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Army wants bar on raising porter companies to go

By Praveen Swami

NEW DELHI, SEPT. 16. A week after the Army Chief, Gen. Nirmal Vij, ordered a ban on the use of civilian porters in counter-terrorist operations, military planners are struggling to put together a new support infrastructure for troops fighting in Jammu and Kashmir. Their main problem is not logistics, but the law. Government regulations prohibit the Army from raising regular companies of porters except at times when it is formally mobilised for war.

Gen. Vij issued orders prohibiting troops from hiring porters to ferry rations and munitions after five civilians died in an encounter near Bandipora, in northern Kashmir. The deaths provoked widespread outrage in Jammu and Kashmir, and have become a potential threat to the ongoing dialogue between New Delhi and the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference.

Sources told The Hindu that the office of the Quartermaster General has been tasked with putting a new system in place for supplying troops engaged in counter-terrorist combat in the mountains around Jammu and Kashmir. The Quartermaster General, Lieutenant-General Vijay Patankar, is believed to have made it clear that the Union Government will have to review existing regulations barring the raising of dedicated companies of porters, each about 100-strong. Bureaucratic delays can have serious consequences for counter-terrorist operations, which rely on the logistic support provided by local porters and guides.

The Army uses two types of porters, hired on a daily wage basis by Labour Officers in each district. First, porters are used to supply forward posts along the Line of Control. Payments start from Rs. 80, but skilled porters operating at high altitude may earn three times as much. Such porters are paid at the end of the month, depending on how many days they have worked. At times of war, like the Kargil conflict in 1999 or Operation Parakram in 2001-2002, the Army raises short-duration porter companies, whose recruits receive proper salaries.

For counter-terrorist operations, which are by nature unpredictable and require knowledge of the local terrain, porters are recruited directly from the nearest village. Many units supplemented the daily wage payments with rations, shoes and coats. In the remote mountain villages of Jammu and Kashmir, such work has been a coveted source of income.

Unsurprisingly, however, some villagers, particularly in relatively well-off areas, complained they were dragooned into high-risk situations. Matters came to a head with the recent Bandipora killings.

No one is certain, however, just what can be done to address the problem until the bar on hiring regular porters is removed. What is clear, though, is that the working conditions of all porters — press-ganged or volunteer — are poor. Porters ferrying loads up to high-altitude positions often die in avalanches or artillery exchanges.

On December 16, three porters died in the mountains above Trehgam. In November, porters Dun Bahadur and Himalaya Singh, both Nepali nationals, died in another avalanche near Batalik.

The Government benefits for death or disability suffered by porters is meagre, generally under Rs. 25,000. Commanders in the Drass-Kargil area had entered into a contract with the General Insurance Company for providing benefits to porters working there, but the system is yet to be institutionalised.

Unlike troops killed in combat, the families of killed porters receive no job benefits or long-term compensation — or even the gratitude of the nation.

Porters hired for counter-terrorist duties were not entitled to even these meagre benefits. In order to ensure that those killed assisting counter-terrorist operations received the State Government compensation due to all terrorism victims, porter deaths were generally registered as those of civilians who happened to get caught in crossfire. As a result, no accurate figures exist of the numbers of local porters and guides who have died assisting troops over the years.

Last month, however, evidence emerged that such losses do take place regularly when the Prevention of Terrorism Act judge, P.N. Razdan, sentenced a terrorist to nine years rigorous imprisonment for a 2001 encounter which claimed the life of police porter and guide, Safdar Ali.

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