Tuesday, May 28, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

India's Ladakh demands autonomy to deal with climate change

Protesters say statehood would give them more flexibility to pass laws to help protect its fragile ecosystem

Update : 20 Apr 2024, 02:51 PM

Located in the Himalayas, India's union territory of Ladakh is a natural paradise with mountain peaks reaching the clouds, lush grasslands, and thousands of glaciers.

For more than a month, demonstrators in the city of Leh have braved sub-zero temperatures demanding more autonomy from India's government to help them preserve their fragile ecosystem by giving them more control over land and agricultural policy.

The high-altitude region is vulnerable to effects of climate change, which has altered weather patterns resulting in melting glaciers, droughts and flooding.

The protesters say statehood within India would allow them more autonomy in responding to these climate-related challenges.

As a union territory, Ladakh is currently governed directly by the central government, limiting the participation of local representatives in decision-making processes. As a state, it would have its own legislature and chief minister. Activists say this would allow for more responsive and accountable governance tailored to the needs of locals.

In March, activist and educator Sonam Wangchuk staged a 21-day hunger strike in freezing temperatures to draw attention to the issue.

The hunger strike is now being continued by women, young people, monks, and others who have vowed to carry on as long as their demands remain unmet.

"We call it a climate fast for safeguarding the environment, which is very fragile in the high Himalayas," Wangchuk told DW.

Melting glaciers

Ladakh's glaciers are a critical source of water, and rising temperatures and dwindling rainfall are causing more melting. Water shortages have become a major problem in the region.

A study by Professor Shakil Ahmad Ramshoo, a glaciologist and earth scientist at the University of Kashmir, studied 17 glaciers in Ladakh's Dras region and found that black carbon particulate matter was deposited on the glaciers.

"This particulate matter, arising from incomplete combustion, significantly increases glacier heat absorption, speeding up their melting. We studied this across 17 glaciers in the Dras area and found that glaciers close to the highway were melting faster," Ramshoo told the Hindustan Times. Urbanization and burning of fuel near glaciers can cause them to melt faster due to soot deposits.

Traditional tribal culture threatened

Another concern of the protesters is the loss of pastureland to infrastructure and development projects.

"There are unique Indigenous tribal cultures that thrive here," said Wangchuk. The central government "does not find it necessary to consult with local, tribal, indigenous people. Without any safeguards, our people will be left high and dry, they will be forced to sell their goats and yaks and become laborers in cities," he added.

Protesters marched on April 7, to highlight the plight of herders who raise Pashmina goats, which are prized for their soft coats used to make cashmere.

The herders are now losing pastures to industrial development projects by the Indian government such as solar power facilities. 

They also say pastureland is being lost to Chinese encroachment as part of a territorial dispute between Indian and China in the remote border regions.

In the past few years, the government has announced plans to heavily invest in several development projects in Ladakh. These include the building of roads and bridges, and a large solar plant.

The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council has said the project will boost Ladakh's economy and ensure cheap power supply to the people, but some locals are concerned about the erasing of pasture lands.

Critics have already linked landslides to other power and infrastructure projects in India's fragile mountain areas.

Negotiations with government ongoing

Ladakh used to be administered by the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. After the abrogation of the state and its semi-autonomous status in 2019, Ladakh was declared a union territory, which is directly administered by the central government. As a result, Ladakhis no longer had representation in the government or autonomy over their own state.

In their manifesto before the 2019 elections, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had promised that Ladakh would be brought under an article in the Indian Constitution, which says certain tribal areas can be administered as autonomous entities.

The Apex Body in Leh, and the Kargill Democratic Alliance in Kargill, are the two leadership bodies from Ladakh that have been in talks with the Indian government since 2019. However, no consensus or results have been reached so far.

"This is a peaceful protest for tribal status for Ladakh. We are speaking for the environment, animals and ecology in the era of climate crisis. People are positive that this movement will make a big difference for future generations," Ladakh activist Kunzang Deachen told DW.

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