Ladakh’s UT paradox: Development for whom?

Ladakh is one the largest regions in India with a diverse collection of tribal communities, which has been experiencing political upheavals over the last two years. This has intensified since the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir state on 5 August, 2019. This change has put Ladakhis into a sudden quandary. There has been a diversity of reactions ranging from those who support to ones who oppose the move to make Ladakh the ninth Union Territory (UT) of India through the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019. Generally, the people of Leh district have periodic debates on this issue while the people of Kargil have been asking for reunification with Gilgit-Baltistan to realise the vision of ‘Greater Ladakh’. Interestingly, after the bifurcation of the erstwhile state of J&K, this demand of ‘Greater Ladakh’ has mysteriously disappeared from the public domain.

Initially, some people were excited at the prospect of their long-cherished demand for Union Territory status. However, with each passing day people have started realising the hollowness of the Union Territory structure. Nothing was promised in the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019, to protect the tribal communities and their natural resources from corporates and various opportunists. People are now even more frightened than earlier due to the lack of protection from exploitation of natural resources such as water, land, and the environment in the name of development. The new UT witnessed public outcry within a year of its formation. One of the most heated debates under the ambit of UT has been the demand of inclusion in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. This is now taking the shape of a people’s movement within Ladakh despite a taciturn response from Kargil district.

Several new developments have been taking place in this direction at the regional and central level. In Ladakh, the apex body has been constantly interacting with various stakeholders while at the central level the Home Ministry has appointed a committee headed by Minister of State (Home), G Kishan Reddy. They are expected to submit their report to the Home Ministry in two months. Unfortunately, the apex body has failed to bring all stakeholders onto a single platform to demand inclusion in the Sixth Schedule. The Kargil Democratic Alliance stated in a recent media briefing that their only demand is the restoration of the status of the erstwhile state of J&K along with the special status of Article 370 and 35-A. Some stakeholders have demanded separate statehood for Ladakh.

This sharp ideological difference between the two districts of Ladakh does not bode well for its future. The question remains: Would Ladakh be safe once it is included in the Sixth Schedule? How worried are we about our future? We are not returning to an imagined past of our history. However, it is important for us to scrutinise the paradoxes inherent in various developments that have taken place since Ladakh become a Union Territory.

In recent times, the UT government has initiated several programmes to promote tourism, especially winter tourism, in Ladakh. There is no disputing the fact that tourism is a major contributor to Ladakh’s economy. However, we cannot develop while also causing destruction. We have to choose between development and destruction. An article published in the financial newspaper Mint reportedthat in 2018 a total of 3 27,366 tourists visited Leh district and 101,924 visited Kargil district. This is twice the population of the Ladakh region as a whole. This overflow of tourists hampers the ecological balance of this fragile region. Ladakh’s ecosystem is very sensitive and cannot sustain such a large number of people each year. Unfortunately, many people are not bothered about the environmental destruction caused by tourism.

The efforts to open ecologically-sensitive areas like Pangong-tso and the Chadar Trek for tourists are examples that suggest that we are not true to our claims to save Ladakh’s environment. Despite limited connectivity with the outside world, we continue to witness large number of tourists each year. We can well imagine the destruction and exploitation if the current trend of tourist inflow continues.

Similarly, the government recently announced its intention to establish eight hydropower projects of 144 MW on the Indus river and its tributaries. This is a welcome move to address electricity shortage in the region. However, cloudbursts and heavy rain will endanger villages along the river. This is due to the fact that the landscape in Ladakh does not hold or absorb large amounts of water. Thus, floodwaters will invariably flow into the Indus and ravage adjunct areas.

Interestingly, no political party or socio-religious organisation has so far come forward to express their dissent or disagreements with such decisions. It remains unclear if these projects are meant for Ladakh’s development or for sale outside the region. It is possible that in future the government and other agencies will increase the capacity of these power projects for various reasons and we end up paying a heavy price if and when there are floods, be it displacement of villages along the Indus, loss of fertile soil, ecological imbalance, etc.

Another area of concern is the outsourcing of government recruitment in Ladakh to private agencies. The Administration of Union Territory of Ladakh issued order no 23-LA (PHE/I&FC) of 2021 (08 January 2021) for ‘Deputing Junior Engineers-II appointed through outsourcing to PHE Division, Leh’. This process of outsourcing is a betrayal and an injustice to unemployed youth in Ladakh. Many aspirants who applied for the posts have neither received any confirmation nor been called for an interview by the recruited agency. This process of recruitment lacks transparency.

In a similar case, a private service company called Xeam Venture Pvt Ltd advertised to recruit 200 staff nurses (as claimed in their advertisement) to address manpower shortage in the health sector. This advertisement has not been posted on any of the official websites of UT Ladakh but has been circulating widely through various social media channels. The advertisement is titled, ‘Career Opportunity- Health Care Human Resource Service Openings for Immediate Joining’ and was posted in Facebook groups such as Youth Initiatives Kargil Ladakh (15 December 2020), Ladakh in the Media (15 December, 2020), and Unemployed Youth of Ladakh (16 December, 2020). There is no transparency and nobody knows anything about this company, and if they have been contracted to advertise the nurse posts in Ladakh.

The company too seems to lack transparency and accountability in terms of its screening process. Several candidates claim they have started receiving random emails from the company asking them to deposit a non-refundable security amount equivalent to one month’s salary of around INR 15,000 in advance in the company account. This is rather suspicious. If this is genuine, then this company is expecting to collect 15,000 x 200 = 3,000,000 (Thirty lakh or Three million rupees). If it is not genuine, then the UT Administration should create a system of making clear announcements of openings and if it is hiring private agencies to oversee a process—which would be a gross violation of the trust we have in the government. This unfortunate incident is taking place rather publically over social media and we are all mute spectators. For starters, the UT Administration of Ladakh must stop its obscure practice of outsourcing its recruitment responsibilities to private agencies.

Such developments have become more frequent since Ladakh was declared as a Union Territory. This implies that the people of Ladakh have to remain alert for such challenges to protect our unique jobs and economy as well as our cultural, historical, and environmental heritage. In this regard, we need to be vigilant with regard to decisions being taken by the UT administration in the name of Ladakh’s development. When required we will need to question the logic and purpose for decisions to ensure that we protect the integrity of Ladakhi society.

In addition to the government’s activities, we also need to evaluate our approach as a society. For instance, we will not get far with the hypocritical approach we seem to be avoiding. On the one hand we are demanding protection for Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule and on the other hand we are inviting outsiders in the name of tourism promotion to exploit our resources. We need to be open and clear of our vision, demands and resulting action

By Bashir Ahmad

Bashir Ahmad is a research fellow at Central Institute of Education, Delhi University