By Stanzin Lhaskyabs, Stawa 12-18
It is unusual for Ladakh to be in the national spot-light. Yet it has been attracting attention from India's national media since October 2018 after the final location survey for the Bilaspur-Manali-Leh (BML) railway track got underway. Such all-weather connectivity projects promise security and development to the people of Ladakh, but there is little discussion in the mainstream media on whether it can deliver these results.
The number of tourists visiting Ladakh has increased from a few thousand in the 1990s, to more than 270,000 in 2017, which is equal to the total population of the region. While tourism is boosting the local economy, it has also raised concerns over its effect on the fragile environment of Ladakh. The uncontrolled influx of tourists adds to the region's growing environmental insecurity. The mushrooming of hotels has led to a reduction in water level and recently a group of researchers found contaminants in Leh's ground water. This contamination can be attributed to the popularity of non-traditional water-based toilets in hotels and the absence of a functional sewerage system.
The glaciers in the region have started melting rapidly leading to severe water shortage in the summer. Sonam Wangchuk, who received the 2018 Ramon Magsaysay award, has mentioned in an interview that carbon emission from tourist vehicles is a major reason for the melting of Ladakh's glaciers. Waste has started piling up in the region due to mass tourism. Pangong-tso and other popular tourist destinations are now littered with plastic waste.
Tourism also disturbs wild animals. For instance during the Raid de Himalaya rally in summer, motor vehicles with powerful engines invade biodiversity-rich areas in their pursuit of thrills and cash prizes. Their mindless pursuit disturbs wild as well as domesticated animals in different parts of Ladakh. What is problematic about such races is that most drivers are barely aware of local cultural norms and ecological cycles. The general tendency to drive off-road to make the race more competitive and adventurous only adds to the problem. Ladakh's flora and fauna are currently flourishing only in such off-road locations and face severe threats from such activities. Wangchuk warns that if this issue is not addressed, Leh city will soon turn into a 'deserted moonscape'. This echoes Sonam Angmo's argument in The State Times where she argues that the basic survival of Ladakh depends on its people's relationship with nature rather than their economic progress.
Connectivity or accessibility?
The completion of the first phase of the BML railway survey in October 2018 was celebrated by the media as a project of strategic importance for India. All-weather connectivity to Ladakh is part of New Delhi's response to various military developments across the lines of control that India shares with China and Pakistan. Incidentally, the first vehicular road connecting Ladakh to the rest of the country was built in the wake of wars that India fought with these two nation-states. In contrast, Zangskar valley remains poorly connected with the outside world and pregnant women still have to walk on the frozen Zangskar river in the winter to access healthcare facilities. Zangskar's poor connectivity does not bother New Delhi as it does not face any external security threat. There is a popular narrative that all-weather connectivity will boost Ladakh's economy by attracting more tourists. However, this narrative is illogical as the mainstream media remains ignorant of the problems caused by such large number of tourists.
For New Delhi, all-weather connectivity will not only help in quick mobilisation and deployment of defence assets, but also facilitate the exploitation of Ladakh's rich natural resources. It is only a matter of time before the region is opened for exploitation by corporate giants. Hence, access to Ladakh's resources is one of the central reasons for developing all-weather connectivity to the region.
One cannot help but wonder at Ladakh's transformation from being an ancient Himalayan kingdom to its current status as two administrative districts (Leh and Kargil). Former ambassador and security apalyst, P. Stobdan has raised concerns about Ladakh's political instability. The sole Member of Parliament (MP) from the region, Thupstan Chhewang resigned from his post and Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) in November. He resigned over unfulfilled promises such as granting Union Territory status and recognition of Bhoti in the eighth schedule of the Indian constitution, which were made by the party during the 2014 Parliamentary election. In his resignation letter, Thupstan Chewang alleged that these long-standing demands fell on 'deaf ears' and remain crucial for the preservation of the region's cultural and social heritage.
However, the state and central governments are not the only parties to be blamed for this current state of affairs. The Ladakh Vision Document 2025 highlights the lack of formal structure to preserve cultural and social heritage of Ladakh within the Hill Council framework. It was only in August 2018 that the Leh Hill Council took the first step in this regard by constituting a Heritage Conservation Committee. This indicates a lack of political will and vision among Ladakh's leaders about preserving their own cultural and social heritage.
All-weather connectivity will force Ladags-pa to look southwards to Kashmir and New Delhi to meet basic needs such as healthcare and education. Merely building roads and railway tracks does not amount to development. Ladakh's security includes the preservation and promotion of its natural and cultural heritage. All-weather connectivity projects, at least presently, do not seem to address any of this. Instead of empowering the region to survive and grow on its own, the current projects are meant to provide access to the resources of this otherwise isolated region. All-weather connectivity to Ladakh, as of now, is more about New Delhi's accessibility to the region. There is an urgent need to improve internal connectivity within Ladakh to places like Zangskar, Nubra and Changthang that get isolated during winters.