Pepper Paradise

In the wild goose chase for something to replace the deadly darker pellets, the government got pepper and PAVA. As the government is still sending the feedback to its manufacturers about the new munitions efficacy, Saima Bhat explains the riot they ran in city homes

Youngsters run for cover after forces fired a tearsmoke shell in downtown Srinagar. Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Youngsters run for cover after forces fired a tearsmoke shell in downtown Srinagar. Pic: Bilal Bahadur

This is what J&K’s Home Ministry told the state assembly on the new ‘non-lethal’ weapon that is currently in vogue.

“In the wake of the turmoil of 2016 summer, the MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) constituted a committee to explore availability of less lethal riot control equipment,” the government said during the budget discussions about Home Department. “The Committee after thorough deliberations and practical demonstration has submitted its recommendation under which some equipment have been referred to specialized labs for conducting of ballistic and other required tests.”

The response continued: “Out of the demonstrated alternatives, PAVA shells have been received by J&K Police and are being used. The feedback regarding their effectiveness is being compiled for recommendations to the developers and other concerned.”

So every time, a person breathes the nasty PAVA emissions, the person is instantly reducing to be a lab rat, a guinea pig! It is a weapon that is still being tested.

In 2016 summer, informed sources in police said, they have used nearly 15000 shells of teargas, hand-grenade and other smoke emission projectiles. The police used nearly 11,000 pellet shells. As far as pepper and PAVA count goes, police said they used slightly more than 5000 shells.

PAVA was outcome of the Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s efforts to give Kashmir an alternative to eye-gouging pellets. It was by the middle of August 2016 that a seven-member team of MHA started looking at PAVA as an alternative. A chilli-based munitions that momentarily incapacitates the target and renders them immobile for several minutes, this alternative was seen a surefire method to manage the protestors. At the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, a Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) laboratory in Lucknow, experts were working on it for almost a year. Its bulk production was assigned to BSF’s Tear Smoke Unit (TSU) in its Gwalior facility.

Pelargonic Acid Vanillyl Amide (PAVA), also known as Nonivamide, is an organic compound found extracted from chilli pepper. It falls in “above peak” category on the Scoville scale (the degree to measure the power of chilli). Experts suggested many variants, some even combining it with stun and tear shells.

By September 4, 2016, MHA had cleared PAVA and the first consignment of 1000 shells landed within two days. They were used in bulk on the day of Eid and were found quite ineffective. The initial supply had “slow emission rate, low potency and a delayed emission rate” after hitting the ground. The “experts” were back to work to improve the new alternatives.

A policeman firing controversial pellet gun towards civilian protesters in Srinagar.

A policeman firing controversial pellet gun towards civilian protesters in Srinagar.

But as the debate is on for the usage of PAVA shells, the state forces have already got the pepper gas in Kashmir, which has same ingredients as of later. Without any difference to a common man, these chilli based shells left many Kashmiris to run for their lives.

Talking to Kashmir Life police officials, who have been manning the ground for the whole summer, said they are not sure if PAVA helped them manage crowds better. “Unlike streets, these created serious problem in homes,” one of them, talking anonymously, said. “Especially kids and asthma patients suffered the worst.”

Ghulam Mohammad Sofi, 75, suffered an asthmatic attack as forces fired pepper shells in his locality.

Ghulam Mohammad Sofi, 75, suffered an asthmatic attack as forces fired pepper shells in his locality.

Ghulam Mohammad Sofi, 75, a resident of Noorbagh Srinagar, is an asthmatic patient. Bed ridden for last five months, he has been out of his room in September 2016. Immobile, Sofi is restricted to his room having even windows loosely insulated from inside, to the extent that night and day makes no difference inside.

In September, Sofi remembers, protests were going on outside, five minutes’ walk from his house. Cops used PAVA. The smoke managed entry in his room and within minutes Sofi was gasping for breath in an oxygen-deficient room. Chronic coughing returned.

Worried, his family increased the oxygen level but nothing could help Sofi’s breathlessness and it was going worse from bad with his eye sockets turning black.

PAVA normally, irritates eyes to cause tears, pain, and temporary blindness but in case of allergic patients it could lead to their death.

Dr Naveed Nazir, medical superintendent at Chest Diseases hospital, says that the exposure to pepper gas can lead to death or respiratory failure in extreme chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients. “It attacks the mucous parts in our body, like in eyes, nose, throat and chest,” he said.

Waheed, Sofi’s eldest son, contacted the doctor, who confirmed it was a state of ‘respiratory failure’. He suggested his immediate evacuation to hospital to prevent his death.

Without thinking for a second, Waheed shifted generator, oxygen concentrator, oximeter and then Sofi in his car and drove straightaway to Chest Diseases hospital.

The journey was not smooth. On way to the hospital, Waheed had to stop car many times to check Sofi’s oxygen level. A low signal meant to halt for a while and start generator to push in more oxygen supply.

Policemen firing pepper guns towards civilian protesters (not in picture) during clashes in Srinagar.

Policemen firing pepper guns towards civilian protesters (not in picture) during clashes in Srinagar.

“For a normal person the level remains between 95 and 100, but that time my father’s level was below 35,” says Waheed. Managing to drive during ‘golden minutes’, he ironically had to take longest route to avoid more pepper smoke in old city.

It was after three or four hours that Sofi opened his eyes and his family could take a sigh of relief. He remained in hospital for seven days.

Before September 2016, Sofi needed oxygen for 60 minutes once a week but now he is on it 24×7. “My life is not possible without it now,” Sofi said. “My son has joined at least four pipes so that my supply doesn’t stop even if I have to go to washroom.”

Sofis’ got an oxygen concentrator machine, double battery inverter, and a generator just to ensure Sofi’s oxygen supply is uninterrupted.

Sofi was lucky enough to get saved.

A 14-year-old girl, Munaza Rashid, from Soura (Srinagar) was not. She died on November 10, after inhaling PAVA shell smoke, doctors said. Reportedly a three month old infant residing near Jamia Masjid and a pregnant woman from Saraf Kadal too died of suffocation, by inhaling pepper gas. But police sources refuse to take these deaths for pepper shelling. “These shells were shot just to stop protesters. They have a delayed effect but cannot kill a person,” said a DSP rank officer.

The European Parliament Scientific and Technological Options Assessment (STOA) published (in 1998) An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control with extensive information on pepper spray and tear gas. It mentions the effects of pepper spray are far more severe, including temporary blindness, a burning sensation of the skin, upper body spasms and uncontrollable coughing making it difficult to breathe or speak.

Dr Naveed told Kashmir Life that his hospital doesn’t have exact figures of how many patients they received. “During peak summer uprising, this hospital was out of reach for everybody. All patients used to go to their district hospitals or to SMHS hospital. And we don’t have proper statistics of those days to inform how many patients we received.” He says he was himself dependent on an ambulance for his mobility.

“We received many patients from old city and all of them had complaints of chest ailments due to exposure to pepper gas,” one of Naveed’s juniors, not authorised to speak on record,said.”

“Most of those patients were elderly people, children and those suffering from asthma and even policemen used to come frequently.”

A resident of Kani Kadal, 55-year-old Jawairah lives just a few yards away from SMHS hospital, the epicenter of movement past summer. A cardiac patient, she was bed ridden since July 2015. She was passing urine through pipe.

She couldn’t reach hospital when forces started using these shells in the aftermath of Hizb commander Burhan Wani’s death.

Her son, Asif, 35, says that on July 10 when stone pelting was going on, the police opened pepper spray. Within minutes, the smoke filled Jawairah’s room, living barely just 10 steps away from Kani Kadal Bridge.

Jawahira, 55, died of suffocation caused by PAVA shells.

Jawahira, 55, died of suffocation caused by PAVA shells.

“We were four or five people present in that room and we couldn’t stay there because of suffocation,” Asif said. “We were continuously coughing as if we’ll vomit out our lungs. But before leaving I increased her oxygen supply.” He remembers returning to her room just after a minute only to see her struggling hard to breathe.

Asif got a family doctor home who confirmed, that Jawairah has slipped into comma. He couldn’t shift his mother to SMHS hospital because of the tense situation outside. After three days, on July 14, Jawairah died silently in her room. Her son couldn’t inform any of his relatives for the funeral due to communication blockade in Kashmir. He says most of their relatives came for condolences after four or five months.

To ease his mother’s problem, Asif had even requested stone pelters of his area not to pelt stones near his house. “They were generous enough to agree but I couldn’t stop that peppered air. Kashmir had become a gas chamber,” says Asif.

Despite claiming many lives directly or indirectly, MHA has now decided to authorise Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) to procure additional 5000 pellet guns with whooping six lakh cartridges to be used on Kashmiri protesters, claiming the Pava/pepper shells are not ‘effective.’

According to the report, after the Home Ministry’s authorisation for 4,949 pellet guns for CRPF, their total number will rise to 5,589 which will be powered by 6 lakh cartridges. Every CRPF company in J&K will be equipped with nine pellet guns. Around nine pump action guns would be available with every company (around 120 personnel). More than six lakh matching cartridges, commonly referred to as pellet-shots, have also been authorized, up from 1.25 lakh last year.

Excessive use of controversial Pepper, PAVA, Chill shells in residential areas has devastating effect.

Excessive use of controversial Pepper, PAVA, Chill shells in residential areas has devastating effect.

Last summer, more than 6000 civilians, as per health department, including schoolchildren, were blinded after being hit by pellet shots in the eyes and above waist-level, in the mass protests triggered following the killing of a local Hizbul Mujaheedin commander Burhan Wani.

“The pellet guns are one of the many options that we will use when we operate to control protesters in the coming days. PAVA (packed with chilli) shells have a long shelf life and they are good in certain situations. But we have made it clear that the CRPF man on ground will use whatever the situation demands,” outgoing CRPF Director General, K Durga Prasad has said.


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