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Non-lethal injuries? Pellet guns have led to major "public health crisis" in Kashmir

Hiba, youngest pellet gun victim
By Jitamanyu Sahoo*
At a first glance, their scars will appear as pitted marks. Their eyes padded and bruised. Some of the eyes are closed as they are scared of their own vision; some of the eyes are open but their vision is blurred. Kashmir’s men, women and children are gazing at nothing. They are staring at the darkness that surrounds them in life, as they have been partially or fully blinded by pellets.
In November 2018, 18-month Hiba became the youngest pellet victim, whose right eye had been extensively damaged because of the metallic ball fired by the security forces. Intervention by two human rights activists from Kashmir, Syed Mujtaba and Mirza Beg, demanding compensation and independent investigation brought this horrific incident to attention of the authorities.
But with sheer lack of apathy by the state government her loss of vision was compensated by a meagre sum of Rs 1 lakh. The questions then we need to ask to the state today, “Why? What was Hiba’s fault? Why have they ruined this child’s future?”

Scale of the problem

The state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has suffered waves of intense unrest and sporadic violence since 1947. But pellet guns were introduced as “non-lethal weapons” into Kashmir as a method of crowd control due to the rise of civil unrest in 2010. According to Amnesty International in 2010, pellet guns have reportedly killed 14 people in Kashmir.
However, since 2016, following the renewed unrest in Kashmir after Burhan Wani’s killing more than 80 people were killed and over 20,000 people were injured by pellet guns. Billy Perrigo in
“Time” laments that the ammunition used in these guns are not designed for crowd control but are commonly used by hunters.
Siddharth David, placing reliance on his studies argues, “Usually, (pellets) have a range of around 45 metres and hence are stipulated to be shot only from a distance beyond 50 metres. If used at closer ranges, the pellets do not have enough time to disperse and travel in a compact group which move at very high velocities, making them extremely harmful, almost behaving like hand gun bullets, enough to penetrate deep and cause severe damage to bone and tissue.”
The United Nations’ “Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials” and India’s own laws on crowd control have specific directions on how to use Force and Firearms in crowd control. But subsequent reports have highlighted that these conditions are not adhered to in stressful situations in managing the unrest. The arbitrary and abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials in violation of the international standards have led us to a situation we have never witnessed before in the valley.
The truth is more than 1.7 million pellets have been fired by the security forces which has been admitted before the J&K High Court seeking ban on use of weapons.
The truth is under the garb of “non-lethal" weapons pellet guns are justified by the state to be more humane and acceptable instruments of crowd control. The truth is, our own citizens are blinded, injured and maimed by their own state.

Why should one care?

Today the use of pellet guns has given rise to a new public health concern which is constructed by our own state actions. We are grappling at this very moment with a health crisis in Kashmir which is having far-reaching human costs.
According to the clinical studies by Dhar and Wani, one-third of the injury sites of the survivors and victims of pellets were the lower limbs, one-fourth hitting the head region. The study further mentions one-third of the survivors of ocular pellet gun injuries in Kashmir permanently lost their eyesight.
In addition the outcomes of these catastrophic injuries documented in the literature are amputations, permanent disability or loss of life. Apart from physiological and psychological damage, the costs for treatment, disability costs and loss of livelihoods pose a life-long economic burden on the survivors. The bystanders who are not participant to the unrest are also caught in the midst of pellets. The lethal use pellet guns have dramatically affected the health landscape in the valley adding to the already loaded health burden.
The Amnesty International report ‘Losing Sight in Kashmir’ states, “People injured by pellet-firing shotguns have faced serious physical and mental health issues, including symptoms of psychological trauma. School and university students who were hit in the eyes said that they continue to have learning difficulties. 
Several victims who were the primary breadwinners for their families fear they will not be able to work any longer. Many have not regained their eyesight despite repeated surgeries.’ The report have elucidated that the use of pellets have triggered a security and public health crisis in Kashmir.”

Re-thinking public health policy

It is impossible to separate the question of why we should care about the impending public health crisis of pellet gun cases from the questions of what human rights imply about health and being human. The blind application of pellets by the state has left J&K itself in a flux with the absence of coping mechanism. The health priorities and heath utility today in the state have not accounted for the ever expanding injuries of their own targeted citizens.
The complexity of the healthcare systems have witnessed tremendous pressure in treating the pellets victims and finding it difficult to do follow up. 
The unanticipated consequences and the difficult conditions under which overwhelming number of children and young people were brought in emergency situations have put burden on the health providers. In consequences of which the socio-economic burden has taken a surge restricting people to live lives of dignity, to be free and equal citizens.
The prevailing trends to use disease protocols, financial levers, and siloed programmes to manage the health care system are fatally flawed and will lead to unintended consequences. 
The health policy in J&K needs to take into account the quality of care and reduce healthcare variations, it must address the socio-economic disparities in the treatment of pellet victims, the cost of loss of livelihood and sharing of responsibility of patient care needs to be burdened by the state.
My objection is on the ethics of the use of pellet guns by our security forces. The use of pellets has caused pain and agony to our own citizens, but whether the security forces deliberated on other option is something which needs to be ascertained. 
The opaque promises made by the government to set up panels to consider alternatives to pellets for crowd control have led to social-disorder in the valley. Moreover, the state today must acknowledge it is in the nub of a public health crisis resulting from political and policy miscalculation.
The use of pellets and its ramifications is tearing down our democracy. The bodily injury and mass debilitation have led to humanitarian collapse in the valley. To puncture the resistance and breaking the will of the people by violating all the norms of human rights is political contamination.
Each and every time pellets are fired on an unarmed protester, humanity loses its vision. Today we must use rights-based approach to address this fundamental health reality in Kashmir. Moreover, a public health discourse on the glaring health crisis in the valley must be activated.
---
*Human rights activist, litigator and independent researcher with interests in health law, and policy on peace and conflict studies

Comments

Anonymous said…
We should request with folded hands to the public throwing stones at Army to please not do so and distribute sweets and flowers to them . And request them with folded hands not to snatch our weapons and not attack men in uniform .
This is separatist propaganda . I am paid to have loyalty to the Govt of India and execute all orders as given . Not to hear the story of stone pelters. We will fire in self protection . And will fire the weapon ordered to with the ammunition provided to us. We didn’t buy these weapons out of our own pocket .
Anyone willing to support the life and limb of a soldier also or all Human rights are for stone pelters and separatists ?

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