Environment in elections: Will climate change alter voting dynamics in Ladakh?

Scientists, journalists and others are confident that warning signs in the cold desert & Sonam Wanghchuk's fast have made environment a poll issue; its impact on voting though remains to be seen
A small patch of snow on the mountain can be seen behind the bhikkhu (monk), which otherwise used to be fully covered with snow. Photo: Tonyot K Yuru
A small patch of snow on the mountain can be seen behind the bhikkhu (monk), which otherwise used to be fully covered with snow. Photo: Tonyot K Yuru

The 2024 Lok Sabha election will be a turning point in the electoral history of Ladakh. With the remote cold desert region conducting general elections for the first time since attaining the status of a Union Territory (UT), every ballot cast holds profound significance. The decisions made during this election will shape the course of the Ladakhi political landscape for years to come.

With more than 1, 82,571 (Data till January 1, 2024) citizens preparing to cast their ballots, the upcoming elections are not just about choosing representatives but shaping the destiny of this remote yet strategically significant land.

Post-UT, Ladakhis are demanding safeguards for their homeland, keeping in mind its fragile ecosystem. People have also become more conscious about protecting their environment as they feel that UT status means Ladakh will be governed directly from New Delhi.

But how much environment and climate change impact Ladakh’s voting pattern is the million-dollar question.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, there were four candidates — one from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), one from the Congress and two contesting as Independents from Kargil district. Jamyang Tsering Namgyal from the BJP defeated Sajjad Hussain by 10,930 votes to win that time.

In the 2019 elections, 1, 27,350 people voted. The 2019 voter turnout in Leh was 62 per cent while Kargil reported 80 per cent, according to reports.

Ladakh votes on May 20, in the fifth phase. It has a total of 577 polling stations, of which 298 are in Leh and 279 are in Kargil. Of the 577 polling stations, 544 are in rural areas and 33 in urban.

Morup Stanzin, a journalist from Ladakh, highlighted the stark contrast between the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the current scenario. Five years ago, Ladakh was not a UT. Now, post-UT status, the dynamics of elections have shifted significantly.

He added, “Indirectly, climate change will affect the voting pattern. To provide safeguards to Ladakh, people will think before casting their vote. I believe political parties should also focus on this issue and include this in their manifesto as their first priority. The reason is that Ladakh is dependent on glacial water and as the saying goes, ‘Without water, there can be no village’.”

“Development will keep happening but environmental conservation is very important. If the environment is not suitable, there can be no human existence. At present, we are already witnessing the cases of groundwater extraction in large numbers across Ladakh as many hotels and guest houses opt for submersible pumps. Groundwater is now depleting in Ladakh.”

Others believe that Ladakhis are not yet fully aware of the consequences of climate change and that there is a need to create awareness.

Tsewang Namgail, scientist at Snow Leopard Conservancy, said, “When we talk about climate change and environment, there is not much awareness among people in Ladakh. The 2010 flash flood was one of the major disasters in Ladakh’s recent history. But people conveniently forget about this. We need more discussions and efforts to address this. Also, are we prepared if such a disaster reoccurs?”

Namgail said such awareness is very important to understand the linkages of climate to ecology and economy:

People do not understand that such events will increase more with time. They won’t spare anyone. Ladakhis need to be taught about the need for capacity building and disaster preparedness. They should be made to take part in mock drills. Policy makers and politicians should understand and take proactive measures to mitigate such incidents.

He pointed to the once-mighty Indus river. The river enters Ladakh after originating in Sengge Kha’bab in Chinese-controlled Tibet. The river, Ladakh’s major source of water, is badly polluted and its water quality is declining.

Snowless mountains in Lamayuru village in Ladakh. Photo: Tonyot K Yuru

According to Namgail, this is because 10,000-20,000 people including army personnel, tourists and migrant labourers camp 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. They, in tandem with global warming, deplete dissolved oxygen and make water less fit for irrigation and drinking in downstream areas,” said Namgail.

According to the scientist, political parties in Ladakh hardly used to take notice of green issues. But this time, both the BJP and Congress national manifestos have dedicated 1-2 pages to environment and climate change.

“This shows that there is some amount of consciousness among them. But will they implement their green promises once elected to power? That is another question,” he added.

Namgail urged integrating climate change concerns into political agendas, making conscious decisions, and taking proactive steps to mitigate climate impacts and prepare people for natural disasters.

“The recent Supreme Court judgment on the Great Indian Bustard (GIB) was exemplary. The judiciary has taken cognizance of the impact of climate change on people and the responsibility of government to take action so that citizens are not unduly impacted. It sets new legal precedents for balancing conservation and development, emphasising the right to a clean and stable environment. This shows that environment is now in the national consciousness. That tells a lot. Otherwise, climate change was not taken seriously.”

Manifesto implementation

Namgail however said mentioning climate change in party manifestos was a futile exercise if policies are not implemented properly. This is especially true for the Himalayas, especially their western part, which includes Ladakh.

A view of snowless mountains from Khardungla pass in Leh. Photo: Dorjay Kaya

“A study by the Indian Institute of Technology Madras found that the western Himalayas are more sensitive to the impact of climate change. People and politicians need to understand this. Importantly, our existence and survival are dependent on water. In places like Ladakh, if glaciers melt and finish, it is the end,” he warned.

The expert said climate change and environment will definitely impact the voting pattern for sure because of the recent climate fast by scientist and activist Sonam Wangchuk:

To significantly influence voting patterns, we must foster awareness. But our future generation is not aware as local knowledge about our mountains, lakes, and valleys has not been incorporated in syllabi. We require a think tank to discuss and teach as to what is myth and truth, which is not happening and will lead to disaster.

Nawang Rinchen, a farmer, told Down To Earth that in Ladakh, water was not just a resource but a lifeline:

In this high-altitude desert, every drop of water is precious. The consequences of glacial retreat are dire and far-reaching. The very survival of communities, flora, and fauna depends on the delicate balance of nature, a balance that is increasingly being disrupted by climate change.

Rinchen added that for the people of Ladakh, who have long lived in harmony with their environment, the signs of change are unmistakable: Erratic weather patterns, dwindling water sources, and receding glaciers serve as stark reminders of the urgent need for action.

Tsering Dolkar, another Ladakhi journalist, told DTE that awareness regarding environmental protection and climate change among Ladakhis had increased significantly since the start of Wangchuk’s fast.

Even before Ladakh became a UT, there was a lot of awareness among the educated population due to initiatives by the government and various non-profits. These included introducing new technologies to save water, researching climate change and its impacts, women-led non-profits advocating for a ban on plastic use, and the government’s promotion of electric vehicles as per agreements made in Conference of Parties meetings by countries to meet their individual climate goals.

“The climate protest has further increased awareness, reaching even the uneducated population in the region. In addition, the draft industrial policy has prompted people to think more about the environment. These changes are expected to influence voting behavior in the upcoming elections and impact the candidates’ chances of winning, albeit to varying degrees,” said Dolkar.

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