Tosa Maidan - Asif injured
Asif Wani, 15, was injured when a littered shell exploded in Tosa Maidan, Budgam in Central Kashmir on 26 May 2020. Photograph by special arrangement.

For the past more than a week, 15-year-old Asif Wani has been battling for his life at a hospital in Srinagar. Asif was among the three teenagers injured after a littered explosive went off in the Tosa Maidan meadow on 26 May. Asif and his four friends were playing in the meadow that was until 2016 a firing range for the army.

The injured teenagers were shifted to the Khag sub-district hospital, about 25 kilometres away. Doctors at the Khag hospital referred Asif to the tertiary care Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) in Srinagar owing to his grievous injuries. However, there is no improvement in his condition since then.

Asif has shrapnel lodged inside his brain from the explosion, said Sheikh Maqbool, his brother-in-law. “They [doctors] first time operated on him to take out the foreign object out of his brain, some part of his brain came out with it,” he recalled doctors had informed initially but have given no further communication since then. “We are worried and in distress. I have been trying to call the director SKIMS for an hour and even dropped him a text but he isn’t receiving my calls.”

Asif’s family is now anxiously waiting for doctors to convey to them if the boy has to be shifted to a better hospital outside Kashmir. “He [Asif] is in the ICU [Intensive Care Unit] but it’s hard to take care of the expenses,” said Mr. Maqbool. “They need to be asked why his condition has remained the same from the past nine days and why he is still unconscious.”

Speaking to The Kashmir Walla, Dr. Farooq Jan, the medical superintendent at SKIMS, said that Asif had suffered contusions in his brain and now is dependent on continuous life support. “He has a chest infection and still no sign of improvement,” Dr. Jan said. “He is already being taken care of and I don’t think anything can be done for now.” Dr Jan, however, claimed that the Wani family had not approached SKIMS authorities for shifting Asif to another hospital. He added: “I don’t think that we will consider shifting him to AIIMS [in Delhi], anyway. Our mandate is to provide health care and we are providing the same.”

 “Government negligence”

Tosa Maidan - Asif lying on ventilator
Asif Wani, 15, is battling for his life at SKIMS hospital in Srinagar after he was injured in Tosa Maidan, Budgam, Central Kashmir. Photograph by special arrangement.

The Wani family’s livelihood is dependent on a small patch of land on which rice is grown and embroidery work done by his sister. The family as such, said his brother-in-law Mr. Maqbool, is not able to afford his treatment. “They can’t even arrange 2000 rupees for his treatment,” said Mr. Maqbool, adding that relatives were struggling to arrange money for the treatment.

Since the explosion, Mr. Maqbool said, the administration has offered little help. On its part, the Budgam District Administration had offered an amount of 10,000 rupees to the family but it was declined by the family. “We have to buy medicines worth 15,000 rupees every day. The government is not helping us,” said Mr. Maqbool.

Following this, Mr. Maqbool said, the Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, Pandurang Pole, had sent officials with 5000 rupees for Asif’s treatment but the family declined this as well. “The administration’s response makes us cry,” he said. “We don’t want money, instead authorities should talk to the concerned doctors and the director of SKIMS to know the expenses and directly give the amount to them for his treatment.”

Mr. Maqbool has alleged that the administration did not have Asif on its priority. “The government is taking this very lightly,” he said. “Asif hasn’t been injured in a car accident. It’s because of the government’s negligence and carelessness that live shells are still in Tosa Maidan because of which he got critically injured.”

Shahbaz Mirza, deputy commissioner Budgam, told The Kashmir Walla that if the family is demanding for him to be shifted to AIIMS [Delhi] then it is a call that SKIMS doctors have to take. “If they tell me he should be shifted to AIIMS, we will facilitate,” he said. “Yesterday, district administration transferred 50,000 rupees through the Red Cross to the family. I have also sent a Tehsildar to his home to keep me posted about his condition.”

 An explosives laden meadow

The Tosa Maidan meadow is located in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. The meadow was used for field firing practices for nearly fifty years, from 1964 to 2014, affecting civilian populations residing in villages in the meadow’s vicinity. At least seventy civilians have been killed here, according to Dr. Raja Muzaffar Bhat, a Right To Information (RTI) activist who had long campaigned against the firing range.

Besides the loss of limb and life to local residents, residential structures in the villages have also faced damage due to the heavy guns that used to be fired here. In August 2014, the army launched a sanitation drive – that it called “Operation Fallah” (welfare) – to clear the ecologically sensitive meadow of littered ammunition. “They declared that they are going to sanitize the meadow within three months,” said Dr Bhat.

The erstwhile state government led by the then chief minister Mehbooba Mufti had brought Tosa Maidan on the tourism map in 2016 by declaring it safe and open for tourists. However, Dr. Bhat said that the government should have still maintained an advisory for those entering the meadow. “They should at least keep a warning sign there and close the area for clearance as the past claims by the army and the government, of the area being cleared, have proven false,” he said.

Several times Dr. Bhat has tried for the area to be sanitised but the government hasn’t been taking it seriously. “They didn’t take it seriously in 2014 the way they should have and they still don’t take it seriously even after all these deadly incidents,” he said. “It costs a lot to get bomb disposal squads [and other logistics]. They have just left it at that because they consider us as animals.”

Seven years after Operation Fallah was carried out, the Tosa Maidan still resembles a death trap, littered with ammunition, for the local residents like Asif.

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