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.