SRINAGAR: As expiry of Tosmaidan land lease agreement between state government and Indian Army draws near, the row over extending the meadow’s use as a firing range is getting intense with the official response, so far, coming under question and the final decision vis-a-vis lease renewal still awaited.
Tosmaidan, a 11,200 hectare picturesque meadow in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, was leased to the Army in 1964 for use as a firing range. The Army has been training its new recruits at the meadow in use of heavy artillery, without paying a penny as rent to the state.
The Army’s formal application last year for extension in the lease up to 2034, evoked opposition from the local populace surrounding Tosmaidan who demanded that the meadow be developed as a tourist destination instead of the firing range.
The government came up with a delayed response, ordering constitution of a committee for reviewing the lease and for considering relocation of the firing range. However, it took the government four months, till February, to formally constitute the committee that was given a verbal go ahead in November last year.
Sources privy to the developments said the government identified two sites as an alternative to Tosmaidan firing range—one close to the Line of Control (LoC) in north Kashmir and the other in Kishtwar. The Army “has refused the first choice due to its proximity to the LoC while the other one is currently being reviewed by the military authorities.”
The government, however, is yet to come up with its final decision over extension in the lease with just about a month left to expiry of the deed. And the committee too is said to have been dormant, not meeting the stakeholders who are up in arms, yet again.
“The government hasn’t conveyed anything to us so far vis-à-vis extension of the lease or relocation of the firing range,” Dr Sheikh Ghulam Rasool of JK RTI Movement, a constituent of Tosmaidan Bachao Front (TBF), told Kashmir Reader.
“The committee formed by the government has never visited the area to take stock of the humanitarian crisis caused by the firing range. It didn’t meet any of the officer bearers of TBF, which is spearheading the agitation against possible lease extension,” he added.
TBF had proposed Zanskar in Ladakh region as the alternative firing range to the Army, but the government seems to have over looked the suggestion.
“Zanskar is suitable to be a firing range for its remote location. We proposed the idea to government in one of our previous meetings, but the decision was seemingly turned down. And now we don’t know what government is thinking to do with Tosmaidan,” Rasool said, hinting that the TBF may now approach the committee without waiting for the latter’s call.
Use of Tosmaidan as firing range has so far killed and injured dozens of civilians who came into contact with the leftover artillery shells at the meadow while grazing their pastures. The deaths and injuries have been confirmed by the state government.
In their renewed agitation, hundreds of TBF members gathered at the city centre here last week, raising slogans against the possible lease extension and criticizing the government’s response thus far.
Fearing that the government may eventually decide to extend the lease, the protesters threaten to boycott the upcoming Parliamentary and Assembly polls.
“Our demands are genuine and we have put them before the government several times. If the government extends the lease or if it doesn’t come with a decision soon to relocate the firing range, we will boycott the polls. In addition, entire Budgam district will stay away from all kinds of developmental activities,” Rasool said, it is now an agitation of entire Budgam district.
The various groups coordinating for protest against Tosmaidan are now meeting on Sunday at Budgam to discuss the future course of action.