Whither Autonomy of Union Territory of Ladakh

Gautam Sen
Govt. of India has reorganised the state of Jammu & Kashmir by enacting the Jammu & Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019, passed by India`s Parliament. The Act has been formalized by presidential assent, and as per the relevant Government notification, the reorganisation will take effect on 31st October, this year. Consequent on the enactment, the existing province gets bifurcated into two Union Territories (UTs). As per Article 3 of the Act, one of the UTs will be Ladakh without a legislature. The avowed objective as per Statement of Objects and Reasons appended to the Act, is to fulfill the long-pending aspirations of people of Ladakh Division of the state for development of their large, sparsely populated region with very difficult terrain. The needs of border development and strategic requirements of this sensitive region, have obviously been factored in, also.
Only recently on 8th February, 2019, this sensitive border region of India and part of the state of Jammu & Kashmir, was administratively reorganized by creating a Ladakh Division encompassing Leh and Kargil districts, having ethnically different compositions viz. the Kargil Shia Muslim and Buddhist Leh areas. At that time, the same reasons as now conveyed through the above-referred Act, were put forth by the Governor-ruled state administration, for establishing the Leh administrative-cum-revenue division. Interestingly, there has neither been a clear appraisal as to how the new divisional commissionery has been functioning nor an assessment on the effectiveness of its interface with the Autonomous Hill Development Councils at Leh and Kargil, which have been in existence since June 1995 and July 2003, respectively.
If the autonomy already available to the Leh and Kargil districts under the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Act,1997 (the Act was given retrospective effect from 1st June, 1995) of the Jammu & Kashmir state legislature, which is main instrument for autonomous governance of these districts, is not affected or curtailed in any manner after conversion of the Ladakh division into a UT, and the new Lieutenant Governor (LG) of Ladakh functions without interference from the Union Government in respect of the functional areas delegated under the above-mentioned statute, the welfare of the region and its people and the issues of infrastructural backwardness, etc, will be taken care of. However, in the present charged political atmosphere and many looming imponderables in matters of governance, the future appears uncertain.
With Ladakh as an UT without a legislature, all powers under the Union, State and Concurrent Lists of the Indian Constitution will henceforth be exercisable by the Union Government. Whether this is a desirable framework of administrative functioning, needs to be carefully assessed and only the future will tell. For the welfare of this UT`s people, substantive autonomy which can be availed of with existing administrative and public delivery systems` capacities and scaled up progressively, is the need of the hour. There is no indication that these aspects have been thought of, and a process set in motion for harmonizing the needs of effective autonomous governance specially suited to local needs, through UT status but without reducing any element of the existing autonomy and peoples` participation ie. representative governance. After enactment of the Jammu & Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019, as a demonstrative public confidence building measure for the people of Kargil and Leh districts, an executive order by way of a gazette notification should be issued by MHA, committing to the continuance of the functional autonomy bestowed by the Ladakh Hill Development Council Act, 1997.
The powers available to the autonomous district councils of Leh and Kargil within the ambit of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Act of 1997, are substantial. They cover land allocation and management, formulation of plans for the region, overseeing the utilization of plan development funds and schemes within the purview of these plan schemes and projects, employment generation, cooperative institutions, management of forests and water courses, development of local road transport, to mention some of the salient functional areas. These powers should not be tinkered with under the new dispensation of the UT.
Under the UT constitutional polity, the Ladakh divisional commissioner`s role will in all probability become superfluous. The LG should be able to exercise his or her constitutional and administrative powers through the respective deputy commissioners of the two districts. In the development domain, the chief executive councilors should be the main political executives, operating through the respective deputy commissioners and the councils` administrative functionaries. Unlike in the case of other UTs, the role of LG, Ladakh should be more benign except in regard to internal security, defence-related and communication matters. Though the UT will not be having a legislature on the pattern of Delhi or Puducherry, the prospective LG is expected to have an onerous responsibility to oversee and make a success of a virtually dyarchical system. The LG will perforce, have to factor in public opinion and demands in governance matters, within a democratic framework in these two districts of Ladakh. At present this is achieved through the instrumentality of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Act and the statutory entities of the Leh and Kargil district councils constituted by direct elections by their people. It will be a test of political acumen and administrative astuteness of those in the Union Government, its Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) who are piloting the changes and would be instituting the new politico-administrative structure, to take care of the above-mentioned public governance needs. Centralising powers in an LG, particularly in a person with an agenda drawn up by a select few in the Central hierarchy, oblivious or unaware of local ethnic specifics, unique development needs quite distinct from those of the Kashmir Valley and Jammu region, will be a disaster.
Ladakh region cannot thrive without the proper arterial connectivity with the Kashmir Valley and to an extent with Himachal Pradesh. The sustainability of the Indus river basin, power development needs of the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh region, tourism and the agro-based economy of the area, are inter-dependent. While reorganizing the administrative-cum-legal framework for the UT of Ladakh, these factors should be given due weightage. A reduction in the administrative set-up of the existing Ladakh divisional commissioner, with strengthening of the establishment of deputy commissioners and along with enhanced delegation to sanction developmental schemes and projects to the functionaries of the existing Autonomous District Councils of Leh and Kargil, is necessary to make the new UT functionally viable, economically robust, strategically strong and representatively governed.
The new dispensation under a LG for Ladakh UT, should provide for retention of all the existing powers if not augmentation of all executive and financial powers of the Autonomous District Development Councils. The Councils` functional domain should be statutorily widened after about a year`s experience. The objective should be to ensure that new statutory and administrative arrangements bestow on the chief executive councilors full powers to formulate, sanction and fund the schemes and projects within the scope of the existing Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils Act, up to the extent funds are allocated to them through a process of devolution from Central sources and accretion of revenue raised under the powers of the Leh and Kargil district councils duly elected by their people. Since the Union Govt. will henceforth be having full powers of administering this territory, it is an obligation for MHA to ensure that this writ is based on representative governance.
(The author is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior appointments under Government of India, State Governments and in Jammu & Kashmir. The views are personal.)