May Issue 2012
The Billion-Dollar Question of Siachen
The cost of raising and maintaining a unit at Siachen is not as high as it is during the time of actual war. But it is easier to say this than to calculate its veracity. Preparations for stints at Siachen are not the same as those readying to scale a mountain, say K-2. In this case you train as a mountaineer, get a USD 9000 permit, put in a rescue bond of USD 6000, establish a team, generate funds of USD 10,000 per climber, plus equipment, USD 4000 per trekker, plus equipment (estimates as given on summitpost.org), rent jeeps, get sacks of food, reach the K-2 base camp in 7-12 days, try to climb the peak and if lucky, arrive at the summit in five hours — and maybe sometimes lose some of your team members along the way.
India is more open about its expense on defence than Pakistan ever will be. V.R. Raghavan openly criticised the “civilian/government” bureaucracy in his book, who he maintained never travelled to Siachen and had no clue about the importance of simple yet crucial item requirements. Their insistence on using sub-standard local stuff over that designed abroad for high-altitude environments, showed their lack of priorities. The Pakistan army suffers no such qualms. What they do with the defence of the country has traditionally been their business, no one else’s, and it is likely to stay that way.
So while the logistics and costs of Siachen may be discussed by the Indian media or ministers, it rarely has a place in discourse at home. An Indian parliamentary public accounts committee report criticised the Congress government for its failure to set vendor-related goals in purchasing clothing (May 2, 2010, Times of India). Each clothing set for a soldier costs INR one lakh. Swiss down jackets: INR 9,093; Italian MP Scarpa boots and French boot crampons, INR 6,990 each. Ten contracts for special clothing during 2002-06 amounted to INR 48.88 crore. But 59% of these, valued at INR 28.81 crore, were rejected at the receipt-inspection stage or by end users! It took 32 months from the time of raising a demand to the delivery of items to troops — mainly because of the severe delay in trial evaluation and finalisation of specs. The report detailing these transactions also mentioned 388 casualties, specifically due to cold-induced injuries such as frost-bite and chilblains (May 10, 2010, Times of India). In effect, the report indirectly blamed the government for the soldiers’ cause of death since they had shown gross negligence in the provision of proper equipment to the men.
The International Herald Tribune (March 11, 1999) rounded up the daily deaths in both India and Pakistan at Siachen as 3,500, 10,000 wounded and one million US dollars in costs. The Sunday Telegraph (April 2, 2000) estimated that Pakistan spent USD 18.5 million a day on the war and India 30 times that amount.
A report “Cost of Conflict between India and Pakistan” by Strategic Foresight (SFG) in 2004 stated that in the next five years the conflict was likely to cost India INR 7,200 crores and Pakistan INR 1,800 crores with an anticipated loss of 1,500 soldiers without even a gun being raised! Even if this figure is fiction, analysts’ tendency to predict depletion of resources and future deaths in advance and also in ‘peacetime’ is frightening.
In a Time magazine cover story of July 5, 2005, Riffat Hussain calculated the cost of Siachen as USD 438 million a year for India (Indian officials claimed it was less than USD 300 million), while he estimated Pakistan’s bill at USD 182 million per year.
The Rediff estimate for Siachen posted on April 11, 2012 has been widely quoted by the Pakistani media, from TV anchors like Dr Moeed Pirzada and Kamran Khan to newspapers like The News and The Express Tribune. Rediff.com quoted ‘careful estimates by defense analysts’ and put the Pakistani bill at INR 15 million a day to maintain three battalions at Siachen (INR 450 million a month; INR 5.4 billion a year). For India, the cost of maintaining seven battalions at the glacier costs INR 50 million a day (INR 1.5 billion a month; INR 30 billion a year). It also gave the astounding figure of three-a-day and two-a-day casualty figures for Pakistan and India respectively. That roughly amounts to 100 deaths for Pakistan and 180 for India per year — a figure that is rejected by Lt General (retd.) Shuaib as well as ISPR. Rediff also cited unofficial figures for deaths in the last 28 years: 3,000 for Pakistan and 5,000 for India. And though officially neither Pakistan nor India declare the strength of their troops, Rediff approximates 4,000 Pakistan army and 7,000 Indian troops are around the glacier heights.
According to The New York Times (April 14, 2012), military analysts estimate that the deployment costs Pakistan USD five million a month (USD 60 million per year). Indian costs are higher because supplies are moved through helicopters and they have a larger number of troops stationed there.
While everyone has a figure to quote, there are no absolutes about the costs of waging what is perhaps the most expensive war on earth. The only difference is that while India is spending what it is in a thriving economy, we are doing so in an abysmally bad one.
And while they may agree to disagree on many issues, there are two things common between India and Pakistan. They are forever united in bills and death. Meanwhile, the hearts of decision-makers remain colder than the Siachen ice.
This article was originally published in the May issue of Newsline as part of a larger cover story on the Siachen conflict.
The writer is a freelance journalist.