We all will remember the dawn of 5th of August 2019 when the state of Jammu and Kashmir bifurcated into two union territories, the Union Territory of Ladakh, and the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir with legislature. The removal of Article 370 and with it Article 35 A proceeded simultaneously. For almost 70 years, the state of J&K was embalmed with a special status of (Article 370) primarily pertaining to permanent residence and jobs reserved only for the state subjects/citizens of Jammu and Kashmir. Needless to say, now the state domicile for the people of Ladakh has changed. The map of Jammu and Kashmir has been redrawn, the entire process has left many implications to be pondered upon.
Ladakh, for the longest time had been trying to get its fair share in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, but got neglected for the most part. The region didn’t register any real growth or development. The difficult mountainous desert terrain and landscape cemented its isolation from the rest of the country. From an independent Kingdom, Ladakh shrank into a remote province of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Although Ladakh’s strategic military importance was noted, Ladakh always wore the cloak of a remote inaccessible region.
If one looks at the political history of Ladakh since 1948, one can see how the people of Ladakh fought hard for resources and basic facilities that the rest of the Indian population enjoyed. First the demand for Schedule Tribe status gained momentum in the 1960s, 70s, thereafter for greater autonomy the chant for Union Territory rang supreme. The local leadership of Ladakh (Leh and Kargil) spent all their lives protesting for autonomy of Ladakh in the form of UT. The granting of Schedule Tribe status to the Ladakh region and the formation of Leh and Kargil hill councils was a result of years of our elders’ commitment to bring back Ladakh’s identity.
The chorus for UT has finally been realised. Ladakh is now a Union Territory directly under the aegis of the Central Government. While the enormous struggle and aspirations of the people of Ladakh has found succour in the Union Territory status, and most of us rejoice in that declaration, however many things need to be examined. The people of Ladakh have a small population who embody a rich, unique cultural heritage and geography. Ladakh comprises a small mandate, but so do other smaller regions and states in the country. The topography and unique cultural, ethnic, racial identity of the place is such that it needs its own assembly of leaders to better govern its affairs. India’s north east is a case in point here. Although there are hill councils in place in Ladakh to understand and redress the region’s problems, their accountability and role should increase. Hill councils of Leh and Kargil have to ensure that the voices of their people are heard in a union territory set up. A place is known by its people and we ‘Ladakhspas’ (people of Ladakh) believe that our roots, our traditions, our natural environment and ecology should be preserved.
Privatisation hails Ladakh’s future. What needs to be channelled is good use of its rare resources. The creation of solar fields in Ladakh will greatly transform Ladakh and contribute towards sustainable development. The promotion of eco tourism is also essential in this regard. The economy of Ladakh relies heavily on tourism. The modernisation of Ladakh in recent years has been largely due to tourism. Many locals have gained economic independence from the tourism sector. With the removal of Article 370 and grant of Union Territory status, many big hospitality chains could open their outlets across Ladakh commercializing the entire pristine landscape. What will become of the countless locals whose livelihood comes from tourism? People fear losing their land and source of income. To allay such fears, land protection laws could be enforced by the centre. These safeguards are important not simply from an economic standpoint but more so from an environmental position. The ecology of Ladakh is extremely fragile and its landmass can only support a small population. To further corroborate this view, Ladakh is a cold desert, depending mostly on its glaciers for water. It is currently facing an acute water scarcity, which is barely enough for the locals how will it cater to others? The fast melting of Ladakh’s glaciers due to global warming issues a dire warning. The excesses of the local tourism industry over the years has left a significant carbon print trail, imagine the environmental damage a commercial tourism industry will do? The tourism sector of Ladakh has to rework itself in funding eco-friendly establishments. A diversification of economic opportunities for the locals besides tourism is the need of the hour. The centre needs to look into these concerns and challenges. An environmental global wakeup call is underway following the occurrence of natural disasters across the world. This new chapter of Ladakh owes it to its successive generations to invest in a developmental paradigm that nurtures and safeguards its environment and culture.
While mainstreaming Ladakh has been the desired goal of its people, the process has to be such that protects their simplicity, their identity, values and aspirations. Although assurances have poured in from the centre and the local leadership vis a vis the safeguarding of the people’s interests, their culture and ecology, only time will tell. Sustainable progress of Ladakh is what our ancestors envisioned and what we and our successive generations would nurture. Jammu and Kashmir is now our neighbour, a separate union territory, but an emotional connect will always be there.
In the past, I thought a UT resolution for Ladakh was perhaps a utopian dream, well everything is possible. A new narrative unfurls. I am hopeful for the future.