The arduous climate, altitude and terrain prove a major challenge for the Indian Army troops guarding the border with Tibet.
Upgrading facilities and equipment can make life much better for these troops, who are lagging behind the Chinese army in these respects.
Near Gurudongmar Lake (North Sikkim): At nearly 18,000 feet above sea level, breathing itself is a laboured task. The freezing temperatures, the fierce and howling winds that kick up blinding dust storms during the summers and snowstorms in the winters, the lack of any vegetation and the aggressive terrain put even the survival of the fittest at stake. But survive they - the Indian soldiers posted here - must, in order to keep vigil on the border with Tibet.
The terrain is stark and, in its own way, beautiful. The mountains are made of rocks and loose gravel and soil which make them prone to landslides during the monsoons and when it snows from mid-October to early March. This particular part of the frontier near the famous Gurudongmar Lake is mostly vast stretches of flat land and gentle hills, an extension of the Tibetan Plateau. During the winters, the landscape is all white and once the snow starts to melt in early March, it turns into a vast swathe of messy and soggy muck till the dry winds that start sweeping through in hurricane-like frenzy from early April and the rising temperatures suck all the moisture out of the land and leave it bone dry.
The Indian Army has an overwhelming presence here with armoured, artillery, mechanised infantry, infantry and other combat and support units making for a brigade-strength formation. The journey to this frontier is not only a long and tiring one, but also perilous. From the nearest railhead at New Jalpaiguri in North Bengal, soldiers and military hardware are transported by road to Sikkim’s capital Gangtok, a distance of 125 kilometres that takes a minimum of five hours and at times even more when landslides, which are frequent in the rainy season, block or even carry portions of the highway away.
Gangtok is where soldiers halt for a couple of days’ acclimatisation before continuing their journey to the military station a little beyond the breathtakingly beautiful Gurudongmar Lake that is revered by Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs. The road is narrow and treacherous. Mangled and rusting remains of trucks, buses and jeeps can often be seen deep down in the gorges that skirt the narrow mountainous road that leads from Gangtok through Mangan, Chungthang and Lachen to the spectacular Thangu Valley nestled in the lap of tall snow-covered mountains whose higher reaches often remain veiled by clouds. The road continues in a northerly direction before turning east towards the Gurudongmar Lake and pass it to the military station in an area that locals call Kerang (see this map). The military station is barely 1.5 km away from the international border with China.
The station is a busy one with constant movement of vehicles, both big and small, raising clouds of dust. The structures housing offices and living quarters for officers and soldiers are mostly made of fibreglass, though a few older ones made of corrugated iron (CI) sheets nailed together still survive. Added to the constant roar of engines is the noise of generators - Kerang doesn’t have electricity - running mostly round-the-clock to heat and light up the offices and living quarters. Many of the facilities are underground and, thus, well-concealed. In fact, operations rooms and most of the offices, armoury, ammunition and other stores and even barracks and cabins for officers are all underground. Thus, except for the movement of vehicles, there is little evidence of any activity overground. Most of the hardware - the tanks, armoured personnel carriers and field guns - is also concealed and it is only if one observes very carefully can one see carefully-camouflaged structures with the occasional turret of a tank or the nozzle of a field gun jutting out.
All along the unfenced border, though, there is frequent patrolling by soldiers on both sides. In the sections where the terrain permits, the soldiers patrol in vehicles while in many other stretches, foot patrolling is the norm. “That is the toughest part. Due to lack of oxygen, breathing is a big problem. The freezing temperatures require my men to wear heavy insulated jackets which, added to the weight of the heavy backpacks and firearms they have to carry, makes walking with such heavy loads a highly strenuous exercise. It is impossible to walk continuously for more 20 to 30 minutes,” said the company commander (an officer at the rank of a Major) of an infantry unit posted here.
The chill factor, brought about by the fierce and freezing winds which numbs to the bone, is much more here than even other high-altitude terrain along the border like in Leh. Visibility is another major issue. Dust storms and snowstorms kicked up by the fierce winds which make hearing very difficult hinder vision. And there are frequent blizzards as well that bring down visibility further. “With visibility being so low at times, it is easy for patrolling parties to stray into Chinese territory. But what is more problematic is that we cannot always detect deliberate Chinese transgression in our territory, even though such incidents have come down drastically in recent years,” said the second-in-command of the infantry unit.
Maintenance and upkeep of military hardware like field guns, tanks and the BMPs (amphibious tracked infantry fighting vehicle used by the mechanised infantry), SUVs, trucks and other vehicles as well as armaments, is a major headache. “The high altitude and extreme weather conditions here increase the wear and tear on all machinery. And at this altitude and such inhospitable conditions, my men also cannot perform to their optimum capacities. Getting the best out of man and machine is a challenge,” said a Major-ranked officer of an EME (electronics and mechanical engineers) unit stationed here.
The sophisticated communication equipment used by the army also face the same issues and often have to be replaced. “The harsh climatic conditions here make even routine upkeep of communication equipment a major challenge. Software malfunctioning is an occasional occurrence and we have to have backups ready always. And there is the added problem of malware contamination,” said an officer of the Signals (Corps of Signals) unit posted here. Snow, hail, rain, landslides, snowstorms and dust storms disrupt communication lines and cables and have to be repaired or replaced frequently.
The international border is mostly on the ridge line that gives the Indian Army a favourable and dominating view of the Chinese side. “We can observe all their movements and activities. But our men have to be present on the highest points (the ridge line) of the high mountains in bunkers. That is tough and takes a heavy toll,” says the 2ic (second-in-command, in army parlance) of the infantry unit. The bunkers are mostly underground, with slit-like openings to keep watch. But they are quite cramped and many are not well-insulated. There is not much room also to move around, and spending three days at a stretch in these can be quite taxing. The infantry soldiers are deployed to the frontline from the rear locations by turns and return after three or more days in the bunkers.
In most places in these frontiers, vehicles cannot go right up to the border and the posts there thus have to be supplied by mules (of the Army Supply Corps’ Animal Transport Unit). In Kerang, too, the hardy and loyal mules which play a critical role in last-mile logistics supply go right up to the ridge line with food, ammunition and other equipment. “Without these mules, keeping the forward posts well stocked would be impossible. But the weather, altitude and terrain here also take a terrible toll on these animals,” said a JCO with the ASC unit here. Mules have rendered critical service in emergencies and play a major role in the country’s war machine.
At Kerang, like many other places along the frontiers in these Himalayan heights, every human activity is a struggle. Breathing, walking, sleeping, concentrating on a task, eating and even the routine ablutions involve quite a struggle. “The oxygen levels are low and men often suffer from high altitude sickness. And the sun’s ultraviolet rays at this altitude are very harmful and men have to take precautions. Water is a luxury in most months. Each season has its attendant problems: if the sub-zero temperatures during the winters make life very difficult, the incessant rains and sleet during the monsoons makes life miserable. Apart from high altitude sickness and the consequent ailments, some of them very serious, that the men often suffer from, other ailments like skin and heart problems, damage to eyesight, gastroenteric, nephrological, neurological, psychological and many other problems caused by the altitude, extreme weather and nature of duties take a huge toll on a soldier’s body,” said an Army Medical Corps (AMC) doctor at the military station’s base hospital.
Admittedly, things are much better now for the soldier at the frontier than what they were even a decade ago. “Living conditions, clothing, special equipment, food and other facilities have improved a lot, though we are still lagging behind the Chinese. Our soldiers now stay in heated barracks, but are exposed to the vagaries of nature while patrolling on foot. Most bunkers right at the border line are still uninsulated and rudimentary. The PLA (Chinese People’s Liberation Army) have heated personnel carriers for the comfort of their soldiers. They have all-weather roads linking almost all their military posts and their infrastructure is significantly better than ours. But as I said, the upgrading of facilities and equipment is a continuous process and while we are on it, the Chinese are doing the same much faster and are always a few strides ahead of us,” said a Colonel-rank officer at Kerang.
For him and other officers, the consolation is that Indian troops have the vital locational advantage over the Chinese. But the Chinese are not sitting idle on this score and have military hardware, the wherewithal and strategies to overcome their disadvantage eventually. That is why, assert army officers posted in frontiers like the one at Kerang, it is critical for the Indian defence machinery to keep pace with the Chinese.