Ladakh News

Missing fresh vegetables: No end to winter woes

By Tashi Lundup and Murtaza Fazily, Stawa 02-20

Chaos outside a cooperative shop selling vegetables in Kargil, Ladakh

Chaos outside a cooperative shop selling vegetables in Kargil, Ladakh

Ladakhis face a number of challenges each winter. The inclement weather, closure of the Manali and Srinagar highways, and exorbitant airfares make life miserable for the people of Ladakh in the winter. Perhaps the most important challenge is something that people outside take for granted: Access to fresh vegetables and fruits.

Sonam Angchuk, a resident of Skara-Yokma in Leh explained, "Each winter I get concerned about the lack of vegetables. Both my children are young and they need a healthy diet. However, they do not have access to vegetables and fruits in the winter." His apprehension is shared by people across Ladakh.

Furthermore, District Health Officer, Leh, Dr Mohammad Iqbal underlined the importance of fresh vegetables and fruits for our health as it contains micro-nutrients, fibre and anti-oxidants. "The majority of the people of Ladakh are dependent on dried vegetables in the winter. People are not getting an adequate supply of vegetables for a healthy diet. As a result, they suffer from a deficiency of Vitamin C in winter. Though we get Vitamin D from sunlight, we still have many cases of Vitamin D deficiency as people keep their bodies covered in the winter. Small children need plenty of vitamin and micro-nutrients in their diet. In addition, the lack of fibre leads to problems such as constipation, intestinal problems, etc. It is important for people to eat fresh vegetables in the winter," he added.

Zoji-la: The lifeline of Ladakh

Zoji-la remains closed about five months each winter due to heavy snowfall on the pass. Each year, the government starts stocking essentials for the winter before the pass is closed for traffic. In 2019, Zoji-la closed early due to unexpected snowfall. The pass was reopened in the second week of December for a few days but the stocking of essential goods could not be completed in this period.

As a result of this, the stocking of winter supplies remained incomplete. A shopkeeper in Kargil explained, "Zoji-la was closed for the whole of November due to snowfall. If the trucks stranded at Sonamarg were allowed to pass through we wouldn't have suffered like this."

We asked the President of Merchant Association in Kargil Haji Abbas about the current state of stocks. He replied that only 40% of stocking was completed. "We used to complete the stocking of essential things for winter by November. However, we could not do so this time. The current stocks will last till March. We don't know what will happen after that. There is a scarcity of salt and pulses. There was a lot of political turmoil last summer and the national highway was closed for many weeks. After this, Zoji-la closed early and impeded stocking for the winter," he added.

Lieutenant Governor (L-G) of UT Ladakh, R. K. Mathur, IAS (Retd) had convened a meeting in November 2019 to explore the possibilities of keeping Zoji-la and the Manali highways open through the winter. However, both roads remain shut due to heavy snowfall. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had laid the foundation stone to start the work on the Zoji-la tunnel in May 2018. Once completed, the 14.2 km long tunnel is expected to provide all-weather land connectivity for Ladakh and ensure continuous supply of essential commodities, including vegetables. The Hon'ble Member of Parliament from Ladakh, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal had underlined the importance of Zoji-la tunnel during his Parliamentary election campaign in 2019 as had his predecessor, Thupstan Tsewang during his campaign in 2014. We asked J. T Namgyal why Zoji-la is highlighted only during elections and why there has been no progress in this matter. He replied, "It is not good to politicise such things. I agree that people are facing a lot of problems and the only solution is to open the pass and providing better air services. I will do my best to address these issues during my tenure."

When asked about the shortage of vegetables in Ladakh, J. T Namgyal said, "We had some good and bad experiences this year. From next year, we will arrange vegetables through our own Self Help Groups to make it available in Ladakh throughout the winter."

A 'stale' New Year

Life slows down in the winter and people in Ladakh generally look forward to spending time with family and celebrating Losar. However, this year Losar celebrations lacked the usual joy and happiness. A resident of Thiksay, Tsering Namgyal said, "We did not enjoy Losar due to the shortage of onions and the lack of vegetables. We could not serve any delicious dishes to our guests. It was embarrassing."

There were a few lucky people such as Choglamsar resident Stanzin Ladol who managed to get vegetables for Losar. She said, "I was in Delhi for work and my mother asked me to bring vegetables back with me. Luckily, I was flying with Air India, which has a higher luggage allowance, and I managed to get a few kilos of vegetables that we were able to serve to our guests for Losar."

Others like Padma Angmo, who is a nurse by profession, has to send her mother to Jammu each winter. "My mother is a patient and needs green leafy vegetables in her diet. Since it is not possible to get green vegetables in Ladakh in winter, I am forced to send her to Jammu each winter. This creates hardships but it is the only option we have," she explained.

Crowds at a Cooperative shop selling vegetables in Leh, Ladakh

Crowds at a Cooperative shop selling vegetables in Leh, Ladakh

Government intervention

Each winter, Ladakh depends on air cargo to meet the demand for fresh vegetables and essential commodities. Till 2019, L-MM Leh used cargo services of commercial airlines to transport vegetables and other commodities. In 2019, LAHDC, Leh tied up with the army to ferry 40 tonnes of cargo twice a week for civilian use.

According to Executive Councillor Agriculture at LAHDC, Leh, Phunchok Stanzin, the Union Territory Administration of Ladakh has allocated around Rs 10 crore (Rs 100 million) to transport essential goods. "We don't have the same problem of scarcity of vegetables we had last year. In fact, we have all the essential items stocked up for the year. There were some rumours about shortage of basic essentials but I have repeatedly been saying that we are well-prepared for the winters this year. Even if there is shortage, we have the capacity to ferry supplies from outside. Last year, the army supplied 50 tonnes of essential commodities for Ladakh and this year the capacity has been increased to 150 tonnes," he added.

CEC of LAHDC, Kargil, Feroz Ahmad Khan took stock of essential commodities and vegetables in the market on 6 January. The officers of Cooperative Department informed him that adequate quantity of onion and vegetables was being ferried by army flights. Two sale centres were established in Main Bazar and Baroo in Kargil town to sell 5kg packets of onion and vegetables. The CEC directed Cooperative Department, Kargil to ensure the sale and distribution of vegetables was fair and hassle-free. He also directed ADC, Kargil to conduct random checks on the distribution process. When asked about this system, Feroz Ahmad Khan said, "There was panic among the people about the availability of essential goods. This has now been resolved. Cooperatives department is distributing vegetables, fruits and essential goods through their retail shops in the market."

Deputy Registrar of Cooperatives Department, Ghulam Sultan Tak claimed that sufficient stocks were available to meet the demands of people of Ladakh for this winter. We have submitted the current stock details to the administration, which is also available online. []. A month back there was a rumour about shortages of basic commodities and people rushed to the market to buy whatever they could. It was chaos! We issued a statement asking people not to panic. In case there is any shortage, it will be airlifted," he added. We checked the website he mentioned and found a list of essential commodities. However, it does not provide any details about fresh vegetables and fruits. Even the essentials that it mentions do not seem sufficient for the number of people it has to serve till the roads re-open. For instance, on 7 February the sugar stock was 100kg and 90 kgs for Leh and Kargil districts respectively. The Cooperative Department could do better to quell rumours by disclosing how often it intends to source commodities and supply them to the public. This will leave little room for rumours.

When asked about vegetables, an official in the UT administration mentioned that the Cooperative Department has been mandated to source vegetables and supply it to the public in Kargil and Leh at a 'no-profit' basis. It was expected that five quintals would be available every day from Losar as compared to eight quintals being available each week last winter.

Assistant Registrar of Cooperatives, Skarma Tashi said that a total of 48 tonnes of vegetables have been supplied to Leh district this winter. "A total of 77 tonnes of vegetables were supplied to the public last year. We have already received 48 tonnes of vegetables till 6 February, 2020. Leh Hill Council has now increased the quantity of vegetables to 150 tonnes this year," he added." He further explained that vegetables such as cauliflower and onion are being transported from Chandigarh. "The frequency of vegetable supply depends on the army. We have to inform the army two days in advance when we are transporting vegetables. Sometimes it becomes difficult to airlift vegetables due to bad weather. Keeping this in mind, we only transport vegetables that do not perish easily," he added.

District Administration, Kargil passed order number F-12/ ADCK/PS/12/RF on 8 January, 2020 to set the rate for vegetables. It set the rate for cauliflower at Rs 50/kg, cabbage at Rs 40/kg, tomato at Rs 60/kg and onion at Rs 63/kg. The Department of Food Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs in Leh passed order no FCS&CA/ MRT/2020-2021/2298-2305 on 13 January, 2020 to set the rate for vegetables in Leh district. The notice explained that rates were calculated after adding cargo charges from Delhi, Chandigarh, Jammu and Srinagar and would remain valid till the Srinagar road opens this year. It has fixed the rate as Rs 135/kg for tomato, Rs 120/kg for spinach (palak), while the rate for snag (leafy vegetables), brinjal and cauliflower has been fixed at Rs 120/kg.

It is unclear why there is such a large difference in rates set in Leh and Kargil as both districts follow the same process to procure vegetables. Furthermore, people end up paying a much higher rate in the market. Commercial vendors in Leh town have been selling vegetables at Rs 160/kg. Ghulam Mohammad, a resident of Chushot lamented the failure of the Hill Council in this regard. "We are forced to pay Rs 160/kg of cabbage and brinjal as we don't have any other option," There are also reports of onions being sold for Rs 250/kg in a shop in Skara in January 2020. While the district administration has set the rates, there has been no effort to implement it and people have failed to complain when unscrupulous vendors overcharge for vegetables. We did not find any commercial vendors in Kargil selling fresh vegetables this winter. We tried calling people in Cooperatives Department as well as Food Supplies to get their reaction to this but they did not respond to our calls.

While we have not been able to cross-check the quantity and frequency of vegetables being supplied to Ladakh, there are multiple reports on chaotic distribution process. Many people complain that they did not receive vegetables even after standing in queue for hours. Phuntsog Dolma, a resident of Skampari, said, "Vegetables are hard to come by. We failed to get them even after waiting in queue for hours. The Hill Council should ensure that everyone gets vegetables!"

This was also echoed by people in Kargil. A woman from Kargil spoke on the condition of anonymity. She said, "We had to wait from early morning to noon for vegetables and in the end we did not get anything. Getting UT has not helped us in any manner. Everything seems to be the same. These problems are caused by the closure of Zoji-la along with the lack of a functional airport and commercial services in Kargil. The UT administration must look into these issues."

This was echoed by another lady in Kargil, who said, "We waited the whole day to get vegetables and then left empty-handed in the evening. Last year, we did not require ration cards to buy vegetables. This year they are demanding ration cards. They should announce these things well in advance."

Crowds at a commercial vegetable vendor in Leh, Ladakh

Crowds at a commercial vegetable vendor in Leh, Ladakh

This year, the government has made it mandatory for the public to produce their ration card at the time of purchasing vegetables from Cooperative shops. EC Phunchok Stanzin explained, "We had received complaints that sometimes two to three people from the same family would buy vegetables from the Cooperative market and then sell it in the open market. Therefore, we have asked people to produce their ration card at the time of purchase so that everyone gets vegetables."

While urban centres are still receiving a trickle of vegetables, things are very different in rural areas that do not receive any supplies. Councillor for Nyoma, Thupstan Wangchuk said, "Villagers in Nyoma block depend on dried vegetables as we never receive any supply of vegetable from the government."

In response to this criticism, the District Administration in Leh has started distributing vegetables to each block in the district. EC Phunchok Stanzin said, "Last year we were able to provide vegetables to very few areas. This year we are supplying vegetables to every block in the district."

This was echoed by Skarma Tashi who said that Block Development Committees have to inform the administration about their requirements for vegetables. "We have already distributed vegetables to many villages based on requests from the BDCs. However, we are yet to supply vegetables to some BDCs." Currently, vegetables in Kargil are only distributed in Kargil town and rural areas are left to fend for themselves.

Faced with shortages now, Leh district administration now plans to airlift vegetables on commercial airlines from 10 February. EC Phunchok Stanzin said, "The charges for cargo on commercial airlines is Rs 117 per kilo but we will provide vegetables for Rs 60 to Rs 65 per kilo to the public. We are dependent on the army but we will also use commercial airlines till Zoji-la opens by the end of March. We are expecting more vegetables in the coming days."

A lot of promises and claims have been made about providing fresh vegetables in Ladakh throughout the year. However, the actual effort to make this a reality seems to fall short. There are some efforts to use green houses to produce vegetables throughout the year. However, there are mixed opinions amongst health professionals on the nutrient value of vegetables grown in green houses.

When asked about vegetables grown in greenhouses, Dr Mohammad Iqbal responded, "It is difficult to say if the vegetables grown in greenhouses are organic or not. Vegetables grown in greenhouses are good for consumption if it is organic. Vegetables should not be grown in greenhouses using fertilisers. Given the lack of vegetables in the market, it is better to consume vegetables grown in greenhouses than stale ones being shipped from outside."

At the same time, people have forgotten traditional ecological knowledge of using various plants that grow in Ladakh throughout the year. This could augment the erratic supply of vegetables while also reducing the carbon footprint of vegetables being transported from the plains. Phunchok Stanzin appealed to youth to engage in agriculture practices. "The problem is that the youth are not interested in agriculture anymore." This has reduced the autonomy of communities and increased their dependence on the government for every service. Unfortunately, the current government machinery is ill-prepared to provide services it promises let alone respond to this growing dependence.