Mohammad Akram Sheikh was just 24 in 2004 when he stepped over a shell in the Tosa Maidan area of Budgam, around 50 km southwest of Srinagar. “ I was walking when something exploded and next I was on the ground and blood coming out from my legs. I was taken to hospital where I was admitted for next six months,” says Akram.
Explosions of shells back have killed 65 while 270 were disabled.
He says the accident has hampered his ability to continue with his work as his left leg had sustained severe injuries. “I still feel pain and sometimes I feel I am not able to carry my work. I think gradually I will not able to do anything,” he says.
However, drawing comparison Akram says that others have suffered more grievous injuries in the area. “Some have lost their legs, some have lost their hands and some fingers when they walking or doing routine work. And the government hasn’t addressed our problems,” he says.
Over the years it has become a routine in the breathtakingly beautiful meadow that locals were walking over unexploded shells or touching any scrap that led to explosions killing nearly 65 and wounding around 300.
In 2010, a person identified as Abdul Gaffar Khan, 48, picked up something at Tosa Maidan. It immediately exploded, killing Khan on the spot. He had picked a shell.
In the same year, five persons were wounded when a shell exploded at Yechebal Bahak of the meadow. They had gone to the area for an excursion and were wounded when they touched an unexploded shell that was lying on the ground. In June 2009, two persons died on the spot when a shell exploded in the meadow. The victims were collecting iron pieces (scrap) in the area.
While the government is holding programmes to promote the meadow as a tourist destination after the Army and Airforce vacated it as a firing range in 2014, the victims say they haven’t been compensated.
“It has been seven years since Tosa Maidan firing range was vacated by the army but victims including 270 disabled haven’t been compensated yet,” says Dr Shaikh Ghulam Rasool, founder of an NGO called Tosamiadan Bachav Front (TBF). The organisation had tirelessly worked to vacate the firing range from the area. He says over the years, 65 locals were killed due to unexploded shells and other explosive material in the area. He says the accidents turn around 43 women into widows.
Dr Shaikh says despite High Court’s direction in 2017 Deputy Commissioner’s office in Budgam has not initiated the process of compensating victims.
The Army since 1965 was using the Tosa Maidan meadow, across Pir Panchal mountain range, as its’ firing range. Apart from the Army, Air Force, Border Security and other security agencies were using the firing range as well.
In 1965, the Jammu and Kashmir government had given a portion of Tosa Maidan, spanned over 11,200 hectares, on lease to the Army for artillery firing.
From April to November, every year since then, the Army fired artillery shells from different villages of Budgam above the Pir Panchal mountain range towards the Tosa Maidan meadow. At times the ammunition would land outside the firing zone leading to casualties.
The lease of the firing zone ended in April 2014. The Army had sought re-notification of the meadow as a firing range till 2034. But the then government led by Omar Abdullah didn’t grant extension fearing large scale protests. Since 2014 the Army didn’t use the meadow as firing range following massive protests by local residents and opposition from political parties and the then government.
The government says 65 people have died so far in Tosa Maidan in various incidents; however, locals say the number of dead people could be far higher as the victims’ kin would refrain from registering FIRs in several cases.
Later the Indian Army started a programme to clear the area from explosives.
After the area was cleared of explosives, the government has formed Tourism Development Authority Tosamaidan in a bid to promote the meadow as a tourist destination.
In the latest move on December 1, the department of tourism along with district administration Budgam organised a festival there to promote the area as a tourist destination, which attracted a large number of people.
The officials say Tosa Maidan has a vast potential to emerge as an attractive tourist destination.
The victims say the government’s move is fine but they should be also compensated.
“We had high hopes and the court had passed favourable orders but after revocation of Article 370 a lot many things changed here and no one cares about “our situation”, says Akram.
The Tosa Maidan Bachav has now filed a revised petition seeking implementation of the court order regarding compensation to victims of the blasts.