From 1995 to 2004, Thupstan Chhewang, 60, was chairman of the council, trying to lead the erstwhile Buddhist kingdom into modernity, without losing its traditional roots. Since 2004, Chhewang represents Ladakh in the Lok Sabha as an independent member.
Claude Arpi met him to find out the progress of education and development in the Himalayan region, and also about the Chinese incursions in the border areas, the state of the environment and the effects of global warming in Ladakh and the relations between the Muslim and Buddhist populations of this most strategic part of Jammu and Kashmir.
There has been a lot of reports of Chinese intrusions in Arunachal Pradesh, are you facing the same problem in Ladakh?
Yes, off and on. Of course, it is much worse in Arunachal. But in Ladakh also we consistently have Chinese incursions; some of them very serious. For example, the Chinese started building a road on the other side of the Pangong Lake on Indian territory. It was only after the construction had started that it came to the notice of the government of India. It has now been stopped and we have constructed a road right up to the border.
There are reports of incidents with speed boats on the Pangong Lake. Where is the LAC (Line of Actual Control) across the lake? How do you determine the line?
Both sides have speed boats to man the border. The lake is about 120 km long, some 40-45 km are with us, the rest with China. It means some 30 percent of the lake is Indian. The lake is very narrow, I am not very sure how the LAC is determined on the lake, but it is close to the shore.
Are the Chinese entering Indian territorial waters?
Once a Chinese patrol chased an Indian party four or five kilometers inside the Indian side of the lake. They captured the crew of the Indian boat, and took them prisoner.
When was it?
It happened some three to four years ago.
I was told that in Arunachal the Chinese send grazers and if the Indian side does not react, they occupy the place. Is the same thing happening in Ladakh?
We have the same problem in Ladakh in places like Chumur and Skagjung which are very rich in pasture and preserved as a winter pasture for the Changpa tribals. There is also a place called Dungti where a motorable bridge was constructed to take cattle and animals for grazing on the other side of Indus which is well within our borders. It was removed because China objected to it. Skagjung is the main pasture where the entire nomad population of the Changthang area comes. The nomads depend on this pasture for their survival. The Chinese used to intrude in winter. In Chumur sector, the Chinese object to grazing our cattle claiming the area is theirs, which is not true.
Why is the government of India not saying anything?
They are very soft. Like in Chumur, the Chinese send their cattle for grazing, though it is very much Indian territory. When they are asked to go away, the Chinese say it is their territory. Our government agencies do nothing. Instead of encouraging nomads from Changthang to go there (it is legitimately our territory), they advise them to stay away. This is the type of situation that we are facing.
Do you mean to say that while the Indian Army is asking Ladakhi nomads not to go, the Chinese are encouraging theirs to go there?
It is the same pattern as in Arunachal.
Yes, it is the same.
Five years ago, you mentioned that you were lobbying to get the border post in Demchok opened which will allow Indian pilgrims to go to Kailash/Mansarovar by road.
A delegation from Ladakh recently met the prime minister, the home minister and the leader of the Opposition to request them to take up the matter with China. During these meetings, we also objected to plans to cede to China any territory under Chinese occupation, places like Aksai Chin or Lingzinthang. We requested the prime minister to allow the Demchok road to be opened for the Kailash Yatra as well as trade and commerce. Some trade is already illegally taking place, but we want it to be legalised. China has already set up a market near Demchok.
When Premier Wen Jiabao came in April 2005, some guidelines to solve the border issue were agreed upon. It stated that uninhabited places could be exchanged. Does it mean that the government is ready to exchange Aksai Chin?
Exactly, but it is not acceptable to us. We cannot accept that just because some parts of Ladakh are uninhabited, they can be given away. There are many places elsewhere which are uninhabited, if the Chinese claim them, are we going to give them away? Ladakh is a large area; just because there is so much vacant land, do you think that we should cede these areas? We don't agree to these guidelines.
In the Ngari region of western Tibet, a lot of Chinese have settled recently. Is it one of the reasons why the Chinese refuse to open the Demchok road?
I don't know, but in any case, why should the Chinese not allow tourists? We are ready to accept whatever control (they would like to put in place). There is the existing LAC, we always abide by this line as the international border. Today, China is opening to trade and international commerce in a big way. Why not Demchok road? If it is opened for tourism, lakhs of people, especially Hindus, will use the road to go on pilgrimage to Kailash. The road can go right to the base of Kailash. The present road (through Uttarkhand) is very tedious. Old people can't go. It will not be the case with Demchok road. Hindus will benefit, but China will also benefit. They will get a lot of revenue from the pilgrims and also earn goodwill.
Why do they refuse?
Earlier there were some reservations from the Indian side, but now India has agreed, the only reservation is from the Chinese side. But I am told that during the last meeting (between the Indian National Security Advisor and his Chinese counterpart) before the visit of Dr Manmohan Singh to Beijing, it was discussed by the two sides in Delhi and the Chinese might be more inclined to accept.
What is the progress on Union territory status for Ladakh?
It will take a long time. It might come only with a solution of the Kashmir issue. We can only try to persuade the government. The present Congress government is not inclined at all to grant UT status to Ladakh.
Can't the people of Ladakh build more pressure?
As you know, the Indian system is based on electoral politics. We have a small population. Only the large states with large populations are heard today. Although Ladakh is a very strategically located area, nobody listens to us because our population is small. But we will not give up, we will continue our efforts.
Will it be the same if a new government comes to power at the Centre?
With the Bharatiya Janata Party we might have a chance. It is the only national party which is supporting our demand. They will have to amend the Constitution and revoke Article 370. Only if this happens is there a chance. But the BJP would have to get elected on it own steam. The abrogation of Article 370 is not in the National Democratic Alliance's plans. It is not easy.
When we met five years back, you mentioned your efforts in the field of education. How is it going?
There is progress. You can see from the number of boys and girls coming for higher education in Delhi. We have more than 2,000 students in Delhi, 3,000 in Jammu and 2,000 in Chandigarh. Some Muslim boys and girls are also studying in Srinagar. In Ladakh itself, we have improved the level of education. It is on the top of the agenda of the Ladakh Development Hill Council.
What about relations with Srinagar, earlier it was not very good?
Relations are better but we are still not getting adequate funds. Again the main criteria for allocating funds is the population of the area. In terms of population, we are very small; area is never taken into consideration.
Does the Planning Commission take into consideration that you are located in a strategic border area and that people have Scheduled Tribe status?
Though 95 percent of the population has ST status, it is not taken into account in planned allocation with which you can build assets and develop an area. The only criterion is population. Even in the centrally sponsored schemes, the criteria are very rigid, though in recent years some flexibility has been introduced. They have categorised: hills areas, trans-Himalayan areas or tribal areas; this has brought some flexibility. People can get a better share, but still today most of the schemes whether centrally sponsored or allocated by the plan, are based on the size of population.
What is your main problem today?
Energy and power. We have practically no power. We receive power supply for four to five hours in a day. It is not enough. In remote areas, we have only solar lighting systems. It creates public resentment.
Two power plants are planned, one in Kargil and one in Leh, it should be completed in four years. It may help improve the situation, but a lot needs to be done. In fact, unless and until Ladakh is connected with the northern grid, the problem will not be resolved.
What does it involve?
It means extending a line from Kashmir to Ladakh. Do not forget that Ladakh has a lot of power generation potential, particularly in hydro and geothermal power. A time will come when Ladakh will produce surplus power which can be fed into the northern grid. We don't mind if we are supplied power 18 or 20 hours a day.
How are relations between the Muslim and Buddhist populations?
We have normal and cordial relations like in the old days. Of course sometimes there are local incidents. We had an incident two years ago in a place called Both Karbu, tensions cropped up and anti-social elements tried to instigate trouble, but in general relations are good.
Has the J&K government implemented Panchayati Raj?
No, the act has never been placed on the table of the assembly. In Ladakh, it is partially in place because the hills councils served as the zilla parishads as per the Hill Council Act. But we still would like to form block level committees. We have told them (in Srinagar), 'If you don't want to do it for Kashmir Valley, at least do it for Ladakh'. They have not done it so far.
I am told that the environment of Ladakh is changing due to climate change.
The quantity of rain and snow remains more or less the same. But it seems we get lesser snowfall in winter and more rain in summer and often unseasonal rains. Also, we have witnessed a lot of cloud bursts which were rare in the old times. It has caused a lot of damage to the crops, the roads and even the irrigation system.
Does it affect the nomads' life?
It affects everybody. The life of the changpas (nomads) who live in very harsh climatic conditions in northern plateau (Changthang) is particularly affected by the climatic cycle changes. Sometimes large quantities of cattle perish. It is difficult for them, as a result they sell their (remaining) cattle and migrate to Leh.
What can the hill council do about it?
It started happening during my tenure (as chairman) in the Hill Council (between 1995 and 2004). I was not happy about this migration. We tried to dissuade the nomads and explain to them that they may get some money by selling the cattle, but they will face difficulties later. Those who migrated five or 10 years ago are realising this. Some are moving back and the hill council has some schemes to help them to resettle. Those who stay in Leh, usually engage in handicrafts or handloom.
Does tourism have a negative effect on the environment of Ladakh?
Not really. Ladakh is more a trekking destination and trekkers are usually responsible. They do not throw anything. There is also awareness among the Ladakhi people and travel operators about the environment.
Is there a limit to the development of tourism?
For trekking, it is not a problem. The areas are so vast. But in Leh town there is a lot of pressure also because the season is very short. Everyone comes first to Leh. Yes, there is a limit; we are trying to strike a balance. But we need tourism; it is the only source for supplementing income for the Ladakhis. People do not live anymore on sustenance agriculture. As a result food has to be brought from outside. For centuries, we were a self-sustaining society; we produced what we needed. Each household used to be a cottage industry. We were poor, but nobody died of hunger. It is only when the road came that we started depending on the outside.
Are you getting a new road?
We are getting a new road between Leh and Padung in Zanskar. Later it will continue to Darcha in Himachal Pradesh. Construction takes a lot of time, but it is underway.