'Unchecked development in Ladakh will turn locals into refugees': Sonam Wangchuk to THE WEEK

With Article 370 gone, rich will buy valleys and mountains, Wangchuk says

Ladakh-protest-sonam-wangchuk-pti (File) Sonam Wangchuk takes part in a sit-in protest with other protesters from Ladakh, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi | PTI

After a hunger strike in March to demand statehood and Sixth Schedule status for Ladakh, climate activist Sonam Wangchuk addressed Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah via X (formerly Twitter), urging them to uphold the ideals of Lord Ram and a Hindu Vaishnav and honour their promises to Ladakh.

"Modi ji, a devotee of Ram, built the Ram temple, but what are the values of Lord Ram? In Ramcharitamanas, Raghukul reet sada chali aaye, praan jaaye par vachan naa jaaye. Lord Ram was in exile for 14 years because he did not want to break his promise," Wangchuk said. He urged Modi to fulfil his promises to Ladakh, and expressed hope that Shah and Modi remain steadfast in their ideals.

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Wangchuk has been persistent in his demand for constitutional safeguards for the Union Territory of Ladakh, along with protecting its ecologically fragile ecosystem from industrial and mining interests. After the hunger strike, he gave a call for the ‘Pashmina March’ on April 7 to highlight the plight of the Changpa nomadic tribes who are losing vast expanses of their land “due to Chinese incursion in the north and our corporates in the south”. He was forced to call off the march after the Ladakh administration imposed strict curbs, imposed Section 144, and shut down the internet.

In an interview with THE WEEK, Wangchuk spoke about why he decided to go on a hunger strike and the need for constitutional safeguards for the region.

Q/ What are the environmental challenges Ladakh is facing now?

A/ Ladakh, situated in the Himalayan region, is grappling with the effects of global warming. Melting glaciers, coupled with shifting weather patterns, have led to an increase in flash floods, landslides, and droughts, significantly impacting the lives of residents in the sparsely populated villages. There are growing concerns about safeguarding Ladakh's mountains from indiscriminate exploitation, particularly mining activities, which have already wreaked havoc in other Himalayan regions like Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Sikkim.

Q/ How would the Sixth Schedule address the concerns?

A/ The demand for Ladakh's inclusion under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution is vital for protecting its indigenous tribal communities, who constitute around 97 per cent of the population. This provision grants autonomy to tribal regions, enabling them to chart their development course without external interference. We are thankful that Ladakh became a Union Territory (UT) in 2019 after a 70-year-old demand. However, unlike under Article 370, there are no safeguards for these hilly regions. Despite assumptions, the Sixth Schedule, designed for areas like Ladakh with a 97 per cent tribal population, grants substantial autonomy. It establishes Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) with legislative and judicial powers, enabling them to regulate various aspects such as land, forest, water, agriculture, health, sanitation, and mining. The hunger strike serves as a protest to emphasise the importance of honouring commitments made to Ladakh's tribal communities.

Q/ What are your fears about industrialisation and mining in Ladakh?

A/ As an environmentalist, I am deeply worried about the fragile ecosystem of the high Himalayas, including Ladakh's glacier system, known as the "third pole" of the planet. These glaciers sustain around 2 billion people, including a quarter of the world's population. Introducing mining industries in these areas would harm both local communities and cause water shortages affecting the entire north Indian plains. The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution established 75 years ago, is crucial for protecting Ladakh's customs, culture, and land. The Sixth Schedule isn't a hindrance to development; rather, it ensures that development decisions involve consultation with indigenous communities. These communities, through empowered councils, can better discern what developments are suitable for their region. This local involvement contrasts with decisions made by transient administrators unfamiliar with the area's intricacies, as Ladakh currently experiences under the UT's governance without a legislature.

Q/ How does development and investment in Ladakh threaten its culture and identity?

A/ Without safeguards, Ladakh faces the risk of mining companies and large hotel chains exploiting its resources, potentially bringing in hundreds of thousands of people. This influx would strain Ladakh's delicate desert ecology, where residents rely on just 5 litres of water per day, not 150 litres like in Delhi. Every drop is important. Imagine if 2,00,000 people using 150L of water come to Ladakh, there will be no water for anybody. Ladakh's limited capacity cannot support such numbers, and unchecked development could turn locals into refugees. Even tourism has wreaked havoc in Ladakh. Permanently large populations could turn locals into refugees, while newcomers would struggle to thrive. This threatens Ladakh's land and culture, finely tuned over centuries to survive in the mountains. If unchecked, this could lead to irreversible dilution and unsustainability.

Q/ The Centre is yet to grant Ladakh Sixth Schedule status despite giving positive signals earlier.

A/ If the constitutional safeguards are not in place, which were there under Article 370, the rich will buy whole valleys and mountains. This is why safeguards are needed. Our MP, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, took up the issue in August 2019. The government was very generous, supportive, and proactive then. Arjun Munda, the tribal minister, came here in 2019. He said that we must safeguard Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule. Simultaneously, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) and others held meetings in Delhi. They said Ladakh is the most suitable candidate for the Sixth Schedule. But when nothing happened, I made this video, ‘Ladakh ke mann ki baat,’ addressing the prime minister. The tribal minister wrote to me personally and assured me that the Sixth Schedule would happen. But there was silence after that.

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