resolve this particular dispute. Four months after my article was published, the Prime Minister actually visited Siachen (the first such visit by an Indian PM). His speech there on June 12, 2005 was very heartening as he noted: "nobody fears any threat, there is no scope for any conflict and this place becomes an example of peaceful environment… How long shall we allow such conditions to prevail (in Siachen)? Now the time has come for us to make efforts to convert this battlefield into a peace mountain."

Science For Peace

Sadly these words have not been acted upon and the blame games continue from both sides of the border. Since the glacier is physically under Indian control,  leadership in resolving this dispute will have to come from India. The idea of a ‘science for peace' effort has also received wide ranging strategic study by eminent personalities in the military establishment in India, including Retd. Air Marshall Nanda Cariappa and Retd. Brigadier General Gurmeet Kanwal (current director of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies). The United States Sandia National Labs' Cooperative Monitoring Center sponsored two rounds of joint strategy papers on Siachen conflict resolution which were coauthored with Pakistani counterparts. In these documents as well the prospects for territorial resolution of this conflict through the establishment of science for peace initiative were positively discussed. A law student at Georgetown University at the time, Neal Kemkar, soon thereafter even authored a detailed paper laying out the legal mechanisms by which such a peace park could operate and the paper was published in the Stanford Environmental Law Review. All the groundwork for such a resolution is already in place.

Siachen - Dhritiman Mukherjee

Time To Take Action Now
Technology now exists for monitoring any potential violations of treaties and accords signed to resolve this dispute through remote sensing and so having troops physically on the ground is also utterly unnecessary. The only people who would genuinely like to visit Siachen are environmental scientists and mountaineers. Creating a zone of visitation from both sides of the border to the Siachen region for scientists and mountaineers and equally sharing any economic revenues from such activity would be a means of operationalising the resolution of the conflict. Similar to the Antarctic treaty, neither side would relinquish their claims of sovereignty to the area but would place all such claims in abeyance for the higher purpose of science.

In this time of great ecological stress in the Himalayas with epic floods within the past two years, there is a golden opportunity for the outgoing Prime Minister to  make his mark with a valedictory gesture of true leadership, harkening back to his historic visit to the glacier. This is not just a pie in the sky idea – it is a tangible and  realisable goal for pragmatic peace that must move forward independently of other agenda items on the Indo-Pak list of grievances. The political heat for  moving forward on Siachen peace will be momentary and the outcome of planetary value for generations to come.

The Himalayan glaciers are a source of water for millions of people in India and the surrounding nations. Their value cannot be underestimated and nor can the  imminent threat to them – climate change. While all South Asian countries battle issues of poverty and slow development, these issues pale in comparison to the  water wars that could break out if our glaciers are not protected immediately. The Siachen glacier is particularly crucial owing to its importance to both India and Pakistan. Long fought over – the glacier can now become a stepping stone in peace talks between the two rivals with the long-term survival of both nations as the key goal. A Himalaya-focussed protection plan formulated and implemented by the two countries is of utmost importance. Military activity must be halted in the region with immediate effect and efforts must be devoted to safeguarding our glaciers. Climate change is a real and frightening threat for both nations and must be treated on par with any other conflict along the Line of Control.

By Dr. Saleem H. Ali

Dr. Saleem H. Ali is a Pakistani-American environmental scientist, based at the University of Vermont. He was recently chosen by National Geographic as an  "Emerging Explorer" and is the author of the book Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @ saleem_ali.


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