Ladakh News

Ladakh's UT dilemma

By Dr. Syed Yassen, Stawa 12-19


New Delhi has finally made Ladakh a Union Territory (UT) after passing the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019. It has also read down Articles 370 and 35A that were inserted in the Indian Constitution at the time of J&K's accession to the Indian union. This development has significantly reduced the process of decentralisation.

There has been a popular misconception that Jammu has a majority of Hindus, Ladakh of Buddhists and that Kashmir only has Muslims while accounting for a relatively small share of the state's area. These assertions are not true. In Ladakh, the population of Buddhists and Muslims are almost equal and they have co-existed for centuries in the region. In terms of land, one cannot compare the productivity of land in Kashmir to that of Ladakh. Ultimately, quality matters over quantity. The large geographical area of Ladakh is not considered as a criteria for funding. The fertility of Ladakh's land is such that despite having less than 300,000 people, the people of the region are dependent on other regions for food.

Polyandry practice in Ladakh was the cornerstone of a sustainable economy as it lowered population growth in the context of scarce cultivable land. Though Ladakh accounted for nearly 60% of the erstwhile J&K state's surface area, it is unable to sustain 2.19% of its population. Ladakh is not comparable to Kashmir in terms of productive capacity. For instance, only 15,000 hectares of land in Ladakh is cultivable for food crops as compared to 3.29 lakh hectares in Kashmir. The assertion of physical size has been an important tool in Ladakhi politics. In reality, Ladakh has an import-oriented economy and needs to transport 40% of its food crops from outside and this number has been increasing since the mid-1970s when the region was opened to outsiders. A significant portion of this import is transported over the Zoji-la, which is not only cost effective but also a historical route that connected Kashmir and the plains with the Central Asian caravan trade.

Ladakh is of great geostrategic importance for India. The central objective for separating it from the rest of the state is to use it as New Delhi's storehouse for weaponry for possible wars, while also making the higher reaches of the region available for military use. In the past locals would resist when land would be transferred by elected leaders for military or government use. However, this sort of resistance is not possible in a UT framework as the Lieutenant Governor appointed by Government of India is the final authority and decision-maker, not the people. At the same time Ladakh also stands to lose its sovereignty and bargaining power and cede it to the centre. This endangers everything from land ownership to Ladakh's unique cultural heritage.

The tourism industry was largely protected by Articles 370 and 35A, which protected the interests of local service providers and added income to the local economy. Now technically-proficient professionals from outside may replace locals and facilitate the flight of tourist income from the region in the form of net service import. Also, the influx of tourists undermines the region's fragile ecosystem, whereas promotion of luxury tourism would generate more income while having less impact on the environment.

We have already exceeded the carrying capacity of Leh town, which is overburdened. It continues to attract more migrant labourers and unplanned development is a recipe for disasters. For instance, the 2010 cloudburst was worsened by human action and claimed 200 lives, while also causing damage to property in excess of Rs 133 crore (Rs 1,330 million). All this development also means additional vehicles on the roads that pollute the environment and worsen natural disasters. Ladakh is dependent on glacial melt-water. It has scarce water resources and limited rainfall. The rapid growth in the population has increased pressure on water sources and endangers the survival of future generations.

Now, non-Ladakhi entities have started expressing interest in building their own hotels. For instance, Maharashtra government has already announced its intention to build a resort in Ladakh. Such resorts will cater primarily to people from outside the region and will also require service providers from outside. They would send their income back to their homes and drain wealth from Ladakh even while it exerts pressure on environmental resources in the region.

Government of India's idea of establishing large companies and industries in Ladakh are just an illusion and not based on facts. Ladakh is not Haryana, Gujarat, or Maharashtra where it is possible to build large industries to generate employment and maintain production capacity throughout the year. In Ladakh, such industries would be governed by the harsh climatic conditions and a working period that would last only six months each year. Thus, rational entrepreneurs would prefer to invest in other areas over Ladakh. Also, industries would pollute Ladakh's fragile ecosystem.

Ladakh is also rich in various valuable natural resources that have been part of our ecosystem for thousands of years. The unnecessary extraction of these resources would not only drain the region's wealth but also endanger the environment and the sustainability of human habitation that has survived several millennia.

Employment generation is another important issue in the region today. For instance, more than 70 candidates apply for each non-gazetted post at the district level. Earlier Ladakhi students could benefit from the four-tier structure of district, division, state and national level posts. After being declared a UT, candidates can only apply for district-level posts and gazetted posts will be recruited through Union Public Service Commission through all India competitive examinations. Earlier candidates would have the option of serving in different positions in 22 districts of the erstwhile J&K state. This has now been reduced to two districts in Ladakh. This has reduced the scope of employment in the government sector. At the same time, Ladakhi officials serving in various positions in other regions of the erstwhile state have returned to fill vacant posts in the UT of Ladakh, which has further reduced opportunities available to unemployed youth in the region.

Over all, Ladakh region, especially Kargil, has much to lose in terms of its socio-cultural heritage and economic opportunities, after being declared a UT. Today, economic convergence plays a vital role to integrate different societies. Kargil's economy has improved to some extent over the last four decades due to ease of access to markets in Kashmir. Leh, on the other hand, has benefited from better public infrastructure and employment opportunities in the tourism sector.

Now people will no longer have access to cost-effective public health services in Kashmir and its educational institutions. Also, UT will not reduce the economic gap between the two districts of Ladakh. Government of India has never considered Kargil district to be as important as Leh district. It has generally treated Kargil as a subsidiary of Leh. The decisions to establish the headquarters of Ladakh Division, offices of Ladakh Affairs department, opening of medical college and hospital, UT administration etc are examples of this bias. Earlier, we would blame Kashmiri politicians for being biased against Ladakhis and creating divisions and inequality in Ladakh. Now, we will blame each other. These will only increase tension and insecurity in the region.