Outsiders might hijack Ladakh’s narrative

Any effort for a sustainable tourism would require opening up Ladakh’s international borders to the outside world, connecting it with the Eurasian Silk Route destinations in Europe, Central Asia and East Asia — even if it means opening an aerial Silk Route. Ladakh needn’t opt for the industrial path. It needs integration and linkages with national growth centres.

P Stobdan
Ladakh-based Former Ambassador

With the Ladakh Union Territory (UT) coming into effect on October 31, attention seems to be shifting to a bewildering and emotive outburst and anxiety among people as to what the change of status means for them. Judging from social media reports, Ladakh is  grappling with confusion, apprehension and panic about the extent to which the people are now exposed to the danger of facing uncertainty; losing their culture, land, business, jobs et al in the wake of a possibly increasing ingress of outsiders. 

Following the removal of Article 370, Ladakh has been harbouring the hope to be included under the 6th Schedule of the Constitution, as applied to the ‘tribal areas’ in four north-eastern states, as per Article 244. The government has so far belied their expression of hope to get an alternative legal safeguard against any onslaughts.

The general contention has been that Ladakhis had long been demanding separation from J&K while they also favoured revocation of Article 370. The government in Delhi has taken pride in fulfilling their demand through the state’s bifurcation. So, why think about treading the same weary and well-trodden protectionist path?

The issue arising now, therefore, is whether Ladakh is seeking a protectionist or an integrationist path; whether the people want to follow an isolationist or a developmental path. 

The confusion so far seems driven less by politics than by aspiration. It is less to do with the government’s negative intent and more to do with lack of clarity and articulation. It is an upshot of rhetorical hyperbole that went into the unmaking of J&K. The government needs to dispel the lingering confusion which is likely to intensify in the coming months. 

With the release of the fresh political map by the Survey of India on November 2, the spatial scale of Ladakh has now grown to 1,63,688 sq km (more than Andhra Pradesh's size), bordering with China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, of which 1,07,548 sq km is still held by China and Pakistan. Yet, Ladakh continues to hold 59,146 sq km (more than the size of Punjab) with just a 2.7 lakh population. This broadens the development opportunities for Ladakh, ie for resource exploitation: water, land, minerals and solar. But challenges are equally and inherently problematic on account of the region's remoteness, inaccessibility and other environmental constraints. 

Boosting tourism is a worthwhile effort. It has already improved the local cash economy. The number of tourists visiting Ladakh has increased from a meagre 527 in 1974 to 3.27 lakh in 2018. However, it is now witnessing a decline in flow: by over 50 per cent in 2019. The reasons for the slide are many, but tourism in Ladakh remains seasonal, unpredictable and conditional. The critical ones include environment as a host of issues confront it for boosting even the alternative environment-friendly eco-tourism. Uncontrolled flow isn't proving sustainable, as crises are arising from demands for water, energy and garbage waste. Its fragile ecology limits mitigation measures — can’t absorb carbon, like it does in Himachal Pradesh or Bhutan. Ladakh certainly needs quality and not quantity tourism, but democratic challenges hinder measures to limit visitors’ threshold either through certification of operators or by the issuance of the permit system. 

Developing responsible tourism is a tall order. Enhancing any sector — whether adventurous, cultural, spiritual, sports, educational or military tourism — would require a more conscious effort from the travelers, operators and local communities, especially to adopt a more mindful approach. It is easier said than done, though. Also, the fact remains that tourism has benefited only a handful of the rich. Over 85 per cent of the rural people remain uncovered, leading to disparity in benefits, and commercialisation, and, thus, the social rifts. 

Any effort for a sustainable tourism would require opening up Ladakh’s international borders to the outside world, connecting it with the Eurasian Silk Route destinations in Europe, Central Asia and East Asia — even if it means opening an aerial Silk Route. 

Ladakh needn’t opt for the industrial path. It needs integration and linkages with national growth centres. Its varied agro-climatic conditions open up prospects for horticulture and floriculture industries, to grow super organic fruits, vegetables and myriad medicinal herbs for both grinding and extraction. 

Mass agriculture production is not feasible, though investment potentials are high for commercial farming of high-value items like lavender, saffron and temperate fruits such as apple, apricot, pears, and vine fruits to manufacture cosmetic products. Similarly, prospects for setting up mineral water plants, anti-aging, anti-oxidant drinks, including manufacturing of high quality wine and vodka, are tremendously high. The local wool and woven fabric (Pashmina) production requires better technological intervention. All these would help sustain the much-needed Ladakh’s ‘circular’ economy against any ‘linear’ development that one is thinking of. This would be a win-win situation for the environment, locals and investors seeking opportunities in Ladakh.

Greater attention is needed from the government’s side on exploiting Ladakh’s huge hydro-power potential within the provisions of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT). Of the 1,000-MW power potential identified, very little has been exploited so far. 

The irony is that the Indus water benefits neither Ladakh nor the country. It is time to contemplate about diversion projects — diverting at least of some of the Zanskar tributaries towards Sumdo in Himachal Pradesh and to further channel into the distribution network in north India. Also, why not go for building the ‘permissible storage capacity’ of Indus water? Since the formation of the UT, the government, in its single biggest investment proposal, has announced a Rs 50,000-crore grid-connected solar photo-voltaic project for Ladakh to harness 7,500 MW of solar power. The transmission corridor will be built for evacuating electricity via the Manali route to Kaithal in Haryana. It could be scaled up to 23,000 MW. If it materialises, the UT of Ladakh would become one of India’s biggest energy hubs. 

On the connectivity front, efforts are on to provide all-weather surface roads by constructing a 14.15-km long two-lane bidirectional single-tube tunnel through the Zoji-la Pass that connects the Kashmir Valley with Ladakh, and the 8.8-km highway tunnel through the Rohtang Pass to connect Manali with Leh. 

Sadly, a complicating issue arising is the fear of the Ladakh development discourse falling into the hands of outsider opportunists, brokers, agents, dealers through increasing competition and manipulation at various levels. Attempts have already begun to control the course of the government’s outlined comprehensive roadmap for the development of the UTs of J&K and Ladakh. Business brokers, intermediaries and dalals (the same old nexus) seem to be ushering in a new era of opportunity to facilitate industries, investors, social groups, as well as the government, offering strategies for sustainable economic development under the rubric of J&K and Ladakh.

If that’s the case, the people should have genuine fear of their UT dreams getting jeopardised. As the innocent Ladakhis are in the midst of debating over emotive political issues, these substantive aspects are obviously inconspicuous to them. As for the identity issue, both the government and society need to be attentive about motivated ideas being fuelled from some quarters through subtle cultural means and context.

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