Thupstan Chhewang, Chief Executive Councillor and chairperson of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) speaks to Down To Earth.
"Subsidy culture has killed local agriculture"
What has been the impact of the Public Distribution System (PDS) on Ladakhi agriculture?
The subsidy culture has definitely killed local agriculture in Ladakh. What international trade distortions are doing to Indian agriculturethe subsidy system is doing to Ladakhi agriculture. It is exactly the same as industrialised countries dumping their surplus food in developing countries. I am not saying that the subsidised rice should be completely removed from Ladakh. But the subsidies will have to go gradually. At presenthoweverit is a difficult proposition. There are too many compulsions. We want Ladakhi food products to be included in the PDS. Ladakhi farmers should also get remunerative prices. Ladakh is a one-crop area. If you compare Ladakh with Punjab and Haryana where the Food Corporation of India (FCI) procures foodgrainsthen we cannot compete with them at their prices. But the cost of foodgrain the FCI sells in Ladakh includes the transportation cost in addition to the the procurement cost. We suggest that the FCI procure wheat at prices that include part of the transportation cost. This will curtail transportation costs and pollution from diesel trucks. It would also promote Ladakhi agriculturewhich is sustainableas against diesel transportwhich is unsustainable. And there is already talk of how states like Punjab want to move away from the rice-wheat cycle because it is damaging their soil and water. Besidesif FCI procures wheat and barley in Ladakh and supplies it through the PDSit would have an impact on the changing food habits in the region. People would be encouraged to eat locally-grown mealswhich are barley-based and highly nutritious.
Do you think there is a lack of research and information on agriculture in Ladakh?
Whatever research and development is happening in the rest of the country is not applicable here. Ladakh is a totally different ecological zone. Whatever high-yielding varieties are used here have been developed by the Field Research Laboratory of Defence Research and Development Organisation and the regional office of the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technologies. But these institutes need to be upgraded. We have been demanding a separate college or university on agriculture to be set up in Leh.
Why has the consumption of traditional crops like barley declined?
It all depends on marketability. If there is no market for somethingpeople won't grow it. After the availability of food through the PDSpeople have access to other foods. This has changed food habits. Even in villagespeople eat rice at least once a day. In townstwo meals usually include rice. Barley is no more the basic food of Ladakhis. It is not right to merely blame the PDS. If people wanted to retain their traditional foodthey could have done so. But then it is human to go for the cheapest option.
What do you think could be the main areas of growth for Ladakhi agriculture
Ladakh has a very good potential for seed productionhorticultureand aromatic and herbal plantsall of which fetch very good revenues. Because of the unique geoclimatic conditionswe can provide disease-free seeds for a whole range of high-value plants. Seabuckthorn could be the plant for Ladakh. In Chinait is a multi-billion dollar industry. The plant grows wild here. Hundreds of products can be made from these plants. The commercial success in the soft drink market of Leh Berry juice brought out by Ladakh Foods has shown the potential.
It seems that modern flush toilets are replacing traditional dry compost toilets
That is happening only in Leh townwhere the absence of flush toilets could cause havoc with public health in summer. Outside the townthe traditional system of dry toilets and compost manure is very much alive. You will struggle to find a single flush toilet outside the town. In the towntourists don't want to use these toilets because they don't have seats. Transporting earth is a problem in the town because labour is very costly. Less than adequate amounts of earth could lead to a foul odour.
A while agoGurudev Internationala Mumbai-based companymade a presentation to us. They have an environmentally friendly system based on micro-organisms that can make dry toilets odour-free. This would modernise the traditional dry toilet so that people not familiar with the discipline of the traditional toilet can also use it. The micro-organisms will make transporting earth unnecessary. As for clearing the toiletsthey propose to have removable trays and employees to collect and transport the decomposed excreta. This is better than the government running the system. We are very keen on the proposal. We are awaiting the results of a pilot project and will take a decision on this shortly. If it works outwe would not need to build a sewerage in Leh. The Union Ministry of Urban Affairs has cleared a grant of Rs 5 crore for a sewage systembut the money has not been transferred yet. That money can also be used for a dry toilet system.
How is Leh coping with flush toilets?
The septic tanks and soak pits that are used for disposing sewage in hotels and guesthouses are not properly madeand could lead to contamination of groundwater. Howeverwe have got our water sources tested and there is no contamination as yet.
What is the scope of tourism in Ladakh?
We don't consider tourism a sustainable source of revenue for any area. It is determined by too many factors. Especially in Ladakhwhich is a part of Jammu and Kashmir. Tourism has been bad in the last five to ten years and people have suffered. Those who bought taxis on loan struggled to repay it. Only this yearthe turnout was high. At the same timetourism is emerging as the biggest industry in the world. Yet it is not the biggest earner for Ladakhwhich is agriculture. The biggest employer is the army.
Typicallyrevenues from domestic tourists reach the local people and those from foreign tourists go to international tour operators. A bulk of tourists in Ladakh comprises foreigners. Yet a substantial portion of the tourism revenue goes to the small players in Ladakh. Most people tend to stay in guesthouses run by families alongside their houses and fields. The large hotels and large operators haven't been able to establish themselves in Ladakh. The Welcomgroupthe Taj group and the Oberoi groupfor exampletried to enter Ladakh. But the tourism season here is so short that it is not economically viable for the big players. So you can say that the difficult ecological conditions have saved us from some of the ill effects of large-scale tourism.
Besidesthe people in general did not allow the big players to get established. This is not because of a formal restriction by the state or the Union government. But the LAHDC has played a role in making the people aware that tourism here is better managed locally otherwise there would be problems. Before the LAHDC was formedI was the head of the Ladakh Buddhist Association and we used to have meetings to discuss how we wanted tourism to shape up here.
Overalltourism is only going to grow. In factwe are trying to expand the tourism season now from June-September to May-October.
How many tourists can Ladakh host without damaging the ecology?
Tourism does generate income but there are a lot of negative aspects to it - especially environmental degradation and social problems. Until nowit has been the other way round in Ladakh. There is a lot of awareness of the ills of tourism here and we know that at some stagewe need to draw a lineeven if it is unpopular. We will just have to do it. We have to take tough decisions. We might have to stop giving permits for guesthouses and hotelslike they did in Manali in Himachal Pradesh.
One solution is to expand the season. That would expand our carrying capacity. If tourism is dispersedits harms are shared and so are the benefits. Secondtourists don't come to Ladakh to sit in Leh - trekking and safaris are quite popular. They don't expect five-star facilitiespreferring to stay with farmers. But againwe have information of environmental degradation along trekking routes.
How is garbage managed in Leh?
We are not able to run garbage incinerators because of the cost. Then there is the issue of dangerous emissions from incinerators. For thisseparation of garbage at source is very important. A social campaign is needed on this issue. Perhaps it would be a good idea to have an NGO manage thisas is happening in Bangalore and Pune. We have so many educated but unemployed people. It could be a source of income for them. We don't have a solution to garbage management right now. But this is a part of our overall waste management plan. We are upgrading the civic management committee to a municipality statusafter which people's representatives would take over.
What is the state of Ladakh's electric supply?
We have power supply for only five hours. The diesel generators cause a lot of pollution in the town area. We are planning to move the diesel generators out of town and an area has been identified. Stakna hydel power plant wasn't designed properly and it gets silted up. The new dams would not have this problemand they would not freeze entirely in winter. We have sanctioned four mini hydel projects. The prime minister has promised that Ladakh would be connected to the national grid. We would supply power to the northern grid in summer when there is a power shortageand in winter we would get power in return. But there are areas like Nubra and Changthang that have to be self-sustained. The thrust is on hydel and solar powerwhich are renewable. It requires a lot of investment but if you consider the cost of dieselit would be cheaper in the long run. We have a long-term energy plan and the outlook is quite positive. Some places in Changthang have potential for geo-thermal power. China has set up geo-thermal plants on the neighbouring Tibetan plateau. China has offered to take it up on a turnkey basis. It is up to the Union government to decide. Perhaps it would be possible when relations with China get better.
What is the water availability situation in Leh district?
We have recently got satellite images to detect water availability. The drinking water situation will improve due to the good availability of groundwater. Handpumps would improve water availability in villages. There are complaints of fluorosis in some areasbut it is not widespread. Besidesthe groundwater in Ladakh is from the glaciers and is clean. One option is to use water of the Indus riverwhich has a high silica contamination and silicosis is quite common in villages such as Chuchot.
The biggest worry is that glaciers are melting worldwide due to climate change. Ninety-five per cent of our farmers depend on glacier water - they might have to shift if glaciers dry upbecause in that casethe groundwater would also dry up. And usage of fertilisers does require more water for the crops.
How is the Panchayati Raj faring in Ladakh
Right nowwe don't have any real government notification on panchayats as Block Development Committees have not been formed. The village panchayats don't have money to workand we have given them funds from the LAHDC to begin work. We have taken over the role of the zila parishad as is laid down in the LAHDC Act. But there could be legal complications as the Panchayati Raj Act precedes the LAHDC Act and does not mention the latter. The new chief minister has promised to transfer funds and functionaries to the panchayats in one year.
Do you foresee conflicts between goba (traditional village head) and village panchayats?
The goba is essentially a revenue official. Gobas have to stick to their roles. They did have traditional responsibilities but the panchayats have to take over. It is naturally difficult for the gobas to accept the changebut it has to happen. Besidespeople who have a strong standing among the people can quit the goba's job and contest panchayat elections. The conflicts are only because of the transition. Eventuallythey will die down.
Do you think Ladakh should be included in Schedule Five or Schedule Six of the Constitution?
There is no proposal in writing from us as yet. We had the chairperson of the Second Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes CommissionDilip Singh Bhuriavisiting Ladakh recently and we made this demand. There are many advantages to the panchayat system under Schedule Fivebut we haven't studied our options carefully. There is greater room for the traditions of tribal governance in the Scheduled Areas. We know that in Lahaul Spiti if any tribal customs come in conflict with a law passed by the legislaturethe customary systems prevail. As in the case of succession. If there is a tribal custom that governs successionthen the Succession Act does not apply. In the case of financial incentiveswe have persuaded the Union Ministry of Non-conventional Energy sources to provide funding to us on the pattern that it has for the states of the Northeast that are under the Sixth Schedule. The concept of the autonomous hill council is derived from the Sixth Schedule.
What are the obstacles that Ladakh faces in bringing about educational reforms?
Education reforms began with the NGO SECMOL. It soon became a community movement. Eight years agoa memorandum of understanding was signed by three sections - SECMOL on behalf of the social groupsthe district commissioner on behalf of the district administrationand I signed on behalf of the Ladakhi people as I was the head of the Ladakh Buddhist Association. After the LAHDC came into beingwe adopted Operation New Hope as our education policy. Now SECMOL has a limited role and it is up to us. They are the catalysts and they have to show us the way. The biggest achievement of an NGO is to motivate the government to adopt their initiative as a policy.
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