* Baksa villagers running scared as deaths mount due to stray bullet-mortar hits
* Metal cartel engaging villagers to collect live shells during practice sessions
BY OUR STAFF REPORTER
GUWAHATI, May 11: Scores have been killed and many more fatally wounded in the vicinity of the Indian army's controversial firing range on the Indo-Bhutan border in Baksa district.
The Darranga Field Firing Range, under the Tamulpur-based 107 Mountain Brigade, is the only field firing range in central and lower Assam region.
Villagers in the vicinity are often hit by bullets and mortars fired during practice sessions at the range. Activists working in the area say over the last five years, there have been more than a dozen deaths.
"Most of the deaths go unreported. The villagers do not report the deaths or injuries for fear of the army. Family members of victims do not want to be questioned by the army or face legal formalities related to such incidents," said a local activist.
According to official figures, at least 22 people have lost their lives between 2008-2013 in and around the firing range, used by army personnel from different regiments across the region for practicing heavy artillery.
A local NGO pegs the toll in the last five years at over 50.
In fact, the firing range has been a source of livelihood of hundreds of villages living near it. Villagers tend to hide in the range while the firing sessions are in progress, to collect the empty shells which are later sold for easy money. Many a time though, they come in the line of fire.
The army has drawn flak for not building a fence around the firing range to prevent villagers from entering it.
The army has put up sentry posts around the range and warning whistles are blown before the start of a practice session, but that does not deter villagers from venturing into the range.
An army official claimed that the range is a "notified range" and "proper procedure" is followed before any practice session.
"The firing days are fixed and are announced well in advance. Prior notices are given to the village headmen and district administration.
Red flags are put up all around. Despite that, villagers tend to surreptitiously enter the range," the official said.
The army also claimed that a special detotion drill is done after the sessions to ensure that no unexploded shells remain in the range and the areas surrounding it. "But the villagers don't even stop for the completion of the drill and venture into the range and thus are vulnerable to such accidents," he said.
The district administration in Baksa had earlier written to the Home department seeking measures like barbed wire fencing around the range to stop such accidental killings. But the State government is yet to respond to the request.
According to a local source, there is a cartel of traders in Baksa who buy the metal pieces collected by villagers from the range. The cartel even pays the villagers in advance and engages them to collect the fired shells and bullets made up of metals like copper and brass from the range.
The range has also witnessed incidents of army personnel being killed or injured by stray bullets.
Meanwhile, locals in the area are now protesting a drive by the administration to evict some families who have settled within the notified area.
Army sources said the local administration has so far identified 13 families who have settled inside the notified area. Eviction notices have been served on them, but they are refusing to move out.