In the hamlets around the Siachen base camp of the Indian army, Stanzin Padma is known as a saviour. On 27 February 2016, when the 40-year-old porter Thukjey Gyasket fell into a crevasse at the Siachen glacier, Padma was immediately flown in to be a part of the team that recovered Gyasket’s body. Padma’s expertise of crevasses began with a traumatic incident—in 2012, he fell into one, and was miraculously rescued the next day. Later that year, Padma lowered himself into a crevasse to rescue a fellow porter. In 2014, he saved two soldiers buried under the snow from an avalanche in which he too had been caught. Such incidents earned Padma the reputation of being invincible—a hero.
Padma is one of over 500 local men currently employed as porters for the Indian army at the Siachen glacier in Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir, a disputed site that is infamous for being both the world’s highest and one of the most brutal battlegrounds. Since the Indian army moved into the region in 1984, it has employed residents of local villages, who are familiar with the perilous terrain, as porters. The porters’ job was to carry loads—about 20 kilogrammes—to army posts on the glacier. Today, many porters said, their jobs have expanded to include fixing ropes to help the soldiers climb the glacier, stocking the posts with provisions, maintaining the stock of kerosene, and digging out ice to melt it into water for daily use.
At the altitude and freezing temperatures of the Siachen, where even basic tasks such as eating, drinking, walking and breathing prove tough, the porters become the lifeline of the forces. Their familiarity with the terrain has also made them indispensible in search and rescue operations after mishaps, such as the avalanche earlier this year that claimed the lives of 10 soldiers, including Lance Naik Hanamanthappa, a soldier who was rescued but later succumbed to his injuries.
But for the men in the villages surrounding the base camp, becoming a porter is an act borne of compulsion: they have few other sources of income in the region. Porters employed by the army are offered meager daily wages. The army does not offer them any training for the high-risk environment in which they work. Much of the regulations governing the employment of porters are shrouded in mystery. It is unclear how much compensation the porters will receive for the injuries they suffer, or if they die on duty. In the myriad reports coming out of Siachen, the role played by the porters in rescue operations—and otherwise—is hardly ever mentioned. Sometimes, the army awards porters with medals for acts of bravery. “The media flies in, attends the award ceremony and still never tries to find out about the porters who get the awards, their lives or even the reason why the awards are being given,” Padma said “I am sure in ‘down’”—a word locally used to indicate regions beyond the Himalayan peaks—“no one knows that there are porters working for the Indian Army at Siachen.”
In June 1948, the home ministry of Jammu and Kashmir set up a Defence Labour Procurement Department to, it says on its website, “provide porters and ponies to the Army for maintaining supplies in the remote and inaccessible areas along the LoC and International Border. The Directorate is fully funded by the Ministry of Defence, Government of India.” Though the DLPD seems to be responsible for the porters, conversations with an officer from the department seemed to suggest that his role did not involve any decision-making.
The porters are daily-wage employees who are paid according to the grade of the post they work at. The DLPD officer, stationed at the Nubra valley in the Leh district, told me that the wages are decided in Jammu, by the Principal Controller of Defence Accounts, the northern command of the Defence Accounts Department of the central government, which is responsible for payments, accounting and internal audits for the armed forces. The DLPD officer explained that army posts on the glacier—about 100 in number—are classified into one of five grades based on their altitude and the risk of working there. The grade with the highest risk pays about Rs 595 a day, while the lowest grade pays about Rs 290. But the DLPD officer was unable to explain how these wages were calculated. By contrast, according to a June 2015 order issued by the Office of the Assistant Labour Commissioner, Leh, the wage for a high altitude porter employed with civilian firms is Rs 1000 a day, and that for a low altitude porter is Rs 650 a day. In the summer, when tourist season is at its peak and when travel to and from the region is relatively easier, many porters take up alternate jobs with travel companies, work as farmers, or find other locally available jobs for labourers. But when the summer ends, the alternative sources of income peter out, they are forced to labour for the army. “The porter-work is our last resort,” Padma said.
At the end of a month of working with the army, Padma makes at most Rs 18,000. “I have been making the same money all these years. Porters who are in their 30s or 40s and have families and children to look after also make the same,” he said. “Wages is the biggest concern,” he concluded.
But though the wages are likely the porters’ most pressing concern, they are not the only one. Over 75 percent of deaths at the glacier are not due to combat but the brutal and dangerous weather: avalanches, the bitter cold and the threat of shifting ice and crevasses to which anyone can fall prey. Owing to these conditions, soldiers are deployed to posts for only three months in a year, and an army unit spends at most six months at the base camp. Casually paid labourers—as the porters are classified—working for over 90 consecutive days are eligible to make a claim for a permanent position and pay. To avoid such a situation, the army sends porters to posts for cycles of 89 days. “I come down for 2-3 days when my 89 days are about to get over, get a medical check-up at the hospital, and then climb again within 2 days,” Padma said. The longest stretch he served in this manner was close to 17 months.
Another concern for the porters and their families is ascertaining the compensation they are owed. Wedged in my diary is a list of 20 porters that died in the central and northern glaciers since the late 80s. Lobzang Stobdan, or “Senior,” as he is now known, maintains this list. Stobdan used to work as porter in the mid-80s. His moniker was coined when, one day, an army officer came to enquire if there was a “senior” among the porters who could help manage the records of their employment. Stobdan volunteered. When the army has to recruit porters, it is Stobdan they come to. Thukjey Gyasket’s name was twentieth on Stobdan’s list. It was also one of the five names ticked in blue ink—an indication that his family will probably receive the compensation they are owed. The family has already received some financial help from the unit stationed at Siachen and the corps commander. Their compensation is underway.
Most porters have also insured themselves at the Chandigarh-based National Insurance Company, which provides a risk cover of Rs 1 lakh upon their death—but only if it is caused by an avalanche, by falling into a crevasse, or from artillery fired by the enemy troops. But most deaths at the glacier are due to the cold and the climate, a condition not covered in the insurance. “At the glacier, the climate strikes you like an axe,” Lobzang said. “At times, you are dead before you can be evacuated.”
Not far from Thukjey’s village is another hamlet named Kumet, where the house of the porter Tsering Dorjey stands in ruins. Dorjey, whose name is also on Stobdan’s list, died in December 2006, at the age of 36. His wife, Konchak Dolma, could not claim the insurance cover because, according to Stobdan’s records, Dorjey died due to a “heavy headache.” Dolma recalled receiving all of Rs 16,320 as compensation from the army, and some ration from the company under which Dorjey was working as a porter. The story repeated itself at Padma Rigzen’s house. Rigzen, also a porter, died in October 2008 at the age of 37, “due to illness.” His wife, too, received the same amount, some ration, and a few promises of funding their son’s education—they were never fulfilled.
But when the porter Tashi Motup died in an avalanche, in 2010, his family received both the insurance claim and financial assistance from the unit posted at the base camp. The defence labour procurement department official told me that they also received 7 lakh under The Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1923, which details the compensation the workers and their families are entitled to in case of injury or death. The act was amended in 2009 to replace “workmen” with “employee,” to widen the scope of the types of workers covered, and to increase the compensation offered to them. In 2015, under the amended act, the families of two porters, Jigmat Yountan and Jigmat Dadul, who died on the job, recieved about Rs 15 lakh as compensation. Such stories have kindled equal amounts of hope and desperation among many porters’ families. Many of them know that they are entitled to compensation, but do not know how to claim it. They rest their hopes on “Senior” Stobdan, who has among his records and books, a photocopied, bound and heavily-marked copy of the act. Pages that detail about compensation due to illness, disability, and fatal accidents are flagged. As part of an effort to find someone who can understand the laws, the book has passed through many hands.
In the kitchen of Gyasket’s house, village elders and family relatives recounted, in measured voices, how Thukjey had received the guard of honour upon his death. “The coffin was wrapped in the flag, and gun-salutes were fired,” a distant relative—also a porter—said with obvious pride. The village head told me that such ceremonial honours were a recent trend, but that he was not sure what had led to them. Maybe, he reasoned, it was because “our porters lay their lives in service of the army at Siachen.” But just a village away, another porter received no such attention or honours . “His body was handed to us, just like that,” his widow said.
On 11 February 2016, the MLA from Nubra, Deldan Namgyal, wrote a letter to the Jammu and Kashmir governor, NN Vohra. In the letter, Namgyal noted the problems the porters faced—the poor working conditions, the lack of compensation, the lack of recognition for their contribution, and the meager pay. Many porters said that, at the base camp, the corps commander addressed the soldiers and promised the porters better clothing and higher wages. He encouraged porters to spell out their concerns. Later, at Thukjey’s house, I asked the porters why they had never written to senior army officers with their concerns. They shared confused glances with each other. “The army hides us when a senior officer visits us for an inspection,” a middle-aged porter began—a fact also mentioned in Namgyal’s letter. “Maybe they’re embarrassed of us,” the porter added. Namgyal’s letter also demanded that the porter’s wages be raised, a sentiment that every porter I met shared. “The local porters engaged at the Siachen Glacier must be paid their salary on time and it must be enhanced by double of current salary,” Namgyal wrote.
In May 2015, when I first met him, Stanzin Padma was working for a local travel company while receiving treatment at the local hospital, having fallen ill at the glacier. He was also disappointed. For several years, Padma has been looking for a job with better pay or at least a promise of growth, but he has remained unsuccessful—the army has no system by which he can obtain a certificate confirming his experience, so he had nothing to show for it. At home, a corner of his living room was filled with medals and certificates that the army had awarded him from time to time. When I asked him about the awards, he dryly stated a few disconnected facts about the ceremonies. “The awards will not give me a pay-hike or promotion,” he said. “Main kahaan-kahaan dikhaun ye awards?—where all should I show these awards?”