Progress and modern Ladakh

One morning during breakfast, my family started talking about new policies of the government towards the idea of ‘progress’ to ensure road connectivity and freshwater pipelines to every house. These ideas are now regarded as basic necessities. I agree that these facilities make life comfortable, save time, and make life more ‘productive’.
However, it also made me wonder about the direction in which we are heading—as individuals, communities and as a country. We generally do not critically question the mainstream system, its priorities and its short and long-term impacts. Most of the structures we create and cherish are modelled on the West but is this always a wise idea? We have seen how Western countries are desperately struggling to find answers to the negative social and psychological impacts of ‘progress’. They are now struggling to change direction, to make the planet more live-able.
I can understand the comfort of ignoring these questions. However, they are now becoming too uncomfortable to live with, especially in the context of the pandemic and its social and economic impacts, rising temperatures and natural disasters. In some way, each of these crises is the result of our so-called ‘progress’. These days everyone is talking about how warm it is in Ladakh (for a change) during October. This suggests that people are aware of global warming. But are we making a connection between ‘global warming’ and ‘progress in the modern world’?
This reminds me of my mother complaining about the impact of westernisation in our culture. Perhaps she did not realise that most of what we are consuming on a daily basis is not produced in Ladakh. In fact, we don’t even know where and how these things are produced and transported. Our culture and traditions are rooted in our community and from our connection to the land where we grow our food. As we replace our food, clothes and building materials with mass-produced products, it is not surprising that our culture has started to suffer.

This realisation has left me feeling directionless and helpless for not being able to grow my own food. It has also encouraged me to re-learn basic skills and knowledge that previous generations took for granted.
I am concerned not only about the tangible impact of this growing global mono-culture on what we eat or what we wear and our lifestyle but also about the growing psychological differences that I see between different generations with regard to our relationship and attitude towards each other, the environment and other living beings.

There has been a shift in mind-set from concern for the common good towards the need to be independent. We do not realise that the capacity of money to fulfil our needs remains hollow. Change is the law of nature but it doesn’t have to be towards destruction of the harmonious ways in which we have lived with nature and each other.
The construction of new buildings is supposed to be a sign of progress. Yet, it’s disheartening to see concrete structures being built on grasslands, pastures and wetlands that once provided fresh spring water and grass for our livestock. This will have long-term impacts on our society and on us.
Similarly, modern technology and connectivity are very useful in accessing medical help, increased mobility and modern education even in remote areas. However, this is a double-edged sword. The same processes also introduce the pressures of global competition and monetary acquisition to feel happy. In time this conditions people to become more self-centred, greedy and eventually become isolated from each other. In a place like Ladakh, I believe it’s still not too late to find a balance between traditional ideas of inter-dependence and modern emphasis on individuality. Is it possible to find a paradigm of ‘genuine progress’ that is about well-being, health, contentment and true prosperity rather than one that is built on competition and endless consumption?
In the context of the novel coronavirus pandemic, more people seem to be inclined to act. Many people have now started talking about localisation and young entrepreneurs have started making an effort to spread awareness and promote alternatives that are sustainable and locally-produced. I hope to see more people understanding the need to change the trajectory of development and rethink fundamental priorities. We are now running out of time for the planet with mounting ecological and social crises.

Photograph and text by Kunzang Deachen

Kunzang Deachen holds a master’s degree in commerce and is currently pursuing a second master’s degree in Anthropology. She works with Local Futures where she spreads awareness of the opportunities that localisation can bring in this modern era.

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.

Insights from the pandemic

Its Saturday. Well, everyday seems the same nowadays. Just the date on the calendar keeps changing. But life is no longer the same. A pandemic has taken over the world. It is creating a new world order. The polarity of powers in the world is changing. Maybe, we asked for this change.

But there is another change too. The Earth is healing. Nature is once again dominating the game. Maybe this pandemic is part of Earth’s anti-virus system. Animals are rejoicing because human interference in their lives has reduced significantly. Maybe, their prayers have been answered.

People were busy with their lives, earning money, going to school, attending various ceremonies. Nobody saw it coming, or maybe we just ignored all the warning signs.

Although we are all with our families, we are still away. Our homes have now also become an office, a school and a college. And now working hours have extended to become indefinite.

Students were preparing for examinations and planning their future. But the future had something else in store for them as life threw a tougher examination in their direction. This was a test for which they were certainly not prepared.

Hundreds of thousands have already died from the virus. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Hundreds and thousands of people are slipping into depression. Families are parting. Suicide rates are increasing. Maybe we were taking a lot of things for granted.

The pandemic highlighted shortcomings and defects of various institutions of countries around the world. It exposed how fragile and unprepared everyone was in the face of such challenges. Well, some saw this as an opportunity to improve, while others were busy in finding someone to blame.

Well at least this virus doesn’t look at the bank balance or the status of a person before infecting them. However, the vaccine certainly will. Life will be put on one side of the scale and money on the other. Just hope that our lives do not weigh too lightly on this scale.

Not much will have changed for apex ‘predators’, who are at the top of the economic food chain. However, there are many at the base of the pyramid, whose lives have changed forever. Maybe, people put too many expectations on the government and other public institutions.

Only the poor know how expensive it is to be poor. Sometimes it’s not about being without money, but being without hope. The people that they considered as their saviours have only emerged to play politics over their dead bodies.

We were given more than we needed. But nothing is enough for those who always want more.

They say, times change. But no one expected that it will change in such a manner. Well, it’s our expectations that caused us the misery. Those of us who were ungrateful and used to complain about how bad our lives were have had their complaints addressed.

If we are keenly listening to what nature has to say, then we would agree that these hard times have taught us many things that a lifetime could not. We must remember that ‘sweet’ can only make sense when ‘bitter’ exists and that light can only make sense when darkness exists.

By Zeshan Ali

Zeshan Ali is from Kargil and is currently pursuing a BA programme in Delhi with Political Science and Geography as his core subjects.

Imagining Ladakh

Ladakh has been on the periphery of development for several decades now. I started thinking of how Ladakh would be, if it were at the core of development, say if it was a nation-state that determined its own development. This thought made me wonder about the first thoughts that come to our mind when we think of a country. My first thought was about physical size. I always imagined that a nation-state would necessarily have a large territory, say much larger than the erstwile state of Jammu and Kashmir. So I did an online search for the smallest countries of the world and I was very surprised! The smallest countries in the world are dwarfed by the municipal limits of Leh or Kargil town:

Vatican City0.44 sq.km825
Monaco2 sq.km36,000
Nauru21 sq.km12,708
Tuvalu26 sq.km10,000
San Marino61 sq.km30,000

I wondered how Ladakh would be if it were in control of its own development process. And so, I started imagining Ladakh as a country by itself where it was able to set its own priorities and develop at its own pace.

Ladags is nestled among the high mountains of the Ladakh, Zangskar and Karakoram ranges that are drained by rivers such as the Indus and Shyok. The people who live here reflect a mix of influences from the east, west Asia and various Eurasian regions. As a nation-state, it has nurtured its centuries-old tradition of music and festivals. The youth have an inexhaustible energy of explorying new and innovative ways of sustainable living, be it for house constuction or food production.

The governance is exemplary and reflects a mix of best governance practices from around the world. The country is rich in renewable energy resources including sun, geothermal and hydro power, which are tapped using sustainable technologies. This has ensured energy supply to every village in the country with surplus energy being sold to neighbouring countries. Energy and tourism have emerged as the main pillars of the country‘s economy.

Speaking of tourism, this country has something for every traveller; be it a romantic gateway for lovers as well as adventure and wildlife spotting opportunities for enthusiasts. This country has a well-regulated tourism industry and remains a treat for adventure sports due to its terrain that tests a person physically and mentally. The mountains are also rich in medicinal herbs and plants that have been used by locals for centuries and is now attracting attention from the world over. It also has an exquisite tradition of artistic prusuits including pottery and statue-making that remain in great demand. The country also stands as a shining example of religious tolerance and coexistence with different communities living together in harmony.

Similarly, its research institutions, such as the University of Ladakh, are conducting cutting-edge research on various topics including climate change, earth sciences, renewable energy, wildlife conservation etc. The education system is finely tuned to provide holistic growth of its students and incorporates best practices in each sector. Professional educational institutions like medical, engineering, and management institutes have visiting faculties, researchers and students from across the globe and have a pragmatic mix of theory and practice. There are government schools in every village, which provide world-class education. The toughest screening in any profession is for teachers who have to clear various examinations as well as emotional, personality and psychological tests. It is also the best-paying and most respected profession in the country. Recruitment for various jobs is done through a well-established transparent system based on merit. Similarly, promotions to higher posts are based on educational qualification, which ensures that people are constantly learning.

The political institutions in the country are based on the principles of equal participation by all members of society, irrespective of gender, religion and caste. There is a strong tradition of democratic representation and governance where people‘s voices are heard and help shape inclusive public policy.

Every village is well-developed in all aspects such as technology advancement, educational infrastructure, and energy development. The use of technology in agriculture has enhanced food security across the country. Apricots, seabuckthorn, and buckwheat are some of the major exports from the country. Since each village is self-sustaining and have all sevrices available locally, there is little need for people to migrate away from their homes.

Ladakh has strict environment protection policies that ensure environmental and social sustainability. Environmental and social clearances have to be obtained for all developmental activities to ensure that no activity undermines the country‘s heritage in any manner.

Ladakh is well-conected with the outside world. The international airports in Leh and Kargil are well-connected with all major airports in the world throughout the year. In addition, there are regular train services between Ladakh and neighbouring countries. The public transport system is well-managed, efficient and uses renewable energy sources. In fact, local people prefer using public transport than their own private vehicles.

Ladakh continues to play its role in regional trade. It is strategically located on the cross-roads of Asia and continues to function as a bridge for trade that links countries in east, south, central and west Asia. This generates substantial revenue for Ladakh as a trade hub.

There is no discrimination in Ladakh based on gender or any other identity markers. This has ensured the it is one of the top countries in the world that attracts the best talent from around the world. It is not surprising that Ladakh has emerged as a global leader in attracting professionals and tourists alike. It also attracts people from around the world to apply for citizenship and settle here premanently.

While I am not arguing that it must become an independent country, this is the Ladakh of my imagination. And as Albert Einstien once said, “Imagination is the preview of life´s coming attractions.ˮ

By Kunzes Dolma

Kunzes Dolma is an engineer by training and is currently a doctoral fellow at the UNESCO GRÓ-Geothermal Training Programme in Rekjavik, Iceland.

COVID-19: Time to rethink development

The lockdown has given us a rare opportunity to step back and assess our priorities and impact on the environment. The positive impact of the lockdown is evident in the clean air and water being reported from around the world.

I had returned to my village when the Prime Minister announced the first lockdown in late-March. I ended up spending the whole lockdown period in the village assisting my family with various agricultural and pastoral tasks. This was the first time I had spent so much time in the village since my childhood. This made me reflect on the idea of development itself.

I have worked in the tourism sector for over 10 years like most of the young people in the village. However, this year the COVID-19 pandemic underlined the fact that tourism remains an unsustainable and unreliable source of livelihood. In the past, when I would return to the village, I would only meet the elderly as all the young people had left the village to pursue livelihood or educational opportunities. However, during the lockdown I realised that people in the village are constantly busy in productive work and have little time to worry about things like COVID-19. I spent my time working on the farm, planting fruit trees and tending to the garden. As a result, I became much fitter than I was earlier. I also ended up meeting and speaking with more people in my village and neighbouring areas than I have in the past.

I noticed an interesting trend during the lockdown period. Many young people had returned to the village for the first time in their lives. They were surprised to realise that it was much cheaper to live in the village where they are able to grow their own food. Like me, they also admitted that they became physically fitter in the village where they engaged in physical and mental work on a regular basis. At the same time, all of us were eating much healthier and more wholesome food as most of what is grown is organic in nature. I could not help but think how this lifestyle must have boosted our immune system and substantially reduced the risk posed by viruses such as SARS-CoV-2.

I also noticed that having everyone back in the village had a very positive impact on its social and economic life. This year, none of the households had to hire daily wage labourers for any chores as there was a surplus of family members present. I saw and heard of numerous cases where families have revived and cultivated land that they had left barren for several years. Many of the youth mentioned that they are now faced with a simple choice of either looking for a government job or finding a more sustainable and reliable source of livelihood.

During the lockdown, my villagers started re-distributing barren land amongst the youth for irrigation and cultivation. I was surprised to see how much these youth seemed to enjoy farming and working on the land. The period of the lockdown was used productively as these youth managed to learn various skills needed for farming, orchard plantation, management of irrigation canals etc. In this time of uncertainty, this not only ensured that these youth were productively engaged but also ensured that they contributed to the well-being of the village.

Over the last few decades, most development in Ladakh has been centred on Leh. As a result, many people from rural Ladakh migrated to Leh in search of jobs and educational opportunities. However, none of us expected our world to be turned upside down in the manner that COVID-19 has done. Many people have now started appreciating that rural life is more sustainable and fulfilling than life in urban areas like Leh. I have heard many people announcing that they now intend to return and stay in their villages for longer periods each year to practice farming, nurture plantations, and irrigate fields.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an important wake up call. It has helped people evaluate their lifestyles while appreciating the importance of rural life and underlined its sustainable nature. It has also forced people to realise the need for sustainability in an unpredictable world. The realisation of the fickleness of current frameworks is probably one of the biggest lessons of COVID-19 for Ladakh. It is also an opportunity to help people value the importance of happy and fulfilling lives over one based on earning money. In my opinion, the UT Administration should use this opportunity and push for a more sustainable form of development for Ladakh in the wake of COVID-19 with the rural economy at its core.

Photograph and text by Tsering Stobdan

Tsering Stobdan is a part of the editorial team at Stawa

COVID-19: An opportunity for localisation

COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 is known to have emerged from Wuhan in Hubei province of China in December 2019. Since then, it has become a global health emergency that was declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 11 March, 2020. This new strain of virus is creating havoc worldwide. It has affected almost every sector in some way or the other and has disrupted normal social and economic functioning. The global spread of this infection has restricted international and domestic travel with many countries enforcing a lockdown and mandating social distancing which has impeded the global supply chain of various commodities.

Prior to the outbreak of this pandemic, it was believed that globalisation will lead to development and prosperity. However, the whole scenario has changed now with almost every part of the world under some form of lockdown, which has posed a major challenge to the fulfillment of the demand for various goods and services. This is has shifted focus on the importance of the ‘local’.

The situation was no different in Ladakh when restrictions were placed on the transportation of various supply chains during the crucial period (summer months). I am describing summer months as a ‘crucial period’ for Ladakh as it is the only period when we are open for economic activities. This is difficult in the rest of the year with the onset of winter when the roads to the outside world remain closed for several months each year. Ladakhis stockpile all basic commodities in the summer to last them for the rest of the year.

During the lockdown, vegetables and fruits were nowhere to be seen in Ladakh and there was a shortage of other food items too. This was primarily due to travel and transport restrictions at a time when these commodities are usually brought to Ladakh. Such a situation calls for a return to the days of the past, when Ladakh was a self-sustaining and self-reliant kingdom and dependent on the outside world for very few commodities. However, with gradual improvement in connectivity and the increased impact of globalisation, we became dependent on the outside world for each of our basic necessities and economic development.

The arrival of tourists from 1974 onwards, revolutionised Ladakh’s economy with many preferring to invest in tourism-based businesses instead of traditional agriculture and animal-based livelihoods. In time, the occupational shift became so prominent that people in Ladakh are now completely dependent on the transportation of basic commodities such as vegetables, fruits, and oils from the outside world.

Here I am not saying that we should all move back to traditional agriculture and animal farming when the world is going in a different direction. However, I am trying to highlight the unsustainable dependence we have nurtured to meet even of our basic needs, which we can easily be produced in Ladakh. For instance, a wide variety of vegetables and basic goods like oil, butter, flour, etc can be produced in Ladakh and imports can be reduced as we scale-up local production. Once we have enough production in Ladakh, there will be no need to transport them from outside. At the same time, there would be more employment and people would not need to migrate outside for job opportunities.

Localisation doesn’t mean to necessarily become completely self-reliant. Instead, it refers to a reduction in the distance between producers and consumers and consequent need for unnecessary transportation. This idea of being local has been emphasised by German economist E. F. Schumacher in his book Small is Beautiful (1973) and Swedish filmmaker and author, Helena Norberg-Hodge in her film Economics of Happiness (2012).

Ladakh has the potential to be a self-reliant and self-sufficient Union Territory wherein we will not need to unnecessarily transport basic goods from outside as they can be grown and produced in the region. This includes vegetables and fruits as well as education facilities and job opportunities. There are many advantages to being local and consuming locally-produced goods. It ensures a quality assurance for products as one can trace its origins easily. Perishable vegetables and fruits will be safer to consume with less chemical content and preservatives, which in turn will help boost our immunity to withstand various infections.

We already have numerous goods being produced locally with several entrepreneurs making new innovations. For instance, the current increased demand in facemasks and hand-sanitisers has led to many volunteers producing these locally in Ladakh. These are small acts of being local. Localisation also has a number of positive environmental impacts. The reduction in unnecessary transportation will lead to a major reduction in the carbon footprint of each commodity, help conserve natural resources, reduce environmental pollution, ensure food security and mitigate climate change. In addition, it will create new job opportunities, reduce economic conflicts and increase contentment amongst local communities.

In my opinion, we must consider the COVID-19 pandemic as a wakeup call from nature. It signifies that it is time for us to give back to nature what we have been taking from it till now. It is not the last pandemic and global disaster that we will have to overcome. Hence, it is essential that we learn our lessons so that we are able to overcome these challenges when we face them again. Moreover, each disaster has a lesson it, which serves as an opportunity to make changes for the future. I feel it is the right time to reboot the system, build local capacity, and promote local production to create a more resilient society with a localised economy.

By Thinles Chondol

Thinles Chondol is currently working as a Young Professional at the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India

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.

Prejudice in the time of coronavirus

A high-pressure situation generally brings out the best and worst in people. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different. It has underlined various prejudices, ignorance and visceral divisiveness amongst people around the world. While more than a million people around the world cutting across race, religion, gender, and other superficial differences have been affected by COVID-19, people have still found ways to target specific communities to blame for the pandemic.

Perhaps the most famous and public expression of prejudice was US President Donald J Trump referring to COVID-19 as ‘Chinese Virus’. This was echoed by several right-wing leaders and media-persons with such political leanings. In practice, this led to a racial backlash against persons of Chinese origin who were blamed for the pandemic.

India too has been susceptible to this trend. There are numerous cases of racial prejudice faced by Ladakhis and persons from the Northeast India, in the Indian plains. Perhaps the most common expression of this prejudice and ignorance is when people from Ladakh and India’s Northeast are being taunted with racial slurs. There were several cases of Ladakhi students being asked to vacate their rented spaces. There are numerous cases where this ignorance has taken a more unpleasant expression. There are cases of people hurling abuses, spitting and threatening physical violence against people from Ladakh, the Northeast or others with similar racial and ethnic features.

In addition, in India the Muslim community has also faced the brunt of prejudice and discrimination with many blaming members of the community for spreading the virus in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken on a communal hue in India after news of the Tablighi Jamaat convention in New Delhi became public. In the midst of a generally professional approach to a pandemic, there were some disturbing news reports of some doctors refusing to treat Muslim patients because of their religion. Islamophobic memes started to appear on social media and hash-tags such as #CoronaJihad and #TablighiVirus were trending on social media.

Former Chief Minister of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state, Omar Abdullah condemned the communalisation of the pandemic through a tweet on 31 March where he wrote, “Now the #TablighiJamat will become a convenient excuse for some to vilify Muslims everywhere as if we created & spread #COVID around the world.”

Many of these prejudices have been evident in Ladakh. In early March as the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Ladakh, it emerged that the patients had returned from a pilgrimage in Iran. While there was no overt expression of discrimination, many people privately expressed their prejudices with regard to the Muslim community for bringing COVID-19 to Ladakh. People, including highly educated individuals and religious leaders, would freely cite un-verified claims circulating on social media and television to justify their prejudices.

Furthermore, migrant labourers in Ladakh were at the receiving end of prejudices as fear of COVID-19 peaked in Ladakh. Many Ladakhis were being thrown out of their rented spaces by landlords who feared contracting COVID-19 from them. Each year hundreds and thousands of migrant labourers from different parts of India and Nepal arrive in Ladakh by March; and have played a pivotal role in building Ladakh. However, this year, many of them were forced to leave their rented spaces in Leh, Changthang, Nubra, Sham and Lalok. Furthermore, landlords in two neighbourhoods of Leh asked even their Ladakhi tenants to leave and return to their villages.Such actions left many migrant labourers and Ladakhi tenants in a lurch. The district administration tried to counter these actions by warning landlords of legal action, while also providing ration and financial support to some migrants to return home. The UT Ladakh administration has also put social media group administrators on notice for the content being shared and discussed on their groups.

It is unfortunate that Ladakhis, people from the Northeast and Muslim communities have had to bear the brunt of people’s prejudice and ignorance. However, it is equally unfortunate that many people in Ladakh too acted on their prejudice, ignorance and fear to target vulnerable groups of people, especially migrant labourers and people from rural Ladakh. At a time when containing the virus should be our collective priority and when unity is a necessity, people around the world have submitted to their deeply held prejudices and fears. In contrast, coronavirus does not differentiate on the basis of race, class, caste, religion, gender, or for that matter age. We will hopefully develop a vaccine for COVID-19 and other such viruses. But how will we find a cure for the prejudices, ignorance and deep-seated hatred we seem to be nurturing within ourselves?

By Tashi Lundup and Sunetro Ghosal

Tashi Lundup and Sunetro Ghosal are part of the editorial team at Stawa.

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.

A race to save the race!

The idea that the Earth belongs to each and everyone equally was earlier limited to textbooks and some books. Time has come when this idea takes centre stage and we remind ourselves that the planet truly belongs to everyone. Humans are social animals that have misused their intelligence to such an extent that nothing matters in front of them other than their money and power. Time and again nature has tried to remind humankind of this truth through natural calamities such as earthquakes, tsunamis, floods,heavy downpours, uncontrolled fires and so on to create a semblance of balance. Humankind has had no time to pause and learn from these events.

Rather humankind never wanted to learn and take time away from their ‘busy schedules’. Now the whole world is on standby mode courtesy a tiny virus: Coronavirus. Really, it’s hard to believe at first but then the world has been aware of the adverse effects of the action of ‘super intelligent and over ambitious humans’ who have left no stone unturned to exploit the planet. Never before in history, be it wars or natural calamities, has the world come under one common roof i.e. the roof of lockdown.

This period of lockdown is an opportunity for the human race to think of ways to curb over-exploitation of Mother Earth. It is difficult to imagine something like this on a global scale but if individuals start making changes then it will have an impact. This time it’s not only about having an impact but also about reaching an actual solution. The Earth needs to be balanced and shared equally by all species in a real sense. World leaders who are making various announcements should also focus on stringent schemes for the well-being of the planet. This may ensure that when this lockdown period ends, humans will not jump to exploit the planet once again. 

Dolphins and various species are once again being seen in the rivers of Italy for the first time in 60 years. They were displaced from these waterways due to human action and pollution. The Ganga and Yamuna are sacred for Hindus. Yet, they have been over-burdened by various forms of pollution. There were big plans to clean those rivers with little results. Yet, now these rivers are close to their original form. Clearer blue skies in the plains and improved air quality is clearly evident with each passing day. Peacocks are being seen walking gracefully along empty streets in different parts of the world and are a pure treat for the eyes. All this has been achieved only due to the lockdown and self-isolation norms that have been implemented to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Amidst all the chaos that the world is experiencing currently, these are certain things that can helpus see this period from a different perspective. It teaches humans to not take everything around them for granted. Be it the human race, nature or any of the species, large or small, that shares this planet with us. All of us deserveto exist on the planet equally. The Earth is indispensable and has survived through bitterly cold and exasperatingly hot periods, with and without dinosaurs. This brings to mind a proverb that provides an apt description of our relationship with the planet. “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” The wisdom of this proverb should act as a deterrent for us humans from trying to make profits at the cost of destroying the planet.

On a lighter note, the current situation is surely a race to save the human race! Let’s hope humans emerge victorious in this race and take this lockdown period as a life lesson to correct their ways.

By Deachen Yangdol

Deachen Yangdol is a mechanical engineer. She has worked in the corporate sector in New Delhi and is now based in Leh.