Ladakh on the move

Ladakh is the one region in India where sustainable development is the only way ahead. Dry toilets, water efficient crops, cooperative farming, a democratic society and living in harmony with nature are not ideals here; they are a prerequisite

By Tashi Morup, Sopan Joshi
Published: Sunday 30 November 2003

Ladakh on the move

-- (Credit: Photographs: Ruhani Kaur)
In Ladakh, the rest of India is referred to as down . Because, at no point in Leh district would you be less than about three kilometres above the mean sea level. This vast barren district is more than 45,000 square kilometre (sq km); it is perhaps India's largest and certainly its most sparsely populated.

It is not easy to live here. The limited water available in rivers and streams is the melt from the glaciers -- between the water of the monsoon and Ladakh stands the Himalaya. Plant and animal life is mostly restricted to what the human will can salvage in the face of hostile elements -- temperatures drop to -20C to -50C in the winter. All roads through mountainous passes remain closed for more than seven months a year. Means of livelihood are restricted to agriculture -- restricted to one short season in summer -- and livestock rearing. The soil is sandy and retains little water.

Yet people have prospered in the rarified air of this desiccated trans-Himalayan landscape for hundreds of years -- the road connection to Srinagar came only in 1960. The key has been living with the harsh ecology and adapting, innovating. Ladakhis use dry toilets that turn human excreta into rich organic manure. They grow crops that use little water. As labour is difficult, they have cooperative farming. They have organised their society -- Buddhist or Muslim -- along a structure thats essentially democratic. Paucity of resources does not create conflict -- only more cooperation and consensus. Living in harmony with people and nature is not an ideal here. It is a prerequisite of survival.

Ladakh comes under Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), and the Ladakhis do not like this at all. An agitation began in 1989, demanding Union Territory status. There were violent episodes. The Union government has always had a soft corner for Ladakh, and in 1995 during the Governor's rule, Leh district of Ladakh (the other Ladakhi district is Kargil) took its first step towards autonomy: the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), Leh. As elected representatives came to power in the council, there began an era of self-rule. The challenges facing Leh are unique. While agriculture is falling victim to the warped policies of the Union government, the armed forces have emerged as the biggest employers in Leh district. Tourism, too, provides a much needed means of livelihood and has grown rapidly in the recent past. But it puts a lot of pressure on the fragile environment.

The Ladakhi political leadership in the LAHDC is grappling with many such challenges. It is trying to chart a course that is conducive to the environment of the region. Will Ladakh achieve economic development without harming its delicate balance? Here are some examples of the challenges and their responses.

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