Seven months after the Government of India read down Article 370, the ecological fragile region of Ladakh finds itself on shaky ground as talks about development surface now and then.
After the historic event on August 5, 2019, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP from Ladakh, said, “If Ladakh is underdeveloped today, then Article 370 and the Congress party are responsible for it.”
However, his statement in October the same year has been more memorable: “People who [want] to use the resources in Ladakh for selfish purposes are not welcome in the region.”
Speaking to the people of Ladakh, one acquires a sense of the anticipated insecurities that the people face in this time of confusion, chaos and building institutions and mechanisms from scratch.
Tashi Gyalson, a BJP member from Leh, painted a different picture. He said that as a region highly dependent on glaciers for water, Ladakh has borne the brunt of warmer climes in the last decade or so. He recalled that since 2010, after the deadly flash floods, the amount of snowfall has dropped and rains have become more frequent, both of which are bad news for Ladakh. Agriculture in Ladakh depends on melted snow to irrigate lands while the land’s forest, soil and wildlife aren’t adapted to heavy rainfall.
Gyalson expressed fear that a sudden spate of resource extraction, exploitation and expansion of tourism activities will only push regional ecosystems over the brink.
“Rampant exploitation and construction is something the region does not [have a capacity for,” Gyalson told The Wire. “Here in Leh, we don’t even have a drainage system. Hotels construct septic tanks that then contaminate the groundwater. If there is sudden exploitation, you will soon see the people of Leh migrating to other parts.”
Sajjad Kargili, a social activist from Kargil, said the people of Ladakh are confused because while the government has promised a better quality of life at the expense of the rich but fragile ecology, it has said nothing of policies to prevent glaciers from melting or stopping groundwater depletion and contamination.
“At least when we had Article 370, we were assured that outsiders would not be allowed to overpopulate the area, and there would be no heavy industrialisation that would jeopardise the ecology,” Kargili told The Wire. Now he said he fears the corporate lobby will swarm the state for favours.
According to him, glaciers like the Parachik in Kargil are melting rapidly, precipitating droughts during the summer and crippling agricultural productivity.
He also said of the wildlife, “The Deosai plateau that connects to Pakistan occupied Kashmir has a [number] of brown bears that migrate to Drass, but due to the presence of army men in such … areas, they migrate to inhabited villages and there have been reports of attacks on the villagers. How can one open such a fragile region to outsiders?”
Sonam Wangchuk, the noted innovator and reformist who runs the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, has been very vocal about the effects of the loss of Article 370 on Ladakh. He acknowledges the Narendra Modi government’s decision to make Ladakh a union territory but expressed concerns about whether the region’s indigenous people and biodiversity would continue to be protected under the sixth schedule of the Constitution.
“To survive in Ladakh, you need social capital more than financial capital; it’s a very challenging region and you need community support,” he told The Wire in an email. “The fear is that if Ladakh becomes a free-for-all, people will come with their industries and tourism,” and that the environment may not survive intact for it. And if the population increases “tenfold”, “it will undo the culture. In a place where 300,000 people barely survive, a population increase is going to bring no good. Ladakh cannot bear such an increase.”
Deldan Namgyal, a former MLA from the Nubra valley, explained that Ladakh’s minerals had been protected from mining thanks to Articles 370 and 35A. Since August 5, however, resource extraction has seemed a matter of when, not if. Residents of Leh have also said that after the bifurcation, Ladakh has been host to a larger contingent of armed personnel than usual, probably to safeguard business interests.
Considering even members of the ruling party have acknowledged the trouble Ladakh is in, it remains to be seen how the Centre’s actions will be received in the region.
Tarushi Aswani is an intern at The Wire.