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.