The unmaking of Kargil town

We only have to look a century in the past to realise the true beauty of Ladakh. Till as recently as 100 years back, Ladakh had snow-laden mountains, thick juniper forests, clean blue rivers flowing through pristine valleys and wild animals and humans thriving together. In this vast landscape, our wise ancestors chose specific spots for their homes. These homes were made with natural material and south-facing, which enabled them to harness the warmth of the sun. These ancestors toiled to flatten lands for cultivation where they planted local crops while also tending to their livestock. They also framed rules of where houses were to be built. For instance, houses were clustered together for warmth and security. They were never located on the valley floor or on the shady side of mountain slopes, where they would face greater risks of rock-slides and floods. Ladakhi culture is founded on such practical wisdom and a spirit of interdependence between humans and with nature.

In this regard, Kargil had great potential of being developed as a hill resort town for people to recover from the ills of modernity and the heat of the plains. Initially, change was gradual and systematic, which would have resulted in the organic growth of Kargil town. However, sudden economic boom resulted in an avalanche of changes. The resulting prosperity led to an abrupt shift in the general attitude towards the environment. This is evident in haphazard and unplanned construction of houses, hotels, and shops with little regard to topography and time-tested wisdom of our ancestors. This has not only increased our vulnerability to natural disasters, it has also transformed the town into an eyesore. We now have ugly buildings constructed on the best agricultural lands. We no longer have fruit orchards and open spaces, which have been sacrificed on the altar of greed.

We now have a substantial part of Kargil town’s population living in congested and unplanned neighbourhoods that lack basic amenities. We do have various rules and regulations for constructions but the local administration has been lax in enforcing them. As a result, permissions for construction have been granted easily and structures have been built without any planning or foresight.

The town is blessed with a perennial river in the form of the Suru. There were plans to create a beautiful walkway along its banks similar to Srinagar’s Boulevard road. I still remember the open spaces and cultivated fields along the banks of the Suru during my younger days. This area could have been developed into a beautiful crescent-shaped open space or even a public market. It is important to keep the aesthetics in mind, while still meeting practical needs of the town. Instead, of a promenade with street lights, craft shops, cafeterias, and open restaurants, the whole stretch has become a hub for meat shops, timber sellers and hardware shops. Similarly, Kargil town has a beautiful village called Poyen across the Suru. It was once considered the lungs of the town and was a soothing sight in the summer. This village has slowly turned into a slum area, with narrow streets and shabby buildings.

There is a growing demand for residential space in Kargil town due to the influx of people from rural areas for employment and education. Unfortunately, government schools in rural areas are still not at par with their counterparts in the town or with private schools.

This disparity in access to quality education is hurting our society in multiple ways. In addition to adding pressure on the town’s resources, it is also evident in the lack of civic sense amongst the populace. In addition to the government, the common people also bear responsibility for ensuring basic amenities in their neighbourhoods, including roads, water, emergency access, open spaces and playgrounds etc. Quality education is the main pillar of any society. In fact, South African leader Nelson Mandela famously stated, “Destroying any nation does not require use of atomic bombs or the use of long range missiles. But it only requires lowering the quality of education and allowing cheating in examinations by students…The collapse of education is the collapse of the nation.”

We need to develop a thought out plan for housing colonies that adheres to guidelines, rules and regulations. The plan must be developed through consultations of town planners and residents after weighing risks and advantages for each site in the larger landscape. Unfortunately, all these steps have been stubbornly ignored and Kargil town has been disfigured beyond recognition. For instance, we have a beautiful plateau called Kurbathang. It was a deserted and arid area, till a water canal was built to transform it into lush plateau. I still remember when His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Kargil for the first time when the plateau was a desert. When he visited the area once again some years later, he admired the transformation and commented, “This is what real prosperity means!” This beautiful plateau is now being endangered with haphazard development due to the lack of planning.

There is little hope for the future of Kargil town given the current divisions that exist in society. Kargili society is unnecessary divided due to the political aspirations of two religious schools; Islamia School, Kargil and Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust. The resulting divisions run deep through every section of Kargili society. These divisions are most obvious during elections, which are meant to improve governance but devolve into a power struggle every time.

These divisions are fairly recent and are sustained by vested interests who seek to use them to access power, resources and patronage. Unfortunately, the younger generation in Kargil have now become enmeshed into this political division to the detriment of society at large. Ironically, there is actually no real theological difference between the two camps. However, the schism continues to be sustained by self-serving people despite the negative impact it has on our social fabric.

This situation reminds me of a famous Persian proverb, “Do muroq-ra jang baaz, teer gher ra faida ast” (The hunter benefits when two wild birds fight). The wisdom of this proverb is constantly being played out in Kargili society, with opportunistic and self-serving people taking advantage of these divisions. All of this has contributed to the haphazard development of Kargil town.

However, the situation can still be remedied. Any corrective measures will be challenging but not impossible. First of all, we need to eliminate unnecessary social divisions and build consensus by including every section of society irrespective of their political, religious, gender, class affiliations, Social divisions will only lead to the collapse of our society. Our leaders and society members must be compelled to repair such divisions, especially the two dominant religious camps that have torn the society apart. This will be a difficult challenge but it is not impossible. Here each member of our society has a big role to play as a leader is only as good as the people he or she leads, which is evident in another famous Persian proverb, “Awaaz e khalq, naqaara e khuda” (The voice of the people is the voice of God). We thus need to hold our leaders accountable for their actions. This will be the first step in the herculean task of rescuing Kargil town from oblivion. The prosperity and unity of our society will be manifested in the growth of our towns and villages, where the people once again follow rules and respect the wisdom of our ancestors.

Text by Dr. (Kacho) Akbar Khan

Photographs by Dr. (Kacho) Akbar Khan and Kacho Sohrab Khan

Dr (Kacho) Akbar Khan is a retired Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist and is based in Kargil.

Ladakh’s mutilated highway

Roads are the lifeline of a region, especially places like Ladakh that are isolated due to their terrain. In this regard, Ladakh has suffered from neglect over several decades especially in terms of the highway that connects Ladakh with Kashmir and the rest of India. This road travels over Zoji-la and remains open only for a part of the year as it gets blocked by snow in the winter months.

The vehicular road over Zoji-la roughly traces the historical trekking path that people used in the past to travel between Ladakh and Kashmir valley. Around 30 to 40km of this highway remains unpaved and rough to this day. While it traverses some challenging terrain, the road condition has been worsened by the ill-conceived road widening efforts, which has led to seemingly random deforestation and cutting of rocks along this road.

As mentioned earlier, Zoji-la remains impassable through the winter when snow blocks the pass. There has been a longstanding demand to make a tunnel below Zoji-la to provide year-round road connectivity to Ladakh, especially Kargil district which lacks any form of connectivity in the winter except by air from the airport in neighbouring Leh district. The people of Kargil have been demanding a tunnel under Zoji-la for the last 50 years. Unfortunately, Government of India has always been lukewarm to this demand. Given the important role played by Ladakhis, especially in Kargil, during the 1971 and 1999 conflicts with Pakistan, it is pertinent that Government of India fulfils this longstanding demand and builds a tunnel under Zoji-la without further delay. In addition, the tunnel will also help India strengthen connectivity with Ladakh, which remains a geo-strategically important frontier region for India.

I have also failed to understand why a major part of the current road has been built on the sheltered slopes of the mountain, which remain in the shade. This includes the stretch from Gumberi to Mina Marg and from Thusgam to Kargil. In these areas, the snow remains longer than areas that receive direct sunlight. These areas are also more prone to rockslides. The snow on the other face melts faster and it is generally less rocky and poses fewer risks. The journey along this road will be much more comfortable and safer if this road is planned better and built on the other side of the slope.

The Zoji-la tunnel is crucial in terms of national security. An alternative road exists from Drass over Umba-la to Sanku that was made after the Kargil War in 1999 when the main highway came under shelling along parts of its route. However, this road is also visible from across the Line of Control and remains within shelling range. It addition it also passes over a relatively high and difficult pass, remains covered by snow in the winter, and passes through uninhabited areas with no rest-stops or other facilities as compared to the original road. Currently, the route is popular only with biking and trekking groups, and not used by general traffic. Government of India might be satisfied that there is a second route to link Ladakh via Manali in Himachal Pradesh. However, this route has many passes, which are covered by snow each winter and a major part of the route travels through uninhabited areas. So while this road is a viable alternative route, it is relatively more difficult than the road over Zoji-la.

Thankfully, Ladakh receives relatively little rainfall. Otherwise, the Kargil-Leh road would be closed after each shower. This road also lacks basic infrastructure. For instance, you will see a closed circuit camera in Khaltse market but it is a major challenge to find a rest area or wash room and a clean drinking water point. Who should be responsible for such basic necessities: The road authorities or the notified area community?

Perhaps one of the problems with roads in Ladakh is that important persons, decision-makers and policy-makers who visit Ladakh no longer use this highway. They generally opt to fly in and out of Leh. As a result, none of them have a first-hand experience of the challenges posed by the current road infrastructure in Ladakh. In my opinion, such first-hand experience would make a big difference and would be instrumental in the development of Zoji-la tunnel and to improve the conditions of roads in Ladakh.

Unfortunately, despite repeated demands from the people of Ladakh and our so-called leaders, we are nowhere close to a tunnel below Zoji-la. If this tunnel were to become a reality, it will address many of the problems people face in Ladakh. This includes sourcing fresh vegetables and fruits, access to medical facilities, sourcing of construction material, travel option for students studying outside Ladakh etc. Most importantly, the tunnel will strengthen India’s national security interests, especially in the context of Pakistan and China with which Ladakh shares a frontier.

The funds that have been allotted for road widening in Ladakh over the last few decades, would probably suffice to make tunnels under Zoji-la , Namika-la, Foto-la (on the Kargil-Leh route), Khardzong-la (which connects Leh town with Nubra valley) and Pensi-la.(between Kargil and Zangskar).

The current ‘widened’ highway between Kargil and Leh is dotted with warnings of ‘stone pelting area’, ‘slide prone area, ‘sharp curve’, ‘accident-prone area’ etc. If these are known challenges along the road, why have measures not been implemented to mitigate these risks? Or, have these problems arisen due to damage caused to the mountain-faces on which these roads are located?

In this matter, we must keep national security as our main focus along with providing services to local communities. In this regard, India is far behind its eastern neighbour, China, which is said to have built quality motorable roads right till its frontier regions. Similarly, China has constructed a railway line traversing 2,000 km to connect the Tibetan Autonomous Region with Beijing. This railway line traverses tough terrain with dramatic temperature variations and climatic conditions. Interestingly, this railway line remains operational throughout the year. Similarly, the Karakoram highway, which connects Sinkiang (Xinjiang) and Pakistan while traversing through the mighty Karakoram mountain range, also remains open throughout the year.

During my own travels in Malaysia, I have driven on the highway between the capital Kuala Lumpur and the tropical highland region of Genting. Around 90 km of this highway passes through thick rainforest and hilly terrain. However, this road has been built without damaging the environment around it and where some intervention was not-avoidable, one can see that mitigation measures have been implemented. Since Malaysia is a tropical country, it receives heavy rains. The road design has taken these factors into account to ensure that the road is safe, beautiful, and environment-friendly. I cannot help wondering why we are not able to show the same foresight and sensitivity in our infrastructure projects in Ladakh.

Photograph and text by Dr. (Kacho) Akbar Khan

Dr (Kacho) Akbar Khan is a retired Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist and is based in Kargil.

The human immune system

In the wake of the coronovirus, there is a lot of discussion about the human body’s immune system. The immune system or immunity is the human body’s strong in-built defence mechanism.This immune systemis a collection of cells and various organsthat work together to form the body’s defence system. The organs that play a key role in the immune system include the spleen, bone marrow, lymphatic system,etc. Together all of them manufacture cells such as white blood cells (WBCs), which are otherwise known as leucocytes, phagocytes, T lymphocytes, and B lymphocytes.

The B lymphocytes and T lymphocytesare manufactured in the bone marrow. Once they have been created, the lymphocyte cells may remain in the bone barrow and become B lymphocytes. Others go to the thymus gland, situated in the neck on the thyroid gland, where they undergo ‘commando’ trainingand become T lymphocytes. These T lymphocytes are known as killer cells. The B lymphocytes serve as the intelligence gathering arm of the immune system. They locate the invader, including ones that are new to the body, judge the kind of damage it can cause to the body, orders the soldier cells (T lymphocytes) to go to the site and kill the invader. The order is followed immediately and the antigen (something new to the body) is destroyed. The specially-formed force of antibodies remainson alert in case they are needed again. Thus whenever an antigen enters the body, the immune system uses a diversity of forces to counter the invasion.

In my opinion, most Ladakhis have a strong immune system. The reason I make this assumption is that till about two or three decades back, the lifestyle in Ladakh was rather tough and to an extent, unhygienic. We lived along with our livestock and often drank from the same water sources. The current drinking water supply system is relatively new. Children would play with sheep and goat, which we assumed would help them stay warm. Children would play in the streets through the day, while the adults worked in the fields or herded the livestock for grazing. Irrespective of everything else, very few people, be it an adult or a child, were in the habit of washing their hands. And when people did wash hands, it was generally with plain water as soap was a luxury.

In comparison, people in developed countries have been living in relatively sterile conditions. For instance, they would not be sharing drinking water with their livestock like we did till fairly recently. Even their cattle live in relatively sterilised conditions!

In January 2020, I visited Vietnam with my son. We crisscrossed the country from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh in the south and also visited other places like the Mekong river delta. We ate a lot of Vietnamesefoodacross the country including street food. Even the street food was so sterilised that I started to suspect that the immune system of the average Vietnamese must be relatively weak. We stayed in a good hotel where hygiene and cleanliness were a priority. Unfortunately, such living standards decrease the body’s immunity even if we would have inherited some generic immunity. However, that is a discussion for a different time and place.

There were no cases of coronavirus in Vietnam while we were there. However, as we reached India, coronavirus was starting to appear on the news. As a precaution, my son and I visited Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in New Delhi where many of my batch mates are practicing. There both of us were tested and checked and received a clean chit.

In Ladakh, till the recent past, most of us were economically impoverished and lacked various facilities, clothes, food, warm living facilities, access to medical facilities etc. Most of us relied on traditional medicinal practitioners like the Amchi to cure various ailments. Despite this material poverty, people were eco-friendly and innovative.

At that time, small pox was the most horrifying communicable disease that a person could contract and many people died of it. Once someone contracted small pox, he or she would not be allowed to remain at home. They would be takento a designated place such as nearby cave or facility. They would remain here and be given food and water once or twice a day. Here they were left on the mercy of the gods like a wrecked ship in a storm. Amazingly, some patients did recover from this dreaded disease and would return to the village to rejoin normal life.

Infants and new-borns would generally be kept in hand-made half-open woollen bags called Tsemboo. Dried and powdered goat dung would be placed in the Tsemboo. A stone would be put in fire and when it was warm, it would be placed in the goat dung. Once the dung was warm, the stone would be removed and the baby would be placed in the Tsemboo. When a child would get a delicate bruise, we would apply fine goat powder where people today apply talcum powder. Infants were actually fed, if not intentionally, very small quantities of tetanus and gas gangrene. Both of these are deadly diseases that are caused by various Clostridium sp bacteria. However, when a very miniscule amount of sub-clinical dose of the organism entered the body of a baby, it would trigger the immune system to manufacture counter measures against this antigen. This would provide a degree of immunity that would remain in the body for a lifetime.

At the time, pregnant women would work in the agricultural field, take livestock grazing in the mountains and perform all sorts of heavy tasks. There are stories of ladies giving birth in a field, in the mountains or wherever they were working when the labour pain started. The delivery would sometimes be done by the mother alone or with the help of other ladies if they were present at the time. The child would then be brought home in a Tsepo (a multipurpose traditional basket) with grass covering the baby. Once home, the mother would be allowed to rest and be fed nutritious food for the next few weeks. There were no medical facilities at the time and there are reports of some ladies losing their lives during childbirth.

In the past, the used powdered goat dung would be thrown in the field as form of manure. In contrast, we nowadays use disposal diapers. Unfortunately such diapers are expensive and harm the environment when they are disposed. It is rare to see someone wash and reuse cloths napkins nowadays. Furthermore, the use of powdered goat dung also helped prevent, or atleast reduced the incidence, of some deadly diseases.

As an ENT specialist, I have seen only one case of tetany and that was in a non-local labourer who had a minor injury on his finger on which he had applied soil. In another case about 20 years ago, there was a patient from Garkone who had a superficial head injury on which he had applied fresh cow dung. He died in Sonam Norboo Memorial Hospital in Leh.

I have seen horrible wounds on different body parts. Many of them were not cleaned while others had tried to apply a burning cloth piece on it or dung powder or soil. Many of these wounds would heal and only leave a scar. Once in the 1990s, a labourer came to me with a horrible wound on his foot. He had managed to hit his foot with a pick axe, which had cut through the shoe and made a deep cut through his foot. He insisted that I just do a dressing to stop the bleeding. He refused to allow me to give him an injection of T. Toxoid and also did not agree to take antibiotics and pain killers. He was confident that he had the mental and physical strength to recover. In fact, he did not return to change the wound dressing for several days. I was rather surprised but his wound healed but left an ugly scar that does not seem to bother him.

These are things we can continue discussing and studying. During this time of crisis, we must remain hopeful. Please don’t panic or get stressed as this will only suppress your immune system. All of us must adopt all the precautionary and preventive measures advised by medical science and directed by Government of India. Hopefully everything will be fine soon but we must remember this episode as a warning sign to correct our errant ways.

By Dr (Kacho) Akbar Khan.

Dr (Kacho) Akbar Khan is a retired Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist and is based in Kargil.