In Kashmir the extreme cold conditions are referred to as Chilla-e-Kalan, which represents the harshest 40 days of winter in the Valley. Interestingly, this is the time before the snowfall and it is the snowfall that eases things a bit. During this period, there are glaciated conditions prevalent in the valley with icicles hanging down from the trees, slippery earth/roads and frozen water. In fact, getting fresh water is a challenge since all taps and water pipes are frozen. Movement outside the house is severely restricted.
The extreme cold conditions, during Chilla-e-Kalan and all through the winters, lead to general sickness and many emergency medical cases for which aid is not easily available. The situation is even more critical in remote areas of the valley where communication is a challenge even in the best of conditions during summers.
The army in Kashmir is well aware of these problems and prepares its medical assistance plan for the civilian general public well in advance and very meticulously. Over the years, the other security forces (Jammu and Kashmir Police and the paramilitary forces), have also started contributing gainfully. They are constrained, not by intention, but due to limited resources as compared to the army, but the will is there and whatever is available is put to use optimally.
There was a time, during the period of peak terrorism, when no doctor or nursing assistant was ready to man the Primary Health Centres (PHC’s). Even then, the army used to do whatever was possible to ameliorate the suffering of the people. With efficient governance in place, the PHC’s are now functioning well. The situation is much better but still the capacity of the PHC’s to function independently remains limited due to a host of administrative and climatic challenges.
The army, therefore, has been continuing with its support to the medical infrastructure in the state. Close liaison with adequate communication facility is established between the PHC’s and the nearest Army locality to ensure that maximum assistance is made available as a routine and more so during emergencies. The presence of the army is a great morale booster for the PHC’s and they remain motivated toward performing their duty.
Years of experience has created in the army a system to prepare for the winters well in advance. As the Kashmiri people build stocks of dried vegetables and other items for the winters, especially Chilla-e-Kalan, so does the army begin its preparation for medical assistance to civilians well before the winter sets in.
The first stage of preparation entails holding of medical camps before the onset of winters. This is done by the army under the ambit of its humanitarian and development oriented scheme – Operation Sadbhavna. Active support from the Government health services is sought and is invariably forthcoming with enthusiasm.
Before the onset of Chilla-e-Kalan in the ongoing winters of 2015-16, medical camps were held across the valley and extensively in remote areas. A general round-up of the health of the locals was taken and those needing special care were advised, assisted and helped. Apart from the medical check-up, classes were held to educate the locals about health problems that they are likely to face during the winter and the steps required to be taken to avoid the same. Doctors from the army and from the civil medical services as well as volunteers worked together for this noble cause.
The troops deployed in remote area have a good stock of medicines and the regimental medical officer strength is to capacity. Army medical officers visit areas in their unit responsibility to see that everything is all right. Medical camps are being held regularly and medicines are being disbursed free of cost.
There are standard operating procedures in place to carry out medical evacuation of emergency cases both by road and by air. Fully equipped Army ambulances and other vehicles are ready for this purpose; the process for carrying out air evacuation by requisitioning Air Force helicopters, mostly MI-8 has been put in place. Special attention is being paid to remote areas like Gurez where air evacuation is the only option.
The initiative is undertaken by the army in view of the geographic sensitivity of the remote areas where local administration finds it difficult to operate under extreme weather conditions. The armed forces lend a hand since they are available in close proximity and have the means to do so.
There are certain instances when the good work being done by the forces is misconstrued with the intention of harming the good reputation of the security forces. Inimical forces leave no opportunity to spread propaganda about there being some hidden agenda behind provision of such assistance.
The people, however, understand that this is no more than a manifestation of the close bond between the security forces and the people of Kashmir. The harsh condition of survival that are equal to all, bring the locals and the soldiers close to each other, most of the time the assistance is given voluntarily without specific orders from higher headquarters.
The biggest gratitude comes in the form of the happy faces of those who benefit from the humanitarian gestures of the security forces.
Over the years, many people, especially pregnant women and children, across the Kashmir valley have benefitted from such humanitarian acts by the armed forces of the nation.
The goodwill of the army, however, should not lead to complacency in the Government of Jammu and Kashmir. There is an urgent need for the government to ensure that there is adequate medical infrastructure in place to meet all health related challenges. Extensive use of technology should be resorted to. The number of PHC’s and staff on ground also needs to be boosted so that the distance between the patient and the hospital is reduced. There are many countries across the world that face such weather related challenges, their methods and procedures need to be studied, modified for local conditions and implemented.
(Ranjan Chauhan is a social activist)