Life in the Anthropocene

Recently, there was an announcement over an FM radio channel that the authorities in Ladakh have issued an order to restrict the movement of ‘stray domestic animals’ on the streets of Leh town. The justification is that they pose a threat to the movement of vehicles, especially ones related to tourism. This reminded me of the way India is portrayed in western films, which often include scenes with stray cows wandering the streets. This seems rather clichéd and inaccurate. Though this imagery is exaggerated, it does have a grain of truth. It seems to depict a developing India. Although their intention is to introduce some humour, this image does raise the question on why stray animals are on the streets!

Of late, the streets of Leh too resemble that of the rest of the country. Over the last five years, we are observing many animals, especially donkeys and cows, on the roads of Leh town. This can be for two reasons: Either they don’t have a place to be in or we are intruding into their spaces. For me, the latter seems very likely.

Imagine being an animal in Leh. Say, a cow, donkey or a dog about say five years back. There were dedicated spaces for animals everywhere where they could graze or rest. They were village commons and served as green corridors along Tokpos (streams) and Yuras (water channels). During summers, when the Lorapa system (field guarding system) was active, anyone could graze animals in these spaces as long as they had people herding the livestock. Most of these spaces have vanished over the last five to ten years and transformed into enclosed structures. Similar spaces that were called Charakhas were also village commons and have now been turned into community spaces and halls for social gatherings. We now have a community hall at every corner of Leh town, which may not always be the wisest use of resources. The Chhu-lams have been converted to concrete footpaths, roads for motor vehicles, or tiled surfaces. Water channels have been reinforced with concrete, which does not blend with nature or look appealing. As a result, no vegetation grows there anymore and there is nothing for animals to eat.

Like humans, animals too don’t like being in captivity. My family owned donkeys, cows, dZos until 10 years back. We also had goats and sheep until some 30 years back. Now we only have cows. We lost one cow to a road accident, which we deduced based on its injuries. We lost another one to electrocution in 2023. That is when I discovered that this is a common occurrence during the rainy season. I have heard that Power Distribution Department does provide monetary compensation for lives lost.

Our donkeys would vanish for months and then return home when it was cold outside. At other times, they would return home to give birth and once the foal was able to stand, and barely walk, they would vanish once again. This means these animals not only need food but also require freedom, security and love. Their sense of being is as strong as humans. We have an urban and modern life for now. We are enjoying high-speed 100mbps internet and milking cows by hand at the same time. Many families who own land in Leh still cultivate vegetables using organic methods and their sons and daughters drive their produce in modern cars for sale in Leh market.

Coming back to animals on the streets, we need to remember that animal rights extend beyond the prevention of physical harm. It encompasses the right to live without unnecessary interference in their natural behaviour. It is our duty to protect them, maintain speed limits especially on rural roads and create public awareness on these issues. By acknowledging their rights and adopting steps to minimise negative impacts, we can have a more harmonious coexistence between humans and animals to nurture our shared environment. Many humans are aggressive and hostile towards animals such as dogs based on their perceptions, prejudices, and fear. This in turn, makes the dogs suspicious and hostile towards humans. In this regard, the registration of pets like dogs with the authorities is a good idea to keep a watch on their health and vaccination status. However, charging a fee might discourage some people from keeping pets or registering them.

Animal rearing and farming are inter-related. They play a crucial role in providing food security, promoting a healthy lifestyle, and should be prioritised over building hotels and guesthouses on agricultural land. Agriculture not only nourishes society but also contributes significantly to public health and the prevention of lifestyle diseases. Agriculture is the backbone of food production, providing essential staples like grains, fruits, vegetables, and livestock products. Encouraging farming ensures a steady food supply. Such produce are rich in essential nutrients and promote a balanced diet and prevent malnutrition. A diet centred around locally grown foods contributes to better health. Farm-fresh, unprocessed foods are a cornerstone of preventing lifestyle diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. These conditions are often linked to diets high in processed and fast foods.

Agriculture also generates income and employment opportunities for rural communities, helping reduce poverty and improve the livelihoods of countless individuals. Farming supports diverse ecosystems and provides essential habitats for various species. While tourism and hospitality have a role to play, we must prioritise the long-term well-being of society by encouraging responsible farming and food production. Balancing these needs can promote healthier communities, reduce the burden of lifestyle diseases, and secure the future of our food supply. Farming and animal rearing are sustainable businesses unlike hotel and guesthouses. The adoption of a rule that animals will not be allowed to roam on streets, even if it is justified in the basis of them disturbing traffic or dirtying the streets, is counterproductive. We have to find a way to coexist. Such laws may discourage people from rearing animals or keeping pets in their house, which in turn may undermine agricultural practices in the long-term.

By Dr. Spalchen Gonbo

Dr Spalchen Gonbo is a Paediatrician based in Ladakh

The arrogant Ladakhi: Myth or reality?

Tourism has emerged as the backbone of Ladakh’s economy over the last few decades. Hoteliers, guest-house owners, shopkeepers, antique-dealers, pony-men, guides, taxi drivers and a significant section of society depend on tourism for their livelihood. There has been a dramatic growth in tourism over the last decade and a half. This is reflected in the mushrooming of hotels and guest houses and an increase in the number of commercial vehicles. This has made tourism in Ladakh a fairly tough and competitive business sector.

In 2022, more than 500,000 tourists visited Ladakh, which marks the highest number of visitors in a year so far. However, the number of tourists has fallen to less than half that number, and as summer winds down the tourist season is also about to end. As a result of this downturn, many hotels have closed early this year and many hoteliers have discharged their staff members or limited the number of hotel staff. Initially, people solely blamed the cancellation of Go Air flights and the resulting increase in airfares to Leh for the downturn. However, even after airfares decreased the number of tourists in Ladakh remained low. This resulted in anxiety among people in the tourism sector. Many people started arguing that Ladakh is not a sustainable tourism destination. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that there are many factors that have caused the downturn in tourism. We need to identify these reasons, analyse them and introspect over them.

Most visitors perceive Ladakh primarily as a tourist destination. The dominant perception is that Ladakh is an expensive destination, especially in terms of transportation. I have heard people comment that for the amount of money required to visit Ladakh one can travel to an international destination such as Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok.

Many people have enjoyable holidays in Ladakh but there are many others who have had bad experiences while travelling in the region. This does not mean that the people in the tourism sector are bad. In fact, most people are polite, honest, and sensible people. I remember an incident that took place in 2021. A Ladakhi taxi driver found a mobile phone somewhere in Changthang. He along with a friend traced the owner of the phone to his address in Mumbai. The phone contained important personal data and information. The owner of the phone was happy and relieved to get the phone back. He offered the taxi driver Rs 50,000 for his efforts and honesty. However, the latter refused and finally accepted Rs 10,000 as the person insisted on giving him some sort of reward.

However, the misbehaviour, greed, arrogance and conduct of a few people in Ladakh gives the whole region a bad name. For instance, the number of tourists doubled in 2022 as compared to preceding years and many people expected this to remain stable for the next few years. Some decided to take advantage of this. I have seen some hoteliers who increased the cost of food at their restaurants, some even doubling it over existing rates, without necessarily improving the menu. Travel agencies who use these hotels for clients were confused and irritated by this sudden increase in rates.

I have also heard reports that some proprietors at Pangong-tso would pretend that their tents were fully occupied even for clients who had pre-booked tents through their agency. It is difficult to sleep in the open at an altitude of 12,000 feet above mean sea level. These tented accommodations are generally priced at Rs 5,000 per night. However, these unscrupulous proprietors would claim they were full to push the price up and the tourists were desperate enough to pay Rs 10,000 a night for a tent. The clients complained to the agency on their return and the agency in turn cancelled future night stay at these establishments at Pangong-tso. Thus, these proprietors had to pay a high price for their greed and dishonesty.

Similarly, many taxi drivers removed the luggage carrier from their vehicles to reduce its loading capacity. In addition, they would only take four passengers even though the administration had permitted them to ferry six passengers at a time. In addition, many drivers were reluctant to pay the customary commission given to hoteliers. Furthermore, many taxi drivers are hesitant to take clients for local sightseeing around Leh town as they earn more for trips to Nubra and Pangong-tso. Consequently, those who do agree for local sightseeing trips have started charging more than the prescribed rate.

I have heard of an incident where a taxi driver charged a couple INR 2,000 for the journey from Leh airport to their hotel located 4 km away. He took them to their hotel through a roundabout route. The couple later discovered that the trip should have cost them Rs 500. I have also heard some hotel owners speak about how some drivers complain that their clients take “too many photographs” on the way and waste their time. There was also one incident where a driver insisted on smoking cigarettes in the vehicle in the presence of his passengers.

Such experiences create a very bad impression of Ladakh and its people. Most successful businesspersons would agree that honesty, uprightness and mutual trust are prerequisites for success. This is also reflected in popular culture with the fable that warns us against killing the ‘goose that lays golden eggs’. The fable talks about a greedy person killing the goose to collect all the golden eggs at one go to become wealthy in an instant. The fable ends in certain doom for such a greedy person. We must pay heed to the wisdom of this fable.

Thus, one should resist any temptation to fleece tourists. In the long term, this will certainly ruin tourism as a whole. In addition, it will also have adverse impacts on society. Thus, exorbitant airfares may have contributed to the downturn in tourism but it is imperative that we also reflect on our own weaknesses and shortcomings. Self-reflection and constructive criticism are important qualities for long-term success.

Prior to independence, Ladakh was open for tourism and in the summers, a limited number of tourists, around 200-300, would visit the region. They would stay in the region for longer periods than tourists nowadays and later write about their experiences. There are hundreds of travelogues written by these travellers through the 19th and early 20th Centuries, which provide us with a wealth of insights into Ladakh in that period and the experiences of these travellers.These travelogues invariably praise Ladakhis for their honesty, simplicity and truthfulness. These writers mentioned that despite material poverty, pony-men, porters, cooks etc. were content and did not try to extort more money from travellers.

As mentioned earlier, Ladakh is already an expensive destination with respect to transportation and stay. Greed and opportunism makes some people make it even more expensive by unilaterally increasing their rates for taxi and stay. This causes unnecessary unpleasantness and harms Ladakh. It is thus not surprising when we hear tourists speaking about ‘arrogant’ people they encounter during their trip. For instance, I remember a Ladakhi student telling me about someone once asking them about their native place. When the student replied, “Ladakh”, the person replied curtly, “They looted us!” Furthermore, there are several videos online about people sharing their negative experiences in Ladakh. I remember one where a man is pointing towards a barren mountain and telling viewers that there is nothing to see in Ladakh. He told his viewers not to waste their time and money by visiting Ladakh. On seeing the video, my first reaction was that this man must have suffered some bad experiences in Ladakh and the video was his way of indirectly venting his frustration.

Unfortunately, the problem is not confined to the relationship between tourists and tourism-related personnel. There are many problems within the tourism sector too. Hoteliers report that some travel agents are notorious for not paying their dues to the hotels they use. I have heard hoteliers joke that it is easier to run a hotel than to recover money from some travel agents! Many travel agencies do not pay their dues in time even after repeated demands. Some do not pay at all and as a result lose credibility with the hotels who then refuse to provide them with rooms. Similarly, there was high demand for taxis in 2022 and there are some reports of travel agents cheating taxi drivers, especially non-Ladakhi drivers who were roped in to meet the demand. Such people are a menace to society and they give Ladakh a bad name.

I have also heard local shopkeepers and vegetable vendors complain that some hoteliers refuse to pay them on time for various essential commodities and vegetables purchased from them on credit. One vegetable vendor spoke about a specific hotelier who had outstanding dues of over INR 10 lakh (INR 1 million) and was showing no signs of clearing any of it!

Thus, when people argue that tourism in Ladakh is not sustainable I cannot help but think of such incidents that make it even more unsustainable. We must not forget that economic cycles are temporary while a bad business culture can cause permanent damage. I think good conduct can go a long way in making tourism more sustainable. In this regard, social leaders, business people, community leaders, politicians, media-persons and members of civil society must come forward to help reflect, identify such challenges and instil better practices in our everyday lives.

Editor’s note: We have withheld the identity of the writer on request.

The state of ice hockey in Ladakh

Each winter people in Ladakh remove two things from their storeroom. The first is the traditional ‘Bukhari’ to stay warm and the other is a pair of ice skates to use on frozen ponds and lakes. Ghulam Mustafa, who started playing ice hockey in 2010 explained, “I saw my sister with a pair of skates for the first time when I was 12-years-old. She had received it from a Canadian woman. I remember using her skates secretly. When I put them on and blissfully glided on the ice, I forgot all my worries. It did not feel like I was skating for the first time. A year later my father got me my own skates.”

Ice hockey has emerged as one of the most popular sports among Ladakhi youth. This is evident in the recent victory of the Ladakhi women’s team in the ninth national ice hockey tournament held in Kaza, Himachal Pradesh from 15 to 20 January, 2022. Players from Ladakh have represented India at the international level since 2009 and 95% of India’s men’s team is from Ladakh. On the other hand, 100% of the Indian women’s ice hockey team is from Ladakh. They have been representing India in the IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia Division-I since 2016. The men’s team has participated in Challenge Cup of Asia (Division 1) in Thailand 2015, Kyrgyzstan 2016, Kuwait 2017 (silver medal) and Malaysia 2018. The women’s team won bronze in the Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia 2019 (Abu Dhabi).

Ghulam Mustafa described his experiences at a development camp in Korea, “I was with players from around the world. It made me realise that a boy from a remote place can also compete with them. All we need is dedication and persistence. I later represented India as part of the U-20 team and hearing the national anthem was the proudest moment of my life.” This was echoed by Chamba Tsetan, who has also represented India. He said, “I am proud of being able to represent India. In addition, we have also been coaching children as part of the ‘Learn to Play’ programme for the last four years. We have been able to coach more than a thousand children.”

There have been a lot of changes with regard to ice hockey in the last few years. On 5 May, 2015, the Ice Hockey Association of India became an affiliated member of the Indian Olympic Association. In September 2020, ice hockey was included in the list of sports that qualify for appointment of meritorious sportspersons in government jobs. Thus, one can now play ice hockey for passion and as a career option!

The journey of ice hockey players has not been easy as there have been many challenges. While there has been some progress on addressing these challenges over the last few years, players are still facing many challenges. It was difficult to source equipment and generate financial resources as there was limited support from the government. In addition, the players struggled with the lack of an international standard stadium in Ladakh and the short playing season that prevented players from achieving excellence. Sonam Angmo, who has been part of the women’s team since 2016, said, “The biggest challenge we face is the lack of basic infrastructure, access to equipment and the lack of knowledge about the game.”  Chamba Tsetan, who has been a member of the men’s national team since 2015, added, “In addition, we need a rink where we can practice throughout the year as our playing season is far too short”

Former Indian ice hockey player and coach of UT Ladakh’s B team, Zia Ur Rehman Mir described the challenges they faced in playing ice hockey. “When we started playing ice hockey, there were no coaches, no equipment, and no infrastructure. The Himalayan Sports and Cultural Development Organisation in Drass started bringing international coaches who helped us access equipment and knowledge about building and maintaining rinks and play strategies.”

The first captain of the Indian ice hockey men’s team and the current Vice President of Ladakh Winter Sports Club, Tundup Namgial has witnessed these changes. He said, “The Canadian embassy team has been visiting Ladakh since 2002 to play the Indo-Canadian friendship cup in Leh every year. We have learnt so many things from them. Other well-wishers have sourced equipment and donated international standard sideboards for tournaments. We also organise village coaching camps and provide equipment to them.”

The Kargil Ice and Snow Sport Club has been doing similar work in Kargil district to promote the sport. General Secretary, Aman Ali Khan said, “There was limited awareness about ice hockey in Kargil till the early 2000s. Its popularity grew after 2004 after we formed Kargil Ice and Snow Sports Club to organise events and camps. In 2006-07, we approached the then CEC of LAHDC, Kargil, Asgar Ali Karbalai to support us to organise the CEC Ice Hockey Championship Cup in Kargil. Since then, we have been hosting this tournament every year. We also host a junior championship for young children with support from the police just as we organise the Sadbhavana Cup in collaboration with the Indian Army.”

Unfortunately, ice hockey remained male-centric in Ladakh through these early years. This changed with the creation of the Ladakh Women’s Ice Hockey Foundation (LWIHF) in 2015. Noor Jahan, the goalkeeper in the Indian women’s ice hockey team, General Secretary of LWIHF and Executive Council Member of the Ice Hockey Association of India spoke about the gender-related challenges faced by women players. She said, “In the past, a lot of people would come to Karzoo dZing and mock us. Now women players have gained respect and recognition. I remember my community opposing the idea of me pursuing this sport.”

The gender bias is still evident in Kargil district in various sports. However, parents have started encouraging their daughters to participate in sports. Different organisations are now actively encouraging and training girls in ice hockey. Imtiyaz Ali Khan of Downhill Kargil said they have been training girls in ice skating and ice hockey. “In 2021, our girls’ team participated in UT and block-level competitions,” he added. Zia Ur Rehman Mir also expressed happiness at the growing participation of girls in winter sports. He said, “Recently we organised a national-level ice hockey camp for women in Drass. We were surprised with the turnout. Through the camp. We selected 20 girls for advanced training in Kaza.”

The government too has increased support for sports and athletes since Ladakh became a UT in 2019. District Youth Services and Sports Officer, Leh, Tsering Tashi provided an overview of these initiatives. “Firstly, we are purchasing hockey equipment for players from UT Ladakh. We hope to provide players with a complete kit soon. This will encourage our teams to participate in national-level tournaments. We have also been supporting their participation in Khelo India Ice Hockey tournaments.” The department has been organising tournaments such as Khelo India Ladakh Winter Games Ice Hockey Championships, Zanskar Winter Games and Youth Festival, Lt Governor Cup Ice Hockey Championship, etc. It has also been developing ice hockey rinks in all sub divisions of Ladakh and constructing/repairing dZings in all blocks. It is unclear what designs are being used for these rinks as the department claims that they are building them as per requirements, which will gradually be upgraded in due course. When asked about the international level stadium, Tsering Tashi said, “Due to some technical problems, the department has not been able to complete the stadium. We have finished the tendering process for the roof of the stadium and work on the mechanical chilling plant will start soon. Hopefully the ice hockey rinks in Leh and Kargil will be completed by 2022-23.”  Youth and Sports Department, Kargil has also been providing equipment to players at the block level and constructing rinks. However, some like Aman Ali claimed that the 27 ice hockey rinks across Kargil district do not adhere to any approved design and technical specifications. He added, “We need to use a standardised design for such rinks.”

Zia Ur Rehman Mir stressed on the need for developing an indoor rink. He said, “Our rinks are seasonal and outdoor. In Kargil, we receive a lot of snowfall. We have to spend two to three days to clear snow from these rinks by which time there is more snowfall. As a result, our youth do not get time to play games. We enjoy natural advantage of improved stamina as we live in a high altitude region. However, we need more time to practice and hone our skills.”

He added, “Kargil has natural advantages that make it ideal for winter sports. When Ladakh was part of the erstwhile J&K state, Kashmir Sports Council had decided to develop a winter sports headquarter in Kargil. After Ladakh became a UT, we approached the Lieutenant Governor of Ladakh with this idea. If we invest in infrastructure, Ladakh can become a major winter sport destination while also generating income and employment. Winter sport athletes from India spend a lot of money travelling to Europe for practice. We could provide them with the same services in Ladakh.”

However, this will require investment in infrastructure at the grassroots along with a robust framework to manage these activities. For instance, Aman Ali proposed that Ladakh should have its own sport council so the sport clubs and organisations in the region could be affiliated with it. In addition, various stakeholders suggested that UT-level competitions should be held on a rotational basis between Leh and Kargil districts to facilitate all round development and cohesiveness and inclusiveness in the region.

By Karuna Chhimed and Manzoor Hussain

Karuna Chhimed is currently pursuing a master’s in linguistics from Delhi University.

Manzoor Hussain is currently pursuing a master’s in Hindi from IGNOU.

The challenge of studying during a pandemic

We asked numerous students about their experience of learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their responses included “It is like a very long holiday”, “I miss school”, “It is a total waste of time”, “We were unable to learn through online classes” and “It is becoming very difficult for us.” July 2021 marks one year and five months since school and college students in Ladakh have been at home. The COVID-19 pandemic has gripped the world and students have suffered the most as they struggle to cope with ‘home-school online education’.

According to data from Directorate of School Education, UT of Ladakh there are 904 government schools in Ladakh (546 in Kargil and 358 in Leh) with 25,786 enrolled students (17,210 in Kargil and 8,576 in Leh). In addition, there are 113 private schools in Ladakh (67 in Kargil and 46 in Leh) with 29,059 enrolled students (13,041 in Kargil and 16,018 in Leh). Thus, there are 1,017 government and private schools catering to 54,845 children across Ladakh. In addition, many students are pursuing various higher education programmes in various institutions in Ladakh and outside. This means that a large number of students have been studying from home for more than a year. Some government and private schools did open briefly in 2021. 

Studying online

Student life has undergone a dramatic change through the pandemic. Times have changed from ‘not using a smartphone’ till a certain age, to “religiously using one” to cope with academic work. Many students have created a self-study routine that is conducive to their learning with a parent or relative supervising their academic work. However, all students seem to be facing some challenge or the other including digital exclusion, mental health, etc.

Online learning has been exerting economic stress on many families. Each student needs a smartphone, tablet or laptop to participate in online classes. These can cost anywhere from INR 6,000 for a basic smartphone to INR 25,000 for a basic laptop. In addition, one has to pay for internet access. These expenditures are beyond the reach of many families. 

Similarly, parents with government jobs are still going to work and have little time to oversee their children’s academic work. Thus, these students depend on an elder sibling or a close relative for supervision. Many students are forced to work without supervision and do self-study with occasional checks. Even parents who work from home or stay home all day face challenges in supervising their children. A parent of two children who are studying in the 4th and 5th grade in Lamdon School, Leh and Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV), Choglamsar said, “Since we are not educated, we face a lot of problem teaching and supervising their studies. Sometimes, they would miss homework or submission would be delayed as we are not able to use a smartphone. It took us a lot of time and effort to find someone to teach our children.”

In contrast, other parents have coped well, especially those who are educated. With two sons in primary school, a couple described how they divide time between their work and chores to supervise their children’s work. However, they admitted that their days have become rather hectic. All these factors have had an impact on the quality of education received by students during the pandemic. Many parents also voiced concern on how teachers are coping with online education. When asked about this, most teachers said it has been a challenge. Some mentioned that they spend a lot getting their students together for a class, especially when students struggle to log in or are unable to follow the teacher. 

Schools are aware of these challenges. However, there is pressure to complete the syllabus, which forces many teachers to follow up on the work sent to the students. This in turn reflects on the quality of education and learning. A principal of a school mentioned that younger students who do not have a fixed syllabus are forgetting how to read and write. This is very concerning as this may result in a prolonged delay in reading and writing skills amongst students. Furthermore, there is variability amongst teachers in terms of engagement, preparation and follow up, especially since the digital medium is relatively new for everyone.

While college students seem to be better adapted to using technology, many report that they are not able to cope with online learning and prefer offline classes. When asked about specific challenges, these students mentioned difficulty in focusing and limited time to understand, write notes and clarify doubts. Several students reported that they have started spending time on social media and video games instead of studying.

Gulzar Hussain, a student of Delhi University said, “It will take time for students to get used to the new mode of education. This mode is very different from offline classes. Many students are not taking this seriously. I had taught a student in Kargil last year and he used to be very punctual and curious. Now after studying online for a year, he no longer seems interested in studies.”

Teachers too have reported that many students are struggling with online learning. Masooma Batool, a government teacher in Kargil, said, “Last year when the lockdown was eased and the schools were allowed to open, I observed that students were clueless about their studies. It is not possible to have one-to-one interactions online.”

This was echoed by Professor at Government Degree College, Drass, Shujat Ali who added that learning must not stop despite various challenges. He said, “Initially, everyone hoped to continue offline teaching as online classes did not seem to help. In a month or two, everyone realised that we have to adapt to online learning. The teachers and students who were initially reluctant have now started taking interest in online classes and enrolments have increased. We have to accept new modes of learning and motivate our students. Online learning has gone from being a secondary resource to the primary channel for learning. There are many benefits of online learning including improved accessibility to resources and reduction of overall costs. We can improve the quality of our education by harnessing technology appropriately.”

Some students feel that the pandemic has forced them to learn new skills. One such student, Sabika Khatoon said. “Nothing can replace school! However, online teaching has forced us to learn skills to navigate the digital world and enabled us to access educational resources online.”

Digital exclusion?

As the pandemic spread in early 2020, many parents took their children back to their villages. Unfortunately, there is limited or no internet connectivity in many rural areas in Ladakh. This meant that initially many students were unable to participate in online classes. Since then, reports have emerged of students having to walk (or have parents drive them in some cases) to a location where they can get internet connectivity.

In many cases, parents faced a bigger challenge when they had more than one child but only one smartphone in the house. In other case, there have been instances where students have internet connectivity but their teacher was living in a remote village that did not.  

Prof. Shujat Ali identified these as major challenges. “In addition to internet connectivity, many families are not able to afford have the necessary gadgets. The government is the facilitator and must provide internet connectivity. Schools and colleges can help identify students who need additional support from the administration.”

This was echoed by Mehboob Ali, Coordinator, Department of Computer and Information Technology at Kargil campus of University of Ladakh. He said, “We call this the age of Information Technology. All our processes are moving online. This is advantageous for its ease and speed. However, we still do not have the required infrastructure in place. Initially, even when we had education material, we did not have a channel to deliver them. When the pandemic started, we were not prepared for online teaching. We have to strengthen our infrastructure and increase IT literacy. Recently, UGC asked all universities to complete 40% of the syllabus online. We cannot tell them this was not done because students did not have internet access.”

One of the upsides of students returning to their villages is that children are spending time outdoors and participating in agricultural practices to learn new skills. Similarly, the time spent with family members has been important too.

Support systems?

Many teachers and parents are tapping online portals for support. The Directorate of School Education, UT of Ladakh has listed links to virtual classes that students can attend. It has also developed a mobile app called DSEL Online Education. We were unfortunately not able to test this app. Similarly, the Ministry of Education, Government of India has also started various initiatives to support students. Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing (DIKSHA) is a national platform for classes from 1st to 12th. It has a number of curricula linked to QR-coded Energized Textbooks (ETBs) that can be accessed through a mobile app. Others like 2020 VidyaDaan leverage the content on DIKSHA and allow people to contribute e-learning resources.

In addition, various TV channels have been broadcasting classes for those without internet access. Such programmes are also broadcast on radio, community radio, and podcasts, including initiatives. Some DTH operators have been broadcasting channels dedicated to differently-abled students including programmes using sign language. While most people have appreciated these efforts, others complain about not being able to use them offline, various technical glitches etc.

District Institute for Education Training (DIET), Kargil has launched a YouTube channel, which includes lectures but seems to have attracted a limited viewership. Another popular YouTube channel that was started on 19 March, 2020 by Lecturer’s Forum, Kargil has 3.45k subscribers. In addition, there are some social media channels where children are receiving private lessons. Many are resorting to YouTube videos to understand concepts that are covered in a cursory manner in online classes. For example, Spaldon, a 4th Class student said that she has been struggling with Mathematics and Bodyig as the teacher is often unable to explain all the relevant concepts in their short videos. Many parents are also using paid educational applications. 

While online classes are held of video conferencing platforms, the Department of Education has also been using the television and radio. However, some parents found the latter to be unhelpful as they are barely for an hour a day, lack continuity, and have no clear schedule. One parent explained, “In the first month, they used to announce the subject and class for the following day on Ladakhi news, which was good as students did not have to be glued to the television. However, then it became confusing and there was no clarity on which lessons are going to be broadcast or for what class, with no way of accessing that information.” Some parents claim that most TV lessons have been uploaded on YouTube but not all. Others complained that teachers in the televised classes just write and solve problems without explaining the process. Furthermore, the medium of instruction has also been an issue. A parent explained that children have been requesting their teachers to teach Hindi in Ladakhi. Similarly, electricity is another issue as power supply is often unreliable with day-long power-cuts at times.

Health impacts

In addition to other issues, students and teachers are also struggling to cope with health impacts due to these changes. Many students complain that their eyes burn from constantly staring at a screen. In addition, more attention needs to be given to the psychological well-being of students, teachers and parents. There are many short videos about well-being on the DIKSHA application and there are local programmes on radio and television on mental health. However, we were not able to find any other efforts to address various health issues arising from online education and the uncertainty of the pandemic.

While students are becoming digitally aware, the absence of offline class has a serious impact on the mental health of students. This includes lack of resources, learning capabilities, and a sudden shift from rote learning to on-ground experiential learning at home. Perhaps a survey among various stakeholders will help identify various problems faced by them.

Struggle for survival

While government schools have the support of the administration, many private schools are struggling to survive. This is a serious issue as 53% of students in Ladakh are currently enrolled in a private school. A Principal of a private school spoke on the condition of anonymity, “During the lockdown in 2020, schools were shut from March to September. In this period, most schools collected fees and paid staff wages. However, some parents were unable to pay the fees and this caused problems to the school. I have also heard of some small private schools that collected fees in 2020 but did not pay their staff wages.” We cross-checked this with some other institutions and they mentioned that most operate on a no-profit no-loss basis. “So, when some parents are unable to pay the fees, we have been forced to delay the payment of wages of some staff members,” they explained.


Many villages have taken proactive measures to organise community classes for their children. Some student associations in villages like Igoo maintain a library where students can study. In June, the Hon’ble Lieutenant-Governor of Ladakh, R. K. Mathur announced INR 25 lakhs (INR 2.5 million) from the LG Fund to support Gram Panchayats to hold community classes. In addition, district administrations have permitted villages to hold community classes while following COVID-19 SOPs.

Parveen, a volunteer at a community class, said that the only development she has seen in the last year is the installation of a mobile tower by a private company. “Nobody was prepared last year. This year everyone is coming up with solutions to tackle problems such as technology, connectivity, need for supervision etc. In my experience, the students are very eager to learn and parents are often unable to provide them with guidance. The community classes have helped address some of the challenge students are facing but there is urgent need to upgrade educational and healthcare facilities in Ladakh’s villages.” Others too welcomed this step as it would help community members become more aware of the problems faced by their children and the administration and work together to find solutions and help in the overall development of the education system.

Murtaza Khalili, an early advocate of community classes and a Principal at a private school, appreciated this initiative by the government. He said, “Community classes are far better than online classes. However, there is one issue with these classes. They give priority to students of the village or the locality where the classes are being held. This excludes non-Ladakhi settlers and those living in a rented accommodation, the administration needs to look into this issue.” He added that community classes are working more smoothly in rural areas as compared to urban areas.

In an interesting development on 4 June, 2021, the UT administration launched the YounTab Scheme, which has been developed by the Department of Education with technical support from Information Technology Department. Under this scheme, they plan to distribute 12,300 tablets with pre-loaded online and offline content including textbooks, video lectures, and online class applications to government school students from Class 6 to 12.

The tablets were to be distributed in government schools across Ladakh in June and July, 2021. However, sources in the Education Department report that the tablets have not been distributed yet as there were some initial memory issues on the devices while uploading offline content. These tablets are expected to be ready by the end of July after which computer teachers from the Education Department will train one to two teachers from each government school zone. These teachers in turn will train other teachers in their zone on the use of e-resources installed on the tablets. We were not able to confirm this officially. In addition, DIET in Leh and Kargil have been conducting training workshops for teachers on digital learning but details remain sketchy.

By Dr. Rigzin Chodon and Leila Bee

Dr. Rigzin Chodon is an independent researcher.

Leila Bee is a freelance journalist based in Ladakh. She holds a master’s degree in English Literature.

New Delhi Diary-May 2021

The 2-H success formula

Watching successful people on TV channels and listening to their ‘secrets’ of success is a great joy. I happened to watch one such person, Ajay Banga, who was born and educated in India and is now a part of the Indian-American community. A Padma Shri awardee for excellence in his work output, he is the Executive Chairman of MasterCard.

Banga talked about what he called the 2-H success formula, which stands for ‘Humility’ and ‘Humour’. Humility, he said, is the real and necessary quality in any person to progress in life. And what is humility? Never to assume that you are better than others, and to remind yourself time and again that there are so many people around you who are far better than you and that you should learn from them. Humour is the ability to laugh at yourself, and to admit that humour alone makes you feel better for any challenging task ahead.

Having said that, one may point out that humility and humour are important factors but not the only ones. There are several other crucial factors for success: A clear vision, diligence, consistency and resilience. But, it is also true that each successful person has their own unique yardstick for success.

The death of a great editor

Anything that happens for the first time in one’s life leaves behind fond memories for a lifetime. For me, one such great memory of decades back happens to be the publication of my first article in The Times of India.

It was Fatima Zakaria, the then Editor of The Sunday Times, who published my article, very prominently on the Opinion Page. And, that made me feel as if I were on cloud nine. The article was on the state of affairs in Ladakh.

I recently received the shocking news that she had passed away at the age of 85. I could not believe this initially. The reality dawned on me when her famous son, Fareed Zakaria, a CNN TV show host, announced that his mother had passed away in Mumbai due to COVID-19 complications.

After completing her studies from the prestigious Yale University in the US, Fatima Zakara went on to become one of India’s leading editors. She also edited The Bombay Times for a brief period and, later, the Taj Magazine of the Taj Group of Hotels.

Her contribution to Indian journalism spanned many decades, which was also recognised by Government of India when it conferred her with the prestigious Padma Shri in 2006. She was liberal, had a great sense for news, and always tried to help budding journalists.

A pleasant summer?

Now that we are in the first month of the peak summer season, one wonders how the season will treat us this time. The very idea of two ‘killer months’ of peak summer (May and June) in the city, before the onset of the monsoon, is rather frightening.

And yet, if one recalls the last winter in the city, when it was not cold at all, one can very well hope for a not-so-deadly summer. Yes, wishful thinking but one never knows! In the last few years, all the four major seasons have been ‘behaving’ strangely. Even the month of April this time was ‘admirably good’ with the temperature never exceeding one’s comfort levels. In a way, the ‘credit’ for all this must go to climate change!

Of course, many of the city’s denizens have already planned to rush to hill stations for some respite, and even a week or two is worth it. But the point is: What about those who can’t afford it and don’t have the facilities to keep themselves cool to preserve their sanity? After all, most of the city’s denizens cannot afford the luxury of air-conditioning.


Dad: Son, when I beat you, how do you control your anger?

Son: I start cleaning the toilet.

Dad: How does that satisfy you?

Son: I clean it with your toothbrush!

By P.P. Wangchuk

The author is a New Delhi-based editor-at-large, columnist and professional speaker.

New Delhi Diary-April 2021

A new house for Modi
As the new Parliament House nears completion over the next two to three years, several other related projects will also be undertaken. The first ones would be new homes for the Prime Minister and the Vice President near the new Parliament building. Both these houses will be connected with the Parliament House through tunnels. The projects are still in the planning stage and the cost and completion time are not yet known.
Why are there no plans to build a tunnel to connect the President’s house too? Two reasons: First, the President’s house (Rashtrapati Bhavan), is already nearby, and unlike the Vice President and the Prime Minister who have to visit Parliament regularly, the President rarely visits it. The Vice President visits Parliament regularly to chair sessions of the Rajya Sabha.
The tunnels will help avoid traffic jams each time the Vice President or the Prime Minister visits the Parliament House. Currently, their ‘carcades’ bring traffic in the Lutyens’ area to a standstill for hours. Incidentally, very few people know that a tunnel connects the present home of the Prime Minister at 7 Race Course with Safdarjung Airport.

The Bamiyan Buddha comes alive!
One of the Buddha statues, destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001, has come alive through a 3-D projection that glows in the rocky alcove where it used to stand since the Sixth and the Seventh Centuries CE. These ancient statues were the world’s tallest Buddha statues till they were blown up in 2001.

Ladakh Review, one of its kind
When you think of Nawang Tsering Shakspo, the first thing that comes to mind is his annual publication called Ladakh Review. Its seventh volume was recently released by the Hon’ble Lieutenant-Governor of Ladakh at an event in New Delhi. Like previous volumes, this one too provides fascinating accounts of Ladakh and the author. The present volume is partially an autobiography in which the author makes it clear that he remains undaunted despite various challenges he has faced.
Secondly, he has stood by his conviction on the official language for UT Ladakh. All these decades, he has been advocating that ‘Ladakhi’ should be declared as the official language of Ladakh. This is based on sound logic. Both the principal communities of Ladakh speak Ladakhi, and most of them want ‘Ladakhi’ to be declared as the UT’s official language.
I am very happy to agree. Any other name like Bhoti, Bodhi, Tibetan, etc. can become a bone of contention and Ladakh will have no official language for the lack of consensus. Moreover, Ladakh can’t remain united with a ‘divisive’ official language. Therefore, ‘Ladakhi’ is the only language with no religious or communal implications’.

The highly-paid bodyguards
I recently discovered that the bodyguards of Bollywood stars are paid very handsomely. For instance, Shah Rukh Khan pays his bodyguard INR 2.6 crore (260 million) annually. And, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan pay their bodyguards INR 2 crore (20 million) per annum. Among the female actors, Anushka pays the highest (INR 1.2 crore or 120 million) to her bodyguard followed by Deepika and Katrina who pay INR 1 crore (10 million) each.
Why are bodyguards paid such large salaries in this industry? The reasons include that Bollywood stars are high-risk individuals and the bodyguards are highly-trained in martial arts and safeguarding practices.

Wife: Did you have your lunch?
Husband: Did you have your lunch?
Wife: I am asking you!
Husband: I am asking you!
Wife: You are copying me?
Husband: You are copying me?
Wife: Okay, then let’s go shopping!
Husband: Yes, yes, I had my lunch!

By P.P. Wangchuk

The author is a New Delhi-based editor-at-large, columnist and professional speaker.

New Delhi Diary-March 2021

The pursuit of the good and beautiful

It was quite a joy to welcome the spring season with a book that I have always wanted to read. Marcus Tullius Cicero’s book, On the Good Life, went well with the expectations of a better year after one traumatised by the COVID-19 pandemic. Cicero, a Roman statesman and one of the first-known philosophers, tells you, without the jargon of philosophy, all about life and its goodness and beauty.

According to Cicero, a good life is one that is full of morality. Now, one has to understand this point of view of those years before the Common Era (BCE) when humankind had hardly formed any opinion about good and bad, forget about philosophical writings to have a life that is purposeful and meaningful.

But Cicero had given to humankind, all those centuries back, everything about morality and the goodness of a purposeful life. And he was very dynamic also in his views. At one point in his life, he happily admitted that his thoughts had undergone drastic changes. In fact, he says that the dynamics of life is such that without changes, nothing good remains good forever.

The broad picture that he presents in the book is that just being good is not good enough. That has to be morally good as well. A perfect moral goodness lands one directly into a world of happiness and contentment. Here, contentment does not mean that one does not do anything after sometime, and feel happy in not doing anything. It means that while one is not unhappy with what one has at any given point of time, but one never stops in the pursuit of all that is good, beautiful and meaningful.

The joy of spring season

The word ‘spring’ itself is full of positivity and hope. Anything associated with ‘spring’ is assumed to be dynamic and progressive. It is in this context that one hails spring season across the globe. This is because spring season is associated with ‘revival’ of life, a fresh lease, after the hardships of winter. Spring comes with a riot of colours, and nature gets decked up in a variety of colours, letting everyone know that everything is fine with the world!

But there are disturbing reports that Delhi and several other parts of the country and elsewhere have had ‘no winter’ this time. Climate change across the globe has wreaked havoc in the last one year. America, Australia, parts of Africa, Siberia and several other regions were ‘afire’ for months. And, recently, in Uttarakhand, snow-slides created havoc in the Chamoli area, killing more than 200 people, and destroying properties, according to one estimate, worth Rs 20,000 lakh.

That was bound to happen. January 2021 was the hottest winter month on this planet. And in India too, according to an IMD report, January 2021 was the hottest month in 62 years, since 1958. The average minimum temperature was 14.78 degree Celsius. As a result, Delhi too had no winter this year! The cold wave that the city normally witnesses, especially for a week or two in January, was altogether missing this time.

Slaves to our habits

Why are we slaves to our habits? We are dictated by our habits, and our habits are what we are. Our very identity is linked to our habits in many ways. For instance, you are known by what you do, mostly. That is to say, if I go to a religious place often, my first identity would be of a religious person. All this and many other insights on habits are given by American journalist, Charles Duhigg, in his book, The Power of Habit.

What are habits and how does one form them? They are a result of four simple steps: Cue, craving, response and reward. The cue triggers the brain to initiate the behaviour. The craving acts as the motivator. And the response to the craving is the actual habit you perform. And, finally, the reward is the end goal of every habit.


Woman: Why don’t you take me out for dinner?

Man: I don’t take married women out for dinner!

Woman: But I am your wife!

Man: Yea, but I make no exceptions!

By P.P. Wangchuk

P .P. Wangchuk is a New Delhi-based editor-at-large, columnist and professional speaker

The selfie vaccine

When my friends in America and UK started posting selfies as they were given the COVID-19 vaccine, I started asking myself, “Mera number kab ayega?” (When will my turn come?). The reason for my impatience was not about the selfie but the result of my hope and confidence in my country and its scientists. When the day finally arrived, I rolled up my sleeves and submitted myself to the person administering the vaccine. In my excitement I did not even feel the needle prick. But I did hear the vaccinator mutter, “Ya Konjok Sumbo Khen!”(O Gods, you know everything!)

Photos of healthcare workers (HCW) receiving the vaccine started flooding social media. HCWs were encouraged to be active on social media to spread a positive message about the COVID-19 vaccine. Such public action helps allay hesitation that may exist about such vaccines in a community. It helps people realise that the vaccine is safe and that it should not be feared. It is said that many people may not trust the government or any institution but they do trust the HCWs with whom they have direct contact. The photos of HCWs receiving the jab became so commonplace that people started making jokes about it. For instance, there were light-hearted suggestions that the government should give the second dose on the buttocks to prevent people from taking a selfie! A friend posted a photograph of him receiving the vaccine and wrote that a DNA chip was inserted in his body and added wryly that he was “still a human and had not turned into a mutant”. He possibly wanted to allay fears that the vaccination is a means by which the government will started controlling people through a microchip. I have heard some people claim that such vaccines induce sterility. I often wonder that if such a miracle was possible, then the government would use it immediately to control the feral dog population. Furthermore, if such a medical miracle was possible then the world’s population would not have tripled in the last 30 years. Needless to say, no such medication exists.

Vaccine hesitancy is a complex process. Some think or claim vaccines are a part of a larger conspiracy, while others claim it is part of private commercial interests, especially pharmaceutical companies. Yet others think there are alternatives. Thus, there are numerous misconceptions about vaccines. It is said that vaccines are victims of their own success. Several killer diseases no longer pose the same fatal threat to humans as they did in the past and have been rendered harmless by vaccines. However, each time we fall short in our vaccination efforts, the diseases create havoc once more. A good example of this is measles, which has claimed many lives even in developed countries every time vaccine coverage has suffered.

People don’t want to be the first person receiving a vaccine but also don’t want to be excluded. When the vaccine was first announced, there were messages on social media that politicians should be vaccinated first. If nothing happens to them the vaccine is safe and if something happens to them then people are safe! Such messages were written to question the vaccine’s safety. However, everyone agreed that HCWs should be vaccinated on a priority basis. This was a natural choice. But HCWs are human too and also experience fear of new things. So when India decided that HCWs will be vaccinated first, there was a diversity of reactions. We saw bureaucrats assuring doctors that the vaccine is safe rather than the other way around. However, when Greece started vaccinating politicians and bureaucrats before HCWs there was a backlash. Thus, vaccinating HCWs first seems like a logical approach.

It is not surprising that on 16 January, 2021 when India started vaccinating HCWs in the early hours, many people who were scheduled to be vaccinated simply did not turn up or found an excuse to be ‘late’. However, once they saw that people who were vaccinated did not have any unpleasant reactions many people started turning up towards the later half of the day.

As a healthcare worker, I agree with India’s decision to first vaccinate its HCWs. For me it’s a privilege, a shot in the arm that is a form of recognition and appreciation to HCWs who stoically faced the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic and helped care for infected individuals. Secondly, since this a new vaccine that is going to be administered on a large scale, it is important that HCWs are aware of potential side-effects that they can report and receive treatment immediately. This is my personal opinion.

Every country’s government is under pressure to vaccinate its citizens as soon as possible. Similarly, we have witnessed various forms of vaccine nationalism during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not surprising that many feel that this vaccine has been produced under pressure and thus may not be safe or effective. Even if this were true, I cannot help but wonder why a government would administer an unsafe vaccine to its citizens? If any untoward incident were to occur, the government would face a backlash from its citizens.

There were other people who claimed that the vaccine is safe as it is just distilled water. I am an HCW and I have received the vaccine. I know for a fact that distilled water injections are rather painful. I can vouch for the fact that this vaccine wasn’t as painful as distilled water! Furthermore, I developed muscle pain, mild body aches and a mild sore throat after receiving the vaccine. These symptoms disappeared after a day. All these symptoms are associated with COVID-19. It makes logical sense as vaccinations are meant to produce a mild reaction of the disease to trigger the immune system to produce antibodies. Thus, I am sure that the vaccine is not only safe but also effective.

I understand people’s scepticism and fears. This vaccine has been developed in the shortest time in the history of medical science. It was developed and completed trials in less than a year. Other vaccines have been known to take around five to 10 years of development and trials. What we seem to forget is that this vaccine development did not start with the appearance of SARS-CoV-2. In fact, a lot of research and development had already been done for SARS CoV-1 and MERS. This development was halted as the circulation of these viruses had stopped. This provided the necessary foundation for the development of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. Thus, everything was ready and pre-clinical trials had already been done. The only piece of the puzzle that was missing to start the process was the virus.

I will say that I trust the vaccine as I know how such vaccines are developed. Though the Phase 3 trial data has not released in its entirety to the public, the data that was available was enough to convince me that it was not only safe but also effective. Furthermore, it is currently being administered as “emergency use authorisation” due to the ongoing pandemic. This means more data will emerge now. I will trust the transparency and authenticity of such data as long as the studies are not mere eulogies. Many side effects were also mentioned in the data available in the public domain though it later emerged that these were not directly related to the vaccine. Medicine keeps on evolving and as it is evidence-based. American scientist and writer, Issac Asimov once wrote, “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom”.

We have to trust science and in the process of vaccination development while also retaining a healthy and reasonable level of scepticism. However, mistrust to the point of cynicism is invariably harmful.

“Ya Konjok Sumbo Khen!”, the vaccinators prayers is still ringing in my ears. She probably repeated the prayer throughout the day with the hope that the vaccine does not cause harm to anyone and serves its intended purpose. In a way, it reflects the general scepticism we all have. However, we all know that we are in the middle of a pandemic and can only fall back on science.

By Dr Spalchen Gonbo

Dr Spalchen Gonbo is a Paediatrician based in Leh.