Ladakh: one of India’s most outstandingly beautiful landscapes, and a unique biocultural region. Known as ‘Little Tibet’ for the predominantly Buddhist culture a substantial part of it harbours (with equally interesting Muslim culture in the other part), Ladakh today faces possibly the most significant crossroads it has faced since being incorporated into the Indian union.

In August 2019, Ladakh went from being a region (of two districts) within the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), to a union territory (UT), administered directly by the central government in New Delhi. This was part of a decision by Delhi to make a dramatic change in the status of Jammu and Kashmir as a whole, from being a state with relative independence guaranteed under special provisions in the Indian constitution, to being two union territories under central government control (J&K as one, Ladakh as the other). The decision, taken unilaterally and in stealth, with no consultation with the people of Kashmir, has been heavily criticized (and legally challenged as being unconstitutional and undemocratic), but that is not the subject of this article. Here I confine myself to the implications of this move, for Ladakh.

For a thousand years Ladakh was an independent kingdom, before being incorporated into J&K state and integrated into India after gaining independence from colonial rule in 1947. Suddenly, Ladakh was ruled from elsewhere, by people that lacked an understanding of Ladakh’s unique ecological and cultural conditions. This has not been acceptable to its residents, who have therefore been demanding to be removed from J&K state and to become a UT. So many Ladakhis welcomed the August 2019 decision. Celebrations have however been muted or even replaced amongst a lot of Ladakhis, including its youth, with a serious question: will the shift from being under the J&K state to being ruled from Delhi, really benefit the region?

Ladakh’s fragility

To understand this concern, one needs to understand the sensitivity and fragility of Ladakh. Over 90% of India’s Trans-Himalayan biogeographical zone, characterized by cold desert ecosystems, is located in Ladakh. This harbours a high diversity of rare Pleistocene mammals like the wild yak and the snow leopard, and much endemic flora. Cultures and livelihoods have evolved to be frugal, sensitive to the fragile nature of ecosystems that cannot bear heavy human activity. As is the case with indigenous peoples across the world, the landscape is not only ‘natural resources’, but alive with spirits which humans have to co-exist with.

Will administrators sitting in Delhi, with very different mindsets, even begin to comprehend what can and cannot work in such a landscape? Ladakh is already groaning under infrastructural development, intense armed forces presence (with China and Pakistan bordering Ladakh), and excessive tourism. An exploitative, ‘developmentalist’ mindset has brainwashed many Ladakhis themselves, transforming notions of what it is to be happy and contented. A once-harmonious co-existence between different faiths has been disrupted by tensions, linked in some way to the bifurcation of Ladakh into two districts, Leh (predominantly Buddhist) and Kargil (predominantly Muslim). There is little hope that the right-wing party currently in power in Delhi, with a strongly Hindu nationalist mindset, will deal with religious pluralism in a sensitive manner.

Ministers in the central government (and the current Member of Parliament from Ladakh constituency, belonging to the same party ruling at the centre, BJP), assert that the move to grant UT status to Ladakh is to enable more locally appropriate governance. But why then was Ladakh not given its own legislature, and clear powers to determine its own future? One of the demands many Ladakhis have made is to accord it special constitutional status that other regions in India with unique biocultural attributes have got (in a list called Schedule 6), especially those with a predominant adivasi (indigenous/tribal) population. This has been ignored.

Will being under the direct control of the central government rather than of the J&K state mean any greater cultural and ecological sensitivity? Historical evidence of how UTs have been treated by successive central governments, does not evoke confidence that a region’s biocultural uniqueness is, with rare exceptions, a consideration. And the way the current government has encouraged the penetration of other Adivasi regions by aggressive Hinduism, is cause for Ladakhis to be concerned in both predominantly Buddhist Leh and predominantly Muslim Kargil.

Equally worrying is the enhanced ‘development’ potential of the new regime. Ladakh has enormous commercial interest as a source of minerals (including uranium), for heightened tourism, hydropower, and in other ways for the use of its ecosystems and natural resources. Within days of the August decision, Prime Minister Modi invited investments in the region, and India’s biggest corporation Reliance announced at task force to explore investing in several sectors. To a conventional development mindset, this sounds great. But this also entails increasing impact on its fragile ecosystems, and consequently on Ladakh’s communities who are most dependent on them, especially its pastoral and farming communities. Already the region faces serious problems of landslides, erosion, solid waste and effluents, disturbance to wildlife, and cordoning off common lands being used by local people for development (including tourism) projects. But under the then J&K state (and its special constitutional safeguards), even as Ladakh suffered in some ways, it may also have been spared a full-fledged ‘developmentalist’ attack, of the kind that has caused ecological and social havoc in so many parts of India. Now there are no constitutional safeguards, and with a significantly higher investment potential under the central government, Ladakh could face a similar attack.

Another potential threat is further land occupation and operations by the armed force. Thousands of hectares of pastureland and natural ecosystems (no-one has an accurate figure, and the army is not saying) are already occupied or used by them, with disruptive consequences for wildlife and communities who were using them (again, the pastoral populations being worst affected). With greater central control over the area, and the hypersensitivity of the current government to both Chinese and Pakistani threats (real and perceived), a significantly greater presence of the army cannot be ruled out.

Any autonomy left?

Since 1995, Ladakh has had the status of an Autonomous Hill Development Council. This status was given so that the region could develop according to its own priorities. However, a brief study conducted by the environmental action group Kalpavriksh in 2019 showed that ‘autonomy’ was seriously limited. Decisions were mostly dominated by Srinagar and Delhi. The Council did not really have the power to determine a developmental path appropriate to Ladakh’s conditions; but at the same time the Council did not also seem to have the inclination to use whatever powers it had to think differently. There were however exceptions, showing the potential of what true autonomy could mean. For instance, in 2005, several Councillors and civil society organisations came up with an innovative, far-thinking Ladakh 2025 Vision document. It contained several innovative strategies for providing the needs and aspirations of Ladakh’s population, including sustainable livelihoods for its rural people and youth. It was partly based on creative, progressive alternative work done by several civil society organisations, on livelihoods, arts, technologies, and education. Unfortunately it remained on the shelves due to political and financial constraints.

The Hill Council has remained after Ladakh became a UT, but there is no clarity on its power vis-à-vis the Lt. Governor, the head of governance, appointed by the central government. So now the region’s future will be determined by attitudes emanating primarily from New Delhi (which may align with those of some in Ladakh, especially currently given that the BJP party holds power in both the Hill Council and in Delhi). But will those in power there have the foresight to understand Ladakh’s special conditions and needs, and decide keeping these in mind? As important, will they enable the agency of Ladakhis themselves, facilitating their central voice in decision-making? Or will profit-making and a militaristic view of India’s border areas, be the determinants?

There are plenty of opportunities for Ladakhis and Delhi to work together. For instance, a Hill Council decision for Ladakh agriculture to become fully organic, could well be backed by the central government. The region’s pastoralists could be aided to claim and operationalize their rights over Ladakh’s vast pasturelands, using the Forest Rights Act (a law that was not applicable to J&K prior to the August decision). Tourism regulations could be put into place, solar energy could be given a boost (Ladakh has full sunshine almost through the year). Equally, though, farming and food could become the prerogative of the rich, the Forest Rights Act could be severely curtailed especially where industrialists are eyeing land, solar could become the playground of big corporations putting up megaplants, and tourism could simply further jump through the roof with unregulated investments … all of which has happened in many other parts of India with active support of the central government.

Ladakhi (and Indian) civil society and those with sensitivity within the corridors of power, have their work cut out if the region is to escape further social disruption and ecological collapse. In December 2019, a national network of over 40 organisations and movements, forming the core group of the Vikalp Sangam (Alternatives Confluence) process, issued a statement about the potential dangers and opportunities of Ladakh’s new status. It sought safeguards such as rights for Adivasi populations under India’s constitution, especially over land and natural resources, community-based regulation of aspects like tourism, implementation of the Forest Rights Act, and other such steps.

Such advocacy and people’s pressure will have to be sustained, if one of the world’s most remarkable biocultural landscapes is to survive.