Solidarity to Ladakh’s Demands for Constitutional Safeguards


  • March 24, 2024
  • (0 Comments)
  • 668 Views

Sonam Wangchuk’s protest hunger strike began on 6 March after talks between the Ladakhi leadership and the Union government on March 4 about the demands failed with the government rejecting the demands for Ladakh statehood and autonomy.

 

Groundxero | March 24, 2024

 

Sonam Wangchuk, renowned climate activist and Ramon Magsaysay Award winner, and many others campaigners, braving extreme sub-zero temperatures are sitting on a 21-day hunger strike in Leh to press for their four key demands — statehood for Ladakh, inclusion in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution (which provides for regional self-governance institutions), job reservation for locals, and a parliamentary seat each for Leh and Kargil — as well as to highlight the damage to Ladakh’s fragile ecology and glaciers by industrialization and encroachment.

 

Sonam Wangchuk’s protest hunger strike began on 6 March after talks between the Ladakhi leadership and the Union government on March 4 about the demands failed. The Union government rejected demands for Ladakh statehood and autonomy, and only offered to extend protections for local jobs and land and to address other concerns. 

 

The BJP party had promised in the 2019 national elections and 2020 Hill Council elections that Ladakh would be added to the list of states recognised under the sixth schedule of the constitution, which would allow the creation of elected local bodies to protect tribal areas. But a Union home ministry committee refused to concede to the demands of constitutional safeguards for Ladakh after it was downgraded into a union territory in 2019.

 

Wangchuk, who has been drinking only water and salt since he began the fast, broadcasts regular video messages on social media platforms to draw the attention of people to the fragile environment of Ladakh and how allowing industrial setups in the region could create an environmental catastrophe. Through his video messages, Wangchuk has also been reminding the BJP leadership of the promises that it had made to the people of Ladakh in its poll manifestos ahead of the 2019 parliamentary election and 2020 Hill Council elections.

 

Thousands of people from Ladakh have joined Wangchuk. The Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) is set to join the hunger strike on March 24. Vikalp Sangam General Assembly, which aims to network movements, organisations and individuals working on alternatives to unsustainable, iniquitous development, expressing solidarity with all those fasting in the frigid conditions of Ladakh has issued a statement to support the ongoing movement of the people of Ladakh.

 

Statement and Appeal on Ladakh’s Demands for Constitutional Safeguards

by Vikalp Sangam General Assembly* and other networks

22 March, 2024

 

We are issuing this statement to support the ongoing movement of the people of Ladakh, demanding Constitutional measures enabling them to protect their land, culture, environment and the economic interests, for current and future generations. These include Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution and statehood, which would enable them to determine their present and future without domination of bureaucrats appointed from New Delhi. We express solidarity with all those fasting in the frigid conditions of Ladakh, including Sonam Wangchuk and many others; we have expressed our solidarity through actions across India over the last few days.

 

We express shock about the way in which these demands that people/citizens of  Ladakh have been making for many years, is  systematically sidelined, with the central government dragging its feet and then finally rejecting them outright. This is despite the party in power having made a promise to grant 6th Schedule status to Ladakh when it was converted into a Union Territory in 2019.

 

We are also distressed at the attempted silencing of voices or intimidation and repression tactics trying to block students and youth from attending the ongoing mass fast or other peaceful means of protest, and the placing of CCTV surveillance of the fasting site to keep track of people visiting and participating in the fast.

 

In August 2019, Ladakh received the Union Territory status that the people of Ladakh, especially in the Leh district, had been demanding for over seven decades, because their aspirations were long ignored by the then Jammu and Kashmir state government. This new status had the potential for political and economic emancipation as determined by the people of Ladakh. However, UT status without legislature, or adequate constitutional safeguards to protect the unique cultural identity and fragile ecosystem and culture of Ladakh, has jeopardized this potential. On January 2, 2022, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) constituted a high-powered committee for Ladakh to look over the region’s development but didn’t mention the demand for the 6th Schedule despite unequivocal local demands. The committee was rejected by the Leh Apex Body and Kargil Democratic Alliance for not specifying the issues they have been demanding. Subsequently another committee was set up to examine the demands, but after several meetings that were patiently attended by the Ladakh leaders, the Govt. of India refused to budge on the two main demands of 6th Schedule and Statehood.

 

Over 90% of the Trans-Himalayan bio geographical zone within India is located in Ladakh, an area which harbours a high diversity of many endangered animals like the wild yak, snow leopard, and black-necked crane. These animals provide crucial ecosystem functions, and have been sustaining indigenous communities for centuries. Owing to the scarce resources scattered over large mountainous areas, these animals need to range far and wide for food. Ladakh also has a unique social and cultural mosaic that evolved over centuries. The people in the region with more than 90% indigenous population have a distinct ethnic identity, language, value systems, traditions, and an extraordinary way of life suffused with profound spiritual and religious principles in tune with the natural surroundings. The region with its vibrant local diversity further adds to India’s rich diversity.

 

There is a genuine fear that UT status without constitutional safeguards in Ladakh’s governance, could result in the kind of extractive modern unsustainable development that has impacted the rest of India. Unregulated growth in tourism, influx of businesses and large corporate houses, mining interests, could destroy the fine balance that the people of Ladakhi have achieved while pursuing their livelihoods as well as exacerbate the glacial loss that is already a huge concern, threatening to impact livelihoods of not just the people of Ladakh but of millions of Indians who depend on its waters. Corporate giants have already begun exploring the area for business opportunities (including in tourism) and prospecting for minerals and other natural resources. While some roads and other necessary infrastructure are welcome, what is being planned or constructed is on a mega scale that seems to be more for the benefit of businesses from outside rather than the people of Ladakh themselves. This includes an airport with a capacity of 2 million visitors (over 6 times the resident population). A proposed mega-solar project could take up 20,000 acres of the fragile Changthang pastures, crucial for pastoralists and wildlife. If such projects and their proponents/builders are given an open access, Ladakh will be damaged beyond repair. Given the kind of evidence emerging of the impacts of big infrastructure projects in Joshimath and elsewhere in the Himalaya, caution regarding what kind of development should be allowed in Ladakh is especially warranted.

 

These demands are also justified in order to strengthen local democratic processes and rights. After the creation of the UT, decision-making has shifted even further away from Ladakh, with most crucial decisions on budgets and plans being made in or at the behest of New Delhi. Nearly all consultancies and contracts for planning, such as the making of vision documents, are being given to non-Ladakhis. The proposed Industrial Land Allocation Policy has single-window clearance committees that include no Hill Council members, panchayats, or local civil society groups, all power being in the hands of the UT Administration, contrary to its assurance that land rights will remain vested in the Hill Council.

 

The ruling party in New Delhi had promised adequate Constitutional safeguards after Ladakh became a Union Territory in 2019. Even the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes recommended the inclusion of Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule for democratic devolution of powers, preserving the natural and cultural heritage of the region, its customary governance system, ensuring agrarian rights of local people, and enhancing transfer of funds for the region’s development needs. However, none of the promises made in the ruling party’s manifestos (for Lok Sabha and local Council elections) were kept, leading to increasing insecurities in the Ladakhi people over their land, nature, resources and livelihoods leading to massive protests in both Kargil and Leh districts.

 

A special Constitutional status to Ladakh should include adequate powers with the Kargil and Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils to exercise control over land, natural resources including minerals, tourism, and development policy. Additionally, we strongly recommend that the villages of Ladakh be empowered under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, if it is possible to include an area under both Schedules. This would include the application of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) to empower gram sabhas and not only panchayats. This is essential for local self-governance, and for the people of Ladakh to be involved on a direct and day-to-day basis in determining their present and future. Both the 5th and 6th Schedules are in principle applicable to Ladakh given that more than 90 percent of the population is of Scheduled Tribe status. Additionally, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 should be expediently applied with the full empowerment of local communities, especially to enable pastoral and other ecosystem-dependent communities to secure their collective rights over landscapes essential for their livelihoods.

 

Furthermore, without such safeguards and a clear mandate for the people of Ladakh to determine their own future, the government would disrespect the decades-old trust of the local people in the Union of India, and their contribution to maintaining security in our border areas. The people of Ladakh have put their lives in danger during all the wars in the region and stood like a bulwark against unfriendly neighbours. Thus, the interests and aspirations of the people of the region, and the environment they depend on, need to be honoured and fulfilled.

 

We urge the Government of India to agree to the demands of Ladakhi people and help protect this unique ecological and cultural landscape. We also urge the people of Ladakh to continue strengthening their own internal democratic processes, so that communities and institutions like the Hill Council are able to resist decisions that adversely impact them and their environment, as also construct viable alternatives for meeting basic needs, aspirations, and the goals of well-being.

 

———————–

 

* The Vikalp Sangam General Assembly (VSGA) is the coordinating mechanism for the Vikalp Sangam process (www.vikalpsangam.org), which aims to network movements, organisations and individuals working on alternatives to unsustainable, iniquitous development. It contains about 85 organisations and networks across India.

 

** Download the full Statement here.

 

Share this
Leave a Comment