State of higher education in Ladakh

On 11 June, 2020, the Ministry of Human Resource Development released its fifth edition of the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) of Indian universities in which University of Kashmir and University of Jammu were ranked 48 and 52 respectively. Higher education in J&K is gradually improving with numerous central and state educational institutions. Currently, there are 154 government degree colleges, 208 private colleges and 25 professional colleges affiliated to various universities functioning in J&K. It also has eight government universities and three semi-government universities. This includes University of Jammu, University of Kashmir, two central universities, two cluster universities, and two Sher-i-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST-J and SKUAST-K). All these universities have a presence in Jammu as well as Kashmir regions. In addition, institutions such as Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University (SMVDU), Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University (BGBU), Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (IIIM), Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), and National Institute of Technology (NIT) are also present in J&K.

Astonishingly, it took the government of the erstwhile state of J&K more than 70 years to establish the first university in its largest, remotest, and most-isolated region: Ladakh. This long-standing demand from the people of Ladakh was fulfilled in 2018 when State Administrative Council headed by the former Governor of the erstwhile state, Shri Satya Pal Malik approved a bill to establish a cluster university in the region. It was announced that the varsity would be headquartered in Leh with five colleges (presently six) that were affiliated to Kashmir University included as constituent colleges.

This announcement came after a struggle by the people of Ladakh over several decades. The region has been neglected for seven decades in all aspects of development including education, health and basic infrastructure. Ladakh has suffered this travesty since independence as the state assembly was Kashmir-centric and remained excluded in the constant tug-of-war between Kashmir and Jammu for resource allocation.

This discriminatory attitude towards the Ladakh region was highlighted by the current Member of Parliament from Ladakh, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal in the Parliament during the debate on the abrogation of Article 370. As he mentioned in his speech, the first college in Ladakh was established in Leh district in 1994 followed by one in Kargil in 1995.

The absence of higher education opportunities in the region has compelled thousands of Ladakhi students to migrate outside each year to study. The education-driven migration was inevitable and has led to many hardships in terms of emotional pressure, health challenges, financial burden, and detachment from the family. The political leadership in the state were responsible for this state of affairs and the leaders in Ladakh remained silent on this issue for a long time.

Movement to demand a university

The demand for a full-fledged university in Ladakh started in the early 2010s when Ladakhi students started protesting in Jammu. As the protests intensified, it caught the attention of national and state media. All political and religious organisations in Kargil and Leh districts were united in supporting this demand. This was reflected in a complete shutdown of Kargil and Leh markets, which reflected the importance of having a university in Ladakh. In 2011, the Higher Education Department sanctioned two new colleges in Zangskar (Kargil) and Nubra (Leh).

In 2015, University of Kashmir established two satellite campuses in Kargil and Leh to make higher education more accessible for people in Ladakh at the cost of 29 and 27 crores respectively. The Leh campus became functional in 2015 and offered post-graduate courses in Geology, MBA in Tourism, and English and integrated courses like BBA-MBA, B.Sc-M.Sc Geology. However, this campus failed to attract students. However, the Kargil campus was very popular with more than 350 students enrolling in various courses. The Kargil campus offers courses in Information Technology, Arabic, and Botany. Later, two more colleges were sanctioned; one in Drass (Kargil district) in 2018, and one in Khaltsi (Leh district) in 2019. However, courses at these colleges were not expanded in this period and Ladakhi students continued to travel outside to pursue higher studies.

Despite these changes, things did not change much on the ground. The affiliation of these colleges with University of Kashmir turned into a horrendous experience for the students. There were prolonged delays and frequent postponements of examinations due to unrest in Kashmir, which negatively impacted their studies. As a result, it would take more than four years to complete a three-year undergraduate programme. This meant students would end up losing a precious year of their lives. In addition, students faced other challenges such as having to travel to Srinagar for all their paperwork and certificates. It is not surprising that this frustrated many students who sometimes ended up bribing lower officials to get their work done as fast as possible. All this led students to register complaints, hold protests and send appeals to the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Councils in Kargil and Leh and other leaders to address this issue.

Post re-organisation of J&K state

After the bifurcation of the former state into two union territories, the authorities at University of Kashmir handed over its satellite campus in Leh and Kargil to the administration of UT Ladakh. While the government fulfilled the long-standing demand for a university in Ladakh, it somehow remains an illusion till it becomes a full-fledged university. At present, the six constituent colleges of the University of Ladakh include degree colleges in Leh, Kargil, Nubra, Zangskar, Khaltsi, and Drass.

Former Governor of the erstwhile state, Shri Satya Pal Malik appointed former Chief Secretary of the state, Shri C. Phunsog as the first Vice-Chancellor of University of Ladakh (UoL), Shri Imteeaz Kacho, a KAS officer, as Registrar, and Shri Deskyong Namgyal, In-charge Principal, Eliezer Joldan Memorial College, Leh as the Controller of Examination. The first syndicate meeting of UoL was held on 26 November, 2019.

As of 2020, UoL has introduced only 10 PG courses. In Kargil, the PG courses include Arabic, Botany, Chemistry, English, and Information Technology, while in Leh the courses include Zoology, Geology, Mathematics, Commerce, and Tourism and Travel Management. In addition to these, two integrated PG Courses are offered too: Economics in Kargil and Sociology in Leh.

Thus, very few subjects have been introduced so far, which cannot meet the educational demands of Ladakhi students. A bulk of the students are pursuing undergraduate programmes in various colleges in Ladakh and are studying Humanities and Social Sciences courses. They would then be forced to migrate outside if they want to pursue higher studies as they have no options in Ladakh. UoL has not started a PG course for major subjects such as Commerce, Education, Geography, History, Hindi, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Social work, Urdu, etc. It is critical that UoL starts PG courses in subjects that are taught at the undergraduate level at the earliest. The employability and the scope of each subject must be considered before starting new courses. Several public sector jobs have a master’s degree as a basic requirement. In this regard, only a full-fledged University will fill this gap and provide opportunities to aspiring students.

Way forward

The history of educational migration by Ladakhis in search of quality education will continue to exert pressure on UoL for the time being. The greatest challenge before UoL authorities is to retain Ladakhi students within the region, especially for colleges located in more remote areas. Despite being established in 2011, the colleges in Zangskar and Nubra have failed to attract sufficient students. In 2020-21, these colleges have 62 and 43 students respectively, which is extremely low. In contrast, the college in Drass attracted a fairly large number of students (190) in the first year of its establishment.

Many students may prefer to stay in Ladakh if they have access to quality education, choice of subjects, good infrastructure, and well-qualified teachers. It will take time for UoL to develop into a full-fledged university as it is still in its nascent stage.

The UoL must devote resources to build relevant infrastructure to augment the needs of its students. This includes sports’ infrastructure, digital library, access to online resources, laboratories etc. It must also conduct seminars, conferences, and workshops regularly to help students hone their academic skills, gain valuable experience and stay updated with developments the world over. In this regard, UoL must also organise educational tours and exchange programmes for its students.

UoL must also develop state-of-the-art hostel facilities for boys and girls on all its campuses. This will provide viable options to students who can choose to study at any of the colleges. In addition to academic pursuits, UoL must also encourage extra-curricular activities for all-round growth. In this regard, UoL must adopt best practices from different universities around the world. It must develop at a very fast pace unlike other universities in the erstwhile state. We have to open admissions to all students inside and outside Ladakh. Higher education in Ladakh must also be made affordable to ensure that all students are able to pursue their educational aspirations. UoL must explore the possibility of extending free or highly subsidised education to students who cannot afford the expenses. This can also be done by providing scholarships to such students. All this can become a reality in a few years only if the UT administration provides financial resources to the Higher Education Department.

It would be rather simplistic to conclude that the current status of higher education in Ladakh is not encouraging. It is still in its infancy. Ladakh still does not have colleges for medicine, engineering, Bachelor of Education (B. Ed.), dentistry, paramedicine, nursing etc. It will take at least a decade to establish these colleges in Ladakh. Until then, the UTs of Ladakh and J&K must develop a harmonious environment to admit Ladakhi students in various educational institutions in J&K.

The current notification from University of Jammu categorically states that only domicile residents of J&K can apply for various courses. Similarly, the J&K Board of Professional Entrance Examinations ‘advised’ applicants to submit a domicile certificate along with their online applications for various courses.

In my opinion, students of Ladakh must be permitted to apply at all educational institutions in the UT of J&K till Ladakh is able to develop its own facilities. The LAHDCs along with the UT administration of Ladakh must discuss this issue with the Ministry of Home Affairs and UT of J&K. The reservation for Ladakhi students at NIT, Srinagar is a welcome step by Government of India. This should be extended to all institutions in UT of J&K to ensure that Ladakhi students do not suffer and can continue their higher studies.

In the meantime, UoL must ensure that it stays true to the basic goal of society, which changes with time. It should not only impart formal knowledge but also play a fundamental role in shaping a student’s perspective.

By Ghulam Mustafa

Ghulam Mustafa is a doctoral scholar in the Department of Economics at University of Jammu

Ladakhi students at crossroads

Right from the beginning of 2020, the people of Ladakh have been forced to come out on the roads to demand safeguards for their newly-born Union Territory (UT).More than eight months have passed since UT Ladakh was carved out of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and was granted UT status without a Legislative Assembly. A series of discussions, debates and protests have been going on in and outside Ladakh for the past eight months with student community taking the lead.

The protests intensified in the wake of the Ministry of Home Affair’s categorical refusal to include Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, despite an explicit recommendation to this effect from the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST). The stated reason, as mentioned in the Parliament, was that the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils (LAHDCs) have more powers than autonomous councils under the Sixth Schedule. Even a passing effort to fact check this claim reveals that this argument has no truth either in its logic or actual ground reality.

The people of Ladakh are demanding constitutional mechanisms to safeguard their interests including protection of land, environment, jobs, and culture to conserve the unique ethnic identity of the region. Demography-related changes are a potential challenge as Ladakh has a large surface area in relation to its relatively small population of around 300,000 people. Considering these issues, people in Ladakh are exploring various provisions and constitutional measures to protect the interests of the tribal communities that make up 98% of Ladakh’s population and gain a degree of autonomy over administration and legislation.

The silence broke when Ladakh student communities learnt of short-sighted changes that had been ‘imposed’ on the region. What started out as whispers among educated Ladakhi youth inside and outside Ladakh soon turned into loud roar with people demanding justice and protection of their interest.

The lack of access to quality higher education in Ladakh has resulted in the mass migration of students from Ladakh to various universities and colleges across India. Every year hundreds of Ladakhi students enrol at various colleges, universities and institutions partly through open categories and partly through reservations explicitly meant for Ladakhis. Such measures are based on the principle of ‘Positive Discrimination’. Many colleges and universities such as government medical colleges, government engineering colleges, University of Jammu and others are now under the jurisdiction of UT of J&K. If students from Ladakh are not allowed to enroll in these colleges and universities from the next academic session on account of being categorised as ‘outsiders’ i.e. not the bonafide residents of UT of J&K, then it is grave injustice for these students. There are no medical and engineering colleges in Ladakh as of now and the government degree colleges in Ladakh are not yet at par with colleges in J&K. The ambiguous status of University of Ladakh does not help this situation either.

This has also fuelled apprehensions about possible loss of public employment opportunities within the newly-formed UT Ladakh. Unemployment continues to plague Ladakhi society, which is still developing. The number of public sector employment opportunities that Ladakhi students enjoyed in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir is going to reduce drastically in UT Ladakh.

In the erstwhile state of J&K, J&K Public Service Commission and J&K Service Selection Board used to advertise a large number of gazetted and non-gazetted posts at the state, divisional level and district level to cater to the needs of 1.25 crore (12.5 million) people of the former state. Apart from these two recruiting agencies, various other departments would also advertise jobs. The two LAHDCs would also advertise jobs at the district level that were explicitly meant for bonafide residents of their respective districts apart from seats reserved for Scheduled Castes.

Tribal communities account for around 98% of UT Ladakh’s population. They enjoyed reservations in accordance to the J&K Reservation Act, 2004 in government jobs, which has benefitted the people of the region. Under this act, reservation for STs was 10% while the national mandate for reservation for STs 7.5%. Reservation benefits through the Residents of Backward Areas (RBA) category were also available to the people of Ladakh. The J&K Reservation Act, 2004 was rather progressive. It had a provision that if a sufficient number of candidates from any reserved category were not available during the recruitment process, the post would remain vacant and carried forward to the next recruitment process. Thus, the people of Ladakh had many viable options to get a government job in the erstwhile state of J&K: open merit basis as well as ST and RBA categories for state, divisional and district level jobs.

It is clearly stated in the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019 that the Union Public Service Commission or UPSC will cater to the administrative needs of UT Ladakh. This has already exerted a lot of pressure on Ladakhi students aspiring for jobs as recruitment for posts in Ladakh through UPSC may put Ladakhis at a disadvantage. One only needs to look at the abysmal success rate for UPSC applicants from the erstwhile state of J&K. The success rate for Ladakhi applicants in these examinations is worse than that of the other two regions of the former state. The level of competition is very high and students face intense pressure to perform; which has pushed many of them into acute depression. The absence of a private sector in Ladakh and the lack of safeguards for job reservation for Ladakhis will only aggravate this situation.

When we compare employment prospects in the erstwhile state and UT Ladakh, one finds that the current framework undermines opportunities for Ladakhi youth. Government employees of the erstwhile state of J&K were given a choice of choosing either of the two UTs to continue their duties. Many people hailing from Ladakh who were posted in Jammu region and Kashmir valley opted to serve in UT Ladakh. In many departments, staff strength has exceeded the necessary strength. The transfer of non-Ladakhi government employees to UT J&K may address this issue to an extent. At the same time, we must remember that this can be further complicated by the absence of proper legislation to regulate recruitment. In its absence, employment remains open to non-residents of Ladakh, which will undermine the employment prospects of Ladakhi youth.

Like other Indian states and Union territories, Ladakh must work out legislative mechanisms to ensure fair job opportunities in the region for local communities. It urgently needs to formulate its own reservation policy to ensure that the brightest minds in this region do not miss out on opportunities due to lack of support. The reservation policy for Ladakh should be based on economic, social and demographic characteristics of the region itself. Moreover the formation of Ladakh Public Service Commission could be one step to organise the employment sector in the region and coordinate every government job in the UT to ensure fair opportunities to the youth and students of Ladakh.

The scope of public employment opportunities in Ladakh is not very lucrative but it needs to be reserved to protect the interest of the resident population. There is an urgent need to address this issue. Policymakers, parliamentarians and other decision-makers must keep the plight of Ladakhi students in mind before they make any laws related to domicile status and job reservation. Till we have high quality medical, engineering, and other colleges and universities in Ladakh, students from the region should be allowed to enrol in institutions of UT J&K. We need to maintain status quo till UT Ladakh develops its own recruitment policy. Similarly, Ladakhi students must be permitted to apply for jobs in UT J&K till these issues are ironed out.

There are provisions in neighbouring states like Himachal Pradesh that reserves certain jobs for students who have completed their matriculation and secondary school education (10 + 2) from Himachal Pradesh for jobs advertised for residents of the state. This can easily be replicated in J&K as a majority of Ladakhi students have completed their education under the JKBOSE system.

In the current circumstances, many students are facing a lot of stress and anxiety due to the lack of employment. We must develop a harmonious working environment for governmental services between the two UTs. The mandarins in Delhi must consider the consequences of their action before they formulate new laws or policies.

Editor’s note: This article was written before the new domicile law for Jammu and Kashmir came into effect in March 2020.

By Ghulam Mustafa

Ghulam Mustafa is a doctoral scholar in the Department of Economics at University of Jammu.