The people of Leh are arguably very religious. There are prayer flags fluttering over mountains, passes, monasteries and Buddhist households. Mosques call the faithful to prayers five times a day from the bank of the Indus to the centre of Leh market. All religions share many basic values be it Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, and Hinduism.
These values are very important in the context of the sweeping changes Ladakh has experienced with the advent of modernity. The purchasing power of locals has grown with the boom in the tourism industry. This has fuelled a culture of over-consumption marked by the desire to have more than one car in each household, multiple business set-ups, live an extravagant life, consume more packaging food and the like.
These cravings are individual choices but it is harming Leh’s ecology. Since 2010, the number of hotels, resorts, camps, restaurants, cafés, and vehicles has increased multi-fold. The President of All Ladakh Hotel and Guest House Association, Leh, Karma Tsering Delek said, “The dramatic increase in domestic tourists has led to an increase in hotels, resorts, and guest houses from 300 in 2010 to 1,200 in 2020.” Such development is often idealised as progress. At the same time, the residents of Leh are often regarded as being environment conscious. Ironically, most residents of Leh do not regard these changes as being problematic.
Leh is currently characterised by various consumer fetishes. Individual greed and ignorance are the key factors driving this over-consumption. Many correlate possession of material things with happiness without realising that practical frugality has characterised Ladakhi society for hundreds of generations. In addition to its environmental impact, this cycle of consumption also triggers negative emotions such as jealousy, anger, and alienation. “We have all experienced envious neighbours, co-workers, relatives and others who belittle you for not having the same possessions as them,” says Yangchan Dolkar, a resident of Leh town. Unfortunately, the joy experienced from consumption is short-lived and easily replaced by other cravings.
The issue extends beyond social privilege to shared natural resources. For example, we have been exploiting groundwater for many years through bore-wells to accommodate the needs of tourists, residents, building construction, agriculture, to wash automobiles, and to treat sewage. We have forgotten that ground water is an exhaustible resource. The fate of humans and the planet are inextricably inter-linked and interdependent. This means we need to live harmoniously with the environment. We must remember that just because we have the means does not mean we have to consume more. Unfortunately, this sort of greed is very common in Leh town.
Many people wonder if limiting their consumption will make any difference. We forget that every individual choice and action adds up and has an impact on the environment. For instance, a successful social entrepreneur from Shey village has pioneered the use of biodegradable plastic for her bakery products, which is now becoming popular with others.
We need to adopt social, emotional and ethical learning principles in our schools and institutions. We also need to initiate action-oriented change at all levels from the individual to the community to promote environmentally sound lifestyles. This should be institutionalised in both Hill Councils with an Executive Councillor for the environment.
To my fellow Ladakhspa,
Let’s not steer the conversation by romanticising Leh’s natural beauty,
Let’s not sell the pristine landscape of Ladakh to make easy money,
Let’s not ruin the rich heritage of the mountains,
Don’t just fall for the mountains, save them from falling!
By Dawa Dolma
Dawa Dolma is an independent journalist and environmentalist. She is currently a fellow at TERI