Mine-blown Lives

Ghunnar looks a typical Rajasthan village with its agricultural fields and modest houses. The only difference is it happens to be on the India-Pakistan border. Though not as tense as the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir, the border in Rajasthan is a mined area.

An unsuspecting Savitri Devi, 31, walked onto one such mine on January 5, 2004. There was an instant explosion, and she lost her left foot. She was taken to the district hospital at Sriganganagar, 18 miles away, for treatment. Savitri Devi could count herself fortunate that she survived. But her quiet, normal life was shattered for ever. Says a family member: "We've become victims without any fault of ours."

And that is the universal story of a majority of mine victims. They happen to be civilians. And it is women and children who are more vulnerable in mine explosions. In August 2002, it was 12-year-old Kiran Deep of Karanpur village on the Indo-Pak border who stepped on a mine, and lost her right foot. Three months later, it was 10-year-old Hetram, from the same village, walked on mine when he took his goats across a field. He lost his right leg.

It is not just the hapless villagers who are at a loss to deal with the exigencies of mine explosions. Even the panchayats - the elected village councils - do not know how to deal with the situation except to rush the victims to the nearest government hospital for treatment. But the distances from the far-flung villages on the border in the desert region of Rajasthan are daunting. Immediate medical attention is of vital importance in the case of mine victims, and precious time is lost due to inadequate road and transport links.

In several cases, blood loss is a major concern and there is an extensive need for blood transfusion, which is often not readily available. It is often the case that victims die even before they can be taken to a distant hospital. And as for trauma counseling, there is none available.

A major problem with regard to mines in India is the high illiteracy rates in rural India, which make it difficult for people even to recognize the warning boards that are set up in some of the mined areas. The women and children, and even the men, cannot read the signboards asking them to keep off the area.

Figures are not easy to come by. The Landmine Monitor Report 2006 for India states: "There were at least 306 casualties from mines and improvised explosive devices in 2005, and 271 from January to May, 2006."

In India, it is not the civilians alone who fall prey to mine explosions. Security forces personnel suffer as much. According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines-India (ICBL-India) report (2004), government forces suffered as many as 1,776 casualties due to mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO). Thousands of families were displaced and areas turned into waiting death traps. The operation was considered one of the last major uses of antipersonnel mines.

India is certainly not an explosive minefield country like war-torn Angola and Cambodia, but the figures are quite high in absolute terms. The 2004 Landmine Monitor Report pointed out that extensive laying of mines was undertaken during Operation Parakram undertaken by the Indian Army along its 2,880-km northern and western border with Pakistan between December 2001 and July 2002.

According to Dr. Balakirshna Kurvey, coordinator of ICBL-India: "There are a million mines planted, of which five per cent to 10 per cent are untraceable."
There is a further complication. He says that while mined areas are demarcated by fencing, there is a shift and drift due to changing climatic conditions. Rains, melting snow, shifting sands and even rodents, displace landmines. As a result they are moved to other areas. The danger zone shifts, and it makes the situation so much more difficult.

The most essential part that needs to be addressed on the issue of landmines is the plight of the victims. As amputees, they are seen as a burden to their families and often abandoned to lead a life of begging and poverty. In children, the psychological scars run deeper.

And women who are mine victims face problems that arise from gender disadvantages. Adopt-A Minefield, a UN-supported American organization devoted to combating the menace of landmines, emphasizes broadly that while both men and women are victims of landmines, studies show that women suffer more due to inadequate medical attention and access to facilities resulting in a higher fatality rate of 43 per cent than males at 29 per cent.

As victims, married women are often divorced by their husbands while the marriage prospects of single women are gloomy. On the other hand, disabled men can depend on their wives for support.

The lack of funds in India also mean women are less likely to get adequate medical attention, access to prostheses and a better guidance to rehabilitation. Where men are victims, women's lives are also affected as caretakers. It not only takes an emotional toll on their well-being but in many cases they end up becoming the sole earning member to support the family.

Landmines is a burning issue because simple lives are blighted for ever with each explosion. The Savitri Devis in Rajasthan and elsewhere on the India-Pakistan border will continue to pay with their lives unless it is brought into the public domain as a matter of serious concern.   


More by :  Fatima Chowdhury

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