Icy threat hangs over India's pen-pushers

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ONE OF Britain's more enduring gifts to India is the begrudging and procrastinating posture of civil servants. Their adage is: "If it is easy make it hard, if it is hard make it impossible, if it is impossible, so much the better."

But three bureaucrats in the defence ministry are about to pay for their adherence to this motto with a trip to the highest and most godforsaken battlefield in the world.

India has been fighting a small, absurd, and apparently endless war with Pakistan on the Siachen Glacier in the high Himalayas in the far north of Kashmir for the past 14 years.

It is by far the toughest battlefield in the world, with temperatures averaging -40C and blizzards raging at 160km per hour. The highest post on the glacier - the Bana post - is at an altitude of 18,000ft.

In addition to the usual battlefield hazards of getting shot or blown up, frostbite and altitude sickness are also common. Then there is the risk of falling down a crevasse in the soft, hip-deep snow - a problem intensified by the fact that the only way soldiers can get from A to B is on foot.

The reason for this is that bureaucrats spent 18 months sitting on a request from the glacier troops for 10 snowmobiles, before recommending that a special committee be set up to look into it.

When the defence minister, George Fernandes, a colourful maverick, visited the Siachen front line in April, officers evidently bent his ear about the snowmobile problem, and when he came back he was fuming about civil servants' "callousness of the highest order".

His remedy: a standing order for annual procurement of 10 snowmobiles; and sending the three officials responsible "to undergo at least a week's familiarisation with the conditions on the glacier".

Sensing, perhaps, the popularity of this initiative with voters, he subsequently expanded it to embrace all defence ministry officials whose decisions affect soldiers on India's numerous nightmarish front lines.

"Civilian officials," he told reporters, "must go to the Rann of Kutch [a vast expanse of tidal mudflats on the Pakistan border] during the monsoon, to the Rajasthan desert during the height of summer, to Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen, Chushul and the jungles of the North-east, where our soldiers are fighting, to see for themselves what their working conditions are."

Fernandes's crowd-pleasing rhetoric will surely make him the most unpopular minister in Delhi with his officials, although it should not be beyond them to throw up some bureaucratic obstacle that will keep them at their comfortable desks.

What would be even more worthwhile than an endless supply of snowmobiles, however, would be creative thinking about ways to end the war. On Siachen, more than 400 soldiers have been killed since 1984, and over 9,000 injured.