Research in Ladakh: Status, gaps and opportunities

Reliable scientific data is a critical ingredient in the development of well-informed and evidence-based policy. By and large, this has been inadequate in the Indian context despite focusing on research and development (R&D) over the last seven decades. Scientists generally conduct research to generate and analyse data, which is then published in the form of journal articles, books, reports etc. The extent to which scientific data is used for policy-making remains unknown.

Evidence-based policies are anchored in actual processes and reflect real challenges. In contrast, opinion and ideology-based policies are shaped by views and experience of a few individuals involved in policy-making. Thus, evidence-based policies are more relevant for development as they are well grounded, have clearly defined issues, provide potential options to address these issues along with monitoring of impacts and outcomes. The evidence is meant to inform the policy process rather than influencing its objective.

However, evidence-based policy requires reliable data sets obtained by independent scientific organisations that are not directly involved in policy-making. Scientific and academic institutions generate large amounts of data, which are generally available in publications or in institutional archives. We need tools from the field of data sciences to convert these data sets into formats that are useful for policy and governance.

Many researchers claim that the Himalayas is one of the most data deficient regions on the planet. For instance, a recent report by ICIMOD titled The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment concluded that if current global warming scenarios continue, the Himalayan region will experience changes with temperatures rising beyond the Paris Agreement of 2015, including more rainfall and extreme weather events. However, scientists warn that inadequate data has prevented us from gaining a robust understanding of the impacts of a changing climate on the Himalayan region. The Himalayas are home to about 240 million people but currently lacks sufficient data to understand and mitigate climate change.

As part of its mandate to study the Himalayan environment, the G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment (NIHE) conducted an extensive survey of published literature on biodiversity of the region to evaluate if the region is really data deficient. This search yielded around 30,000 research articles, 5,000 doctoral theses and 4,000 books published on the Himalayan region in India, Nepal and Bhutan. While this represents a fairly large quantity of literature, the information it contains has not been translated into a format useable for policy development. Also, this information remains scattered and is not accessible on a single platform.

In this regard, there is need for an interface between policymakers and researchers to identify priorities for data generation. While ease of access to information can bridge some of these gaps, researchers are often reluctant to share their data. This will require a policy to promote data sharing and public archiving while also preserving the integrity of the researcher’s intellectual labour. In addition, availability of information on a common platform will create communications channels between the scientific community and policy-makers. All of this will help reinforce evidence-based policy making.

The newly-formed UT administration in Ladakh is striving to formulate policies for sustainable development of the region, including a vision to make it carbon neutral. This is an opportunity for Ladakh to prioritise evidence-based policies. Ladakh has a fragile and vulnerable environment. Traditionally, communities lived in scattered hamlets clustered around water resources while being well-adapted to local conditions with minimal environmental impact. In recent times, increasing population and intensified developmental activities have had a negative impact on the environment. Infrastructure development for tourism has led to intensified energy consumption, increased pollution, biodiversity loss etc. The declaration of Ladakh as a Union Territory is expected to increase human influx due to tourism and new employment opportunities.

In this regard, research and development institutions in Ladakh can play a critical role in generating scientific data to shape new policies. Currently, there are several research instituitions working in the region (Table 1). A majority of these insitutions focus on education, environment, and agriculture sector limited focus on social sciences, earth sciences, medical sciences etc. While existing research institutions can be engaged to inform suitable policies, this is also an opportunity to establish new institutions to fill current gaps. A consortium of existing organisations needs to be developed in Ladakh to create a comunication channel to exchange scientific ideas.

Table 1. Prominent research and development institutions in Ladakh (Year of initation)

After joining as a scientist at the newly-formed Ladakh Regional Centre of G.B. Pant NIHE in Leh, I started exploring research literature for Ladakh. I did an exhaustive search of global bibliographic databases to identify research papers, books and book chapters pertaining to Ladakh. This yielded around 3,000 publications of which a large majority focused on biodiversity followed by earth sciences and social sciences (Figure 1). I also found a gradual increase in scientific literature on Ladakh over a period of time (Figure 2).

Fig. 1 Subject-wise distribution of published literature
Fig. 2 Temporal growth of literature pertaining to Ladakh.

This literature represents a considerable volume of data for a region that is relatively small. However, the information in this published literature needs to be translated into a format useable for policy development. It needs to be compiled and collated for specific sectors that addresses policy and governance questions and identifies data gaps. Also, most research literature on Ladakh has been published by non-local scientists with limited contribution from local researchers. In this regard, Ladakhi reasearchers need to be promoted as they have a better understanding of issues and challenges with a direct stake in the future of the region.

As a new UT, Ladakh has a unique opportunity to form strong links between research and policy-making. A good example of how this can work in practice is the UT administration’s recent push to adopt organic agriculture in Ladakh. This requires research into various facets of agriculture. For instance, current varieties of apricots, apples, walnuts, buckwheat, etc are well-adapted for the conditions in Ladakh but there is a lot of scope to study their nutritional value. There is similar scope in other sectors too including handicrafts, traditional Amchi medicine system etc. Thus, the UT administration needs to work with the scientific and local communities to set research priorities to identify and tap the unique advantages that Ladakh enjoys. This will help the UT administration regulate the use of these resources while ensuring that they provide equitable benefit to the people of Ladakh.

Earlier in 2020, the Prime Minister of India articulated a vision to develop Ladakh as a carbon neutral region. This will require well-informed policies backed by scientific inputs. In this regard, the environmental impact of each sector of Ladakh’s economy will need to be scrutinised scientifically. The expertise of research institutions in Ladakh can be tapped to inventorise sources of carbon emission and identify energy sources and technologies with low carbon emissions. For instance, Ladakh has enormous potential for renewable energy sources such as solar and geothermal energy. There is need for research on how these resources can be tapped without harming the environment. While the government has initiated large renewable energy projects, research is needed to develop technologies to fulfil household-level energy needs. Such technology will help mitigate some impacts of large energy projects.

All this can happen only if research in Ladakh is strengthened and closely linked with policy and governance. Research projects addressing priority areas for Ladakh must be initiated to fulfil policy needs with a clear mechanism for accountability. Civil society too can be tapped to collect useful data through citizen science approaches. The first step will be to develop a research policy for Ladakh along with financial support, monitoring, evaluation, and a system for data retrieval and access. In addition, mechanisms need to be developed to communicate scientific research through periodic workshops and seminars that facilitate interactions between policy-makers and researchers.

By Dr Suresh Rana

Dr Suresh Rana is a scientist at the Ladakh Regional Centre, G. B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment, Leh

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