Ladakh celebrates its Union Territory status but concerns remain
At the edge of Chochut village, considered Ladakh’s largest, a group of young men are waiting outside a hall for the guests to arrive. A marriage is taking place. The lilting strains of the stokhna inside belie the worry in everyone’s mind that the aftermath of a cloudburst in Nubra Valley, roughly 160 kilometres away, could wash away the celebrations.
26-year-old Irfan Hussain, who is in wait outside with his friends welcoming guests, speaks of a different sort of worry. After the announcement of the abrogation of article 370 and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, one in Ladakh without a legislative assembly, the region will now see a sea of changes. Hussain says he has “mixed feelings”.
He’s happy for the jobs he hopes that will come in the wake of the announcement; he’s been looking for one ever since he completed a long distance post graduate degree from Indira Gandhi National Open University. He feels that most of the jobs were reserved for those in Jammu and Kashmir.
Yet, he says, his hopes come with a fair amount of trepidation. “We are now free, and will engage directly with the Centre for funds. But there are dangers to our culture if we allow outsiders to buy land here,” he says as he stands beside a large swathe of what is known as ‘common land’, land the government has given to the community. He says he’s now not sure if the land will stay within the community.
The method chosen for the abrogation of Article 35A and 370, he says, is unlawful. “The move is not constitutional at all,” he says.
Amid the initial joy of the declaration that Ladakh will now be a Union Territory, locals in and around Leh are now worried that letting in outsiders will come with its own price. There are dangers to the erosion to the ethnic identity of the closed community, and the dangers of ecological imbalance that tourists have been bringing along with them already. Water is scarce, and glaciers are melting.
Hussain’s worry finds an echo in the opinions of SN Razvi, founder chairperson of Imamiya Mission. Razvi runs a school for the children of Chochut with his wife. He welcomes the move to declare Ladakh a UT, but has his reservations about the lifting of Art 35A and 370. He says that Ladakhi Muslims were not supporting the demand for a UT unless Kargil and Leh were accounted for together. The reason, he says, is that while Muslims are a minority in Leh, they are a majority in Kargil. “In Leh and Kargil, Muslims account for 46%,” he says.
Apart from the land and ecological problems, he hopes that the UT status comes with Scheduled Tribe status the people. “As part of Jammu and Kashmir, we were given a special reservation. I wonder if they will retain that,” says Razvi.
A few kilometres away from Chochut, in Mattho village, the jubilations are louder. Ladakh MP Jamyang Tsering Namgyal was born and brought up here. While Namgyal is busy preparing for a festival in another part of Ladakh, his father, 61-year-old Tenzin Dorjee is helping people haul some furniture into a shop. He has just come back from a medical camp organised by the Indian Army. “We are finally free from Kashmir, what could be better,” he says.
His son’s new-found fame notwithstanding, Dorjee wants his son to come back and lend a helping hand in the family’s farm.
Despite his gratitude to his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, for the new UT status to Ladakh, Namgya has sent a memorandum to union tribal affairs minister Arjun Munda, who was in Ladakh to inaugurate the Centre’s first outreach after the announcement -- a tribal festival. In the memorandum, Namgyal echoes an old demand for the region to be given ‘Tribal Area’ status under Article 244 and bring it under the provision of sixth schedule.
“The proximity of the Pakistan and China border and the presence of Indian Army and paramilitary forces underlines the strategic importance of this region and the vulnerability of the people,” Namgyal writes in his memorandum.
A similar memorandum has been sent to Munda by the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, asking for the very same demands. “As you would be aware that Ladakh region is predominated by 98% tribal population inhabiting a vast region having inhospitable climatic conditions … The fragile eco-system of the region also makes its tribal population vulnerable,” the memorandum reads.
As these worries are voiced across town, Leh district commissioner Sachin Kumar Vaishya says that the administration has been in wait for further orders from the Centre. “We have not been instructed about any administrative changes; in the next 10-15 days, the modalities will be clearer as the dust settles in Kashmir,” he says.
The worry of ecological disasters finds the loudest resonance among the young people in Leh. The area has a population of roughly 2.5 lakh and in winter the temperature dips to as low as -35 degree celsius, landlocking many in their homes. 27-year-old Ringzen Mingyur, who runs a resort on the Leh-Manali highway at Runtse, says that after the success of the Bollywood Film Three Idiots, the spurt of tourists have increased, putting a strain on the region’s fragile ecosystem. “Glaciers are melting, and the black fumes of diesel cars settle on glaciers polluting our waters. There is already a huge scarcity of water,” he says.
His friend 25-year-old Padma Otsan speaks of the solid waste that accrues year after year. “In the Zanskar Valley, the residents of Komic village had to move due to problems, already creating climate refugees. Will we be able to handle more,” he asks.
Indian biologist Raghunandan Singh Chundawat, who has worked in the region, says that one has to be more careful in an ecologically-sensitive region like Ladakh. “There should have been thought gone into the ecological degradation before the region was opened up to tourists. Now with more tourists likely to come in, the government should have strict regulations in place,” he says.
25-year-old Tsetan Choskit says that she and her friends worry whether Leh will be as safe after an influx of outsiders. “Crimes against women are rare. But will it remain the same,” she wonders.
Only time will tell.