Ladakh : Living on brink of ecological disaster

Sonam Angmo
Ladakh, the much pronounced Himalayan heaven,
recorded by scholars as the ‘Last Shangrila’, evoking
its central Asian roots now ushers in a closure of its
roads as icy winters loom ahead.
But beware, dear reader this Himalayan heaven may not remain a heaven if one chooses to continue trampling over its delicate ecosystem when the tourist roads open next year in the month of April. Let Ladakh rest and heal from the plastic bulldozing it has received. Leh-Ladakh oversaw an unprecedented no of tourists to the tune of 2.77 lakh in 2017 alone. This year the no has increased and will continue to grow, thanks to prominence it received in travel blogs, journals etc.
Much is talked about its splendid beauty in Bollywood movies and Television ads. The social networking sites remain abuzz throughout the year tweeting yet another avid traveller’s experience about Ladakh’s beauty. Behind the edited, glossed sections of travelogues and the countless digital catalogues praising its pristine landscape, one chooses to ignore the virulent pollution that has seeped into its fragile ecosystem. Ladakh is a cold desert that witnesses little rainfall and has sustained in the past on an agro based economy. The Ladakhis, (the indigenous population) were largely dependent on traditional farming of barley and wheat crops, livestock rearing, and vegetable production in many regions across Ladakh. Ladakh had a sustainable agrarian economy in harmony with nature. Economic progress also came in the supply of vegetables to the Indian army and for self consumption. People were content with their simple and sustainable livelihood often spending their nights reciting folktales and participating in traditional songs and dances. The rich cultural ethos was kept alive through storytelling by elders of the community, theatre festivals that revolved primarily around the Kesar saga, the vibrant Buddhist religious calendar and social festivals like Losar, also the celebration of Eid and Christmas made way for Ladakh’s syncretic community and culture. The simplicity, hardworking and cheery disposition of Ladakhis in the modern scenario has undergone a great shift where a consumerist, commercial urbane culture is the norm.
The meditative landscape of Ladakh is swallowed by high vehicular decibels emitting smoke clouds of diesel emissions and particulate matter. The melting glaciers at Siachen, is a case in point where according to local and international environmental surveys, Ladakh is on the verge of more natural disasters in the form of floods and landslides. In a report published by Karthkeyan Hemalatha for Aljazeera, there has been an upsurge in the melting of the Siachen glacier that is the sustenance of river beds across Ladakh. Not to mention the river beds being soiled with plastic waste. As opined by Hemalatha ‘The effects of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent in this pristine area, where the slightest variation in weather can cause havoc’. The fast melting of the glacier at the Khardungla pass on way to Nubra valley is a classic example of the effect of global warming and the heavy movement of vehicles with no standard vehicular emission controls whatsover.
What is deeply worrying is that Ladakhis are losing the traditional knowledge systems and innate wisdom of their ancestors’ wholesome, organic and harmonious lifestyle. In the wake of its bourgeoning tourist economy, Ladakh is slowly losing its roots. The tourism sector at present, makes for half(50%)of the total GDP of the Ladakh region, but with the economic boom and urbanisation of the place, urban place problems have also crept in. The villages of Ladakh are leaving behind their traditional, sustainable modes of living, where most of the households prefer the modern lifestyle and living. Whatever traditional, has been retained just as a showpiece or a remnant to be displayed to the impatient tourist eye. Many old traditional houses and farm lands are being dismantled, refurbished and remade as luxurious tourist bungalows and luxury retreats. These retreats under the garb of organic living often make use of commonplace diesel generators. The general fact that a large landfill exists in Ladakh sings testimony to the gargantuan garbage mould as a result of the tourist season. Not to be critical of the locals alone, but an equal blame is also to be shared by the domestic tourists. The latter’s demands and specifications doesn’t take into consideration the fact; that Ladakh has limited resources along with an equally fragile ecosystem which can sustain only a limited population. This fact is also echoed by the travel agencies and the governing bodies of Leh Ladakh who have immense pressure to cater to the demands of the tourists. The winter season of Ladakh is where the extremities in weather conditions reach its peak, where little to no tourists surface, the innate knowledge of one’s climate and region has ensured the survival of its inhabitants. Let this wisdom thrive in all seasons. The much awaited railway line project from Bilaspur, Manali to Leh promises to ensure greater connectivity and development and make Ladakh accessible for all seasons, this ideal has to be bridged with a sustainable outlook. This last decade in particular contributed to the tourism boom, but this boom wasn’t registered in other important sectors for instance, agriculture and growth of small scale, eco-friendly home grown industries which could have lessened the carbon print trail left by the tourism industry. Moreover, there hasn’t been much progress in producing sustainable and renewable sources of energy, solar energy still remains one of the untapped sources of renewable energy that can be put to good use. Ladakhis are engaged in the construction of tourist gateways instead of planning and implementing projects that would have yielded in the conservation of its awe inspiring landscape. The onus lies on all the stakeholders to harvest the tourist boom but have to keep keeping in mind the ecological and ethical considerations. The recognition bestowed at travel destination awards and the likes of sustainable energy awards shouldn’t yield to a complacent attitude but should promote real activism among the spirited youth and civil society members to make Ladakh a liveable and memorable destination for all. That is the very least that we can all do to ensure the survival of Ladakh. Ladakh’s civil society groups, local, pan-Indian, international NGOs and interestingly, foreign tourists and researchers have been the torchbearers of bringing in sustainable growth and development. The future of Ladakh’s basic survival doesn’t rest on its economic boom but on its close and harmonious relationship with nature. Sensitisation drives and awareness should be inculcated within every local and tourist who has to safeguard and respect the environment; the very basis of our survival.
(The author is an Assistant Professor at Govt. Degree College Samba)