Here is why Ladakh needs the Sixth Schedule and statehood

Ecological issues and myriad others, warrant constitutional safeguards for the fragile cold desert; else, sightings of snow leopards, black cranes and wolves in Ladakh’s mountains, wetlands and valleys would be a thing of the past

Sonam Wangchuk, a celebrated environmentalist and innovator, decided to sit on a 21-day hunger strike to express the anguish of Ladakhis. This protest followed a series of talks between the Ladakhi leadership and the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which hit a cul-de-sac on March 3, 2024.

The Ladakhi leaders approached the MHA with four demands: 1) Statehood for Ladakh 2) Inclusion of Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution 3) Setting up of a separate public service commission for Ladakh 4) Two parliamentary seats for Ladakh.

The MHA delegate agreed in principle to negotiate the last two demands. But the ministry downright rejected the demands for statehood and the Sixth Schedule.

Ladakh is India’s crown jewel and a major tourist hub, attracting people from around the world. The snow-clad Himalayas of every hue pierce the azure sky. These majestic mountains are traversed by the mighty Indus river that gave India its name.

The turquoise lakes of eastern Ladakh, have captured the imaginations of travelers, solace seekers, pilgrims, filmmakers, among others.

The mountains and valleys are home to some of the most resilient animals known to natural history. These animals have unique morphological and physiological adaptations not only to survive but to thrive in these high mountains. For instance, mammals have fluffy coats with super-fine underwool, and their blood has high concentration of haemoglobin to deal with hypoxia.

Read Ladakh wants to prevent what happened in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand & Sikkim: Sonam Wangchuk

Ladakh is also culturally rich and vibrant. The rural landscape is replete with quaint villages that are dream destinations of travellers and explorers. The frugality and sustainable living of people in the region are known across the world. Farmers have ingeniously carved out agricultural fields from mountainsides to grow hardy crops for subsistence. Similarly, pastoral communities graze their animals ingeniously, following a rotational grazing system that allows for plant regeneration.

The umbilical cord of Ladakh was severed from Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019, when the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill was passed in Parliament, striking down Article 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution that provided special status to the erstwhile state.

The people of Ladakh, especially from Leh, celebrated this status change and rejoiced, as Union Territory (UT) status was a long-standing demand. That said, given the lack of legislature, several people grew skeptical sooner rather than later as this could result in dominance of bureaucrats.

Moreover, without adequate safeguarding mechanism, the region might fall prey to business sharks and industrial conglomerates looking for mining prospects.

Soon, several civil society organisations came together to deliberate, and the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Ladakh (HIAL) sent out teams to existing UTs of India and states with tribal areas governed as per the Sixth Schedule.

Slowly, a common consensus emerged around the Sixth Schedule status for Ladakh. A memorandum by the people of Ladakh was submitted to MHA through the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, listing several demands including Sixth Schedule status. Subsequently, the Commission for Scheduled Tribes also recommended Ladakh’s inclusion in the Sixth Schedule.

Following these developments, the ruling party in New Delhi included constitutional safeguards for Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule at number 3 in its election manifesto for the parliamentary election of 2019.

It also listed Sixth Schedule status to Ladakh as the top priority in the election manifesto of the local elections for the Hill Council.

But there was a resounding silence after all these poll promises. Anyone who raised the issue was silenced through various tactics. In the meantime, the Autonomous Hill Councils were undermined and their authority got diluted and power weakened.

Common Ladakhis experienced the dominance of the bureaucrats who had no connect with them. It then dawned upon people that without a law-making apparatus at the UT as well as district level, democratic rights of people cannot be restored.

As a result, the collective bodies (Leh Apex Body and Kargil Democratic Alliance) consisting of socio-religious groups, youth groups and political parties from both Leh and Kargil started mobilising people, raising awareness among people about the importance of safeguard under the Sixth Schedule, which led to several protests and shutdowns in both the districts.

The primary concern is the fragile ecosystem of the region. Tourism has been growing by leaps and bounds, with numbers touching half a million from a meagre 500 in 1974 when Ladakh was re-opened after a period of 25 years.

The mass tourism is putting immense pressure on the fragile ecosystem. The Ladakhi population has already exceeded its natural carrying capacity. Currently, crops produced in the region can feed only one-third of its population.

Therefore, it needs continuous boosting from outside to sustain itself. Villagers are abandoning agricultural fields in rural areas, as they cannot compete with businesses offering cheap ration and vegetables that are trucked in from distant cities, spewing black carbon particles that settle on glaciers, leading to their rapid melting.

Sustainable development prescribes that developmental projects should be started small, using locally sourced materials, and scale up or out in small increments, constantly assessing the impact on the local culture and nature.

More importantly, it prescribes that local people who understand the natural and ecological nuances should have an upper hand on these developmental projects. Unfortunately, none of these criteria are fulfilled while carrying out developmental projects these days. So sustainable development is reduced to mere rhetoric.

Not only is human ecology in dismal state, but the natural ecosystems are also suffering. Given the low plant productivity and extreme climatic conditions, wildlife populations are low in density, although the diversity is relatively high due to Ladakh’s location at the boundary between two major biogeographical zones: the Palearctic and the Indo-Malayan.

Although Ladakh is geographically vast, it cannot afford to lose land either to the land-intensive industries or to expansionist neighbours. Wildlife such as wild sheep (bharal and urial), wild yak and antelopes (Chiru & Tibetan gazelle) inhabiting the hills and vales of Ladakh need large ranges, as they need to cover long distances to acquire enough resources to survive in this unyielding land. The same goes for domestic animals such as Pashmina (Changthangi) goats.

Furthermore, climate change is adversely impacting the rangelands. Plant productivity is reportedly declining due to warming temperature. There have been studies that show that increasing temperature, especially in the winter, leads to decline in number of flowers, on plants with multi-inflorescence, as well as seeds. Similarly, multiple studies have reported declining butterfly populations in alpine meadows of the Himalayas, which has a bearing on pollination and thus plant reproduction.

Read DTE Coverage: ‘Arid winter’ in the Himalayas

Of all resources, water is the scarcest in Ladakh. People depend on glacial melt for drinking, irrigation and energy generation. Springs, that are fed by glaciers, are drying up because of retreating glaciers atop mountains.

Therefore, several wild animals such as the bharal and Ladakh urial converge on the Indus river to quench their thirst. As a result, the Indus is emerging as the single-most important source of water for both wildlife and humans.

The water quality of the Indus, however, is declining due to pollution. Thousands of people, mostly military personnel, tourists and labourers, camp on meadows along the river. These camps throw organic wastes into the river, which leads to eutrophication (overloading of water bodies with organic matter), which in turn leads to population explosion of aquatic invertebrates, which in tandem with global warming deplete dissolved oxygen, thereby making water less fit for irrigation and drinking in downstream areas.

The Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust and the Kalpavriksh organised a five-day river walk for Ladakhi students studying in various colleges and universities in the month of July 2023. The students were overwhelmed by the quantity of garbage accumulated along the banks of the river.

People in communities that consume fish talked about skin diseases and deformities in fish such as snow trout, which are native to the Indus. These indigenous fishes, mostly herbivorous, are further affected by the introduction of carnivorous exotic species such as the rainbow trout, a native of North American rivers, and brown trout, a native of European water bodies.

The rapid development and growth of tourism have ensured economic prosperity for most Ladakhis, especially in urban areas. These, however, have compromised their ecological well-being.

In a frantic hustle to promote economic growth, several Ladakhi entrepreneurs have been harvesting sea buckthorn berries as if there were no tomorrow. Several economic pundits have prophesied that income from marketing sea buckthorn products will surpass tourism in terms of income generation.

Therefore, every autumn, villagers along the Indus river hire Nepali and Bihari labourers to severely beat the bushes to harvest the berries. Because of this, populations of several avian winter visitors such as the white-winged redstart have been declining.

These birds do not just feed on dried berries but also on the eggs of insect pests lying dormant in the leaf litter. Because of this, there is often outbreak of insect pests in the summer, thereby affecting the yield from crop fields and vegetable gardens.

When it comes to apricot harvesting, another lucrative business, the story is not very different. People, in the name of improved harvesting techniques, collect every single apricot, leaving nothing for small mammals such as pikas that are crucial for maintaining an ecological balance.

Speaking of birds, villagers have increasingly been reporting drastic decline in the population of several species including vultures and choughs. These are scavengers and rely heavily on carcasses of wild as well as domestic animals such as horses and donkeys, whose flesh is not consumed by people.

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One of the causes of the decline of these birds is the growing population of free-ranging dogs that feed predominantly on kitchen wastes at military, tourist and labourer camps all across Ladakh.

Every autumn, once the tourist and labourer camps wrap up, these dogs disperse into the surrounding mountains and villages, and feed on carcasses of wild and domestic animals leaving nothing for the choughs and vultures.

Furthermore, these dogs also prey on all types of wild animals including young mountain sheep and goats. They also allegedly attack young and injured snow leopards. They also hybridise with the Tibetan wolf, a unique lineage of canids, diluting its gene pool. The hybrids, locally known as Khibshang, are more vicious when it comes to killing domestic animals.

These ecological issues, and myriad others, warrant constitutional safeguard for Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule. Without such protection, this land with multi-coloured mountains, verdant valleys, turquoise lakes and azure sky that attract people from remote corners of the world would turn into a former shadow of itself.

Tsewang Namgail is a wildlife scientist based in Ladakh

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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