Educationist Sonam Wangchuk’s five-day climate fast in January has drawn attention to Ladakh’s demand for inclusion in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which grants a measure of autonomy to tribal-majority regions in the country.

Underlying the demand are concerns over the blistering pace with which the Centre has greenlighted development projects in Ladakh after the region came under its direct rule in 2019.

In four years leading to 2019, Ladakh had signed four Memorandums of Understanding with public and private sector companies wanting to set up projects in the region – an average of one agreement a year.

In comparison, at least ten MoUs have been signed in the last two years, Scroll has found.

These include an agreement with the government-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation to set up India’s first geothermal power plant in Puga Valley. Located about 170 km away from Leh, the area is known for its natural hot springs. The project involves drilling up to 500 metres into the earth to draw out naturally occurring hot water whose steam will be used to generate electricity.

Another MoU is with the National Thermal Power Corporation to set up India’s first green hydrogen unit, where renewable energy will be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis. The hydrogen generated is expected to run five hydrogen-fueled buses in and around Leh.

Seven hydropower projects are also proposed to be built on the Indus river and its tributaries. Apart from the MoUs, bids have been invited for solar projects, and the Ladakh Power Development Department has sought permission to clear 157 hectares of forest land to build electricity transmission lines.

“The number of projects that have decided to come in post 2019 is incomparable,” said Tsering Dorje Lakrook, a former member of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. Between 2005 and 2010 when Lakrook served as a member of the elected body, he said “not a single private company” had approached the Council to set up operations in Ladakh, and only sparse government projects had come their way.

The Council was formed in Leh in 1995, to give the people of Ladakh greater autonomy in the development of the region. Not that it helped much – its decisions were subject to clearance from the government of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.

“Before it became a Union Territory, Ladakh had felt ignored by the Jammu and Kashmir state government,” said Ashish Kothari, an environmentalist and co-founder of the non-profit Kalpvriksh. “The region’s demands were never taken into account, and Ladakhis felt they lacked representation in the state bureaucracy.”

When the Centre revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 of the Constitution and split the state into two Union Territories in August 2019, the news was “met with celebration” in Ladakh, said Kothari.

Three years later, however, there is disappointment. Neither has Ladakh’s demand for its own legislature been met, nor has it been given the status of a Sixth Schedule area.

Instead, the Centre has cleared a series of projects. “It is causing a sense of insecurity, and a feeling of being unsafe, especially among the youth in the region,” said Karma Sonam, a resident of Gya village, who is a part of the Nature Conservation Foundation, an organisation that works on wildlife conservation and the livelihood security of communities across India.

This sentiment is fuelling the demand for Sixth Schedule status, which residents believe will help them to bring in the “kind of development they want to see”, said Karma Sonam.


U-turn on Sixth Schedule

The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which is currently applicable in parts of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, and Meghalaya, outlines the administration of tribal areas in these states.

According to the Sixth Schedule, district and regional councils – whose 26 members are elected and four are nominated by the governor – can make laws about land, management of forests, irrigation, shifting cultivation, and grazing, other than that for marriage, social customs, and public health. With a tribal population of more than 97%, Ladakh meets the criteria for Sixth Schedule status.

In 2019, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes had recommended that the Sixth Schedule be implemented in Ladakh. The law ministry and the home ministry had “broadly agreed” on Ladakh’s tribal area status.

Moreover, the Bharatiya Janata Party promised to implement the Sixth Schedule if it was voted to power in the 2020 Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council elections. But after the BJP won the elections, there was little progress, apart from the Council’s Kargil counterpart passing a resolution seeking statehood and protection under the Sixth Schedule.

The same year, Home Minister Amit Shah had assured a Ladakhi delegation that a dialogue between the People’s Movement for Constitutional Safeguards under VI Schedule – an alliance of social, religious groups and political parties – and the Home Ministry would commence within 15 days of the council elections.

This dialogue began in January 2021 and Shah decided to form a committee with members of the delegation and elected members of the Council to look into Sixth Schedule status for the Union Territory. But the committee, which was formed only two years later in January 2023, was rejected by local social and religious groups for not including in its mandate issues raised by them, including the demand for the Sixth Schedule demand.

That the 2023 committee left out the issue of the Sixth Schedule might be related to the home ministry’s U-turn on the matter in December. Responding to the Parliamentary Standing Committee’s recommendation of implementing the Sixth Schedule in Ladakh, the home ministry said the “UT administration has been already taking care” of the region’s “socio-economic development”.

This has eroded “people’s faith in the government”, Wangchuk said in his 13-minute-long message on January 26, when he announced the beginning of his five-day climate fast.

The education activist is credited with helping drive the sharp increase of Class 10 graduates from 5% to 75% in the region, and founding the Himalayan Institute of Alternative Ladakh. According to him, the Centre’s reluctance to grant Ladakh Sixth Schedule status was a result of its plans to open up Ladakh’s valleys and landscapes to mining and industrial projects.

For many in Ladakh, proof that Wangchuk’s fears were not unfounded came swiftly. Two days after his fast ended, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced in the Union Budget speech on February 1 that a provision of Rs 8,300 crore had been made for an “inter-state transmission system” to transmit solar power-generated electricity from Ladakh to Haryana.

Tourism, ecological effects

The solar energy project that Sitharaman referred to is one of the many development projects in Ladakh that have sparked social and environmental concerns.

“Eastern Ladakh, which is where this 13 GW [gigawatt] solar project is proposed to be built, is mostly grazing lands for our nomadic pastoralists and will be completely taken away from them,” said Karma Sonam, the field manager with Nature Conservation Foundation.

Proposed to be set up in Pang, a village 180 km south of Leh, the solar grid will require 20,000 acres of land in the cold desert. Karma Sonam said since talk of the project began, there have been rumours that officials have been trying to convince pastoralists to take up employment at the proposed solar grid.

“But we all know that at most they will be employed as labour,” said Karma Sonam. “Their lives would be completely destroyed.”

Konchok Stanzin, Councillor from Chushul and a member of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, said that most of the land that will be acquired for the proposed project will be grazing lands. “...The possibility of individuals being compensated for the lost lands also does not arise,” said Stanzin.

He also pointed out that such large-scale solar projects will have long-term effects such as changing the land use of the region as well as the problem of disposing of solar panel debris.

This region is also home to the Tibetan gazelle, which is on the “brink of local extinction” in Ladakh and such a massive land-use change will make their existence more precarious. The grazing lands are also integral to the pashmina or cashmere goats whose wool is used to make the famed pashmina shawls. In Puga valley, where work on ONGC’s geothermal project is underway, Karma Sonam said there has already been an instance of geothermal liquid leaking into the Puga stream and polluting it.

Unregulated tourism in the sensitive region is another grave threat. Karma Sonam said that after the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions eased in 2020-’21, four lakh tourists visited Ladakh in one season. “Ladakh’s population itself is about three lakhs,” he said. “The ecology of the region does not have the carrying capacity to manage this unregulated tourism.”

Incidents of tourists displaying callous disregard for the environment have drawn attention as well as outrage. There have been videos of tourist cars driving into ecologically sensitive parts of Ladakh such as around the world’s highest motorable road at Umling La, which was inaugurated in November 2021, to the shorelines of the famous Pangong Lake.

Matters may worsen with the upgrading of the Leh airport. In 2020, the Airports Authority of India announced the addition of a new terminal with the capacity to handle 20 lakh passengers annually, a colossal increase from the about nine lakh that the airport currently manages. “We want to be able to have a say in managing the flow of tourists,” Karma Sonam said.

Creating autonomy

For many Ladakhis, the main concern isn’t the nature of the projects being introduced by the Centre but the fact that they have been kept out of the decision-making process.

“We are not saying that we do not want solar energy projects or other development projects,” said Lakrook, the former member of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. “But we want a say in the matter of where these should be put up and how large-scale they really need to be.”

For instance, Lakrook said that while the MoU for the geothermal project was signed in 2021, he remembered that it was recommended much earlier during his term on the council between 2005 and 2010.

“For renewable energy generation, we had realised that hydropower is not the ideal method because of problems like freezing of water in the winter that would impact discharge and silting of the rivers in the summer,” said Lakrook, pointing out that the council had supported the proposal back then, but the project did not see the light of day.

As Lakrook’s experience shows, even before the abrogation of Article 370, the Council never had the kind of autonomy it had hoped for when it was formed.

“The LAHDC Act, 1997, had provided some powers to the Council, but it was all subject to the final approval by the then state government in Srinagar,” said Shrishtee Bajpai, an activist-researcher with the environment action group Kalpavriksh. Some of these powers were the control and use of land, laying down guidelines for the implementation of schemes, tourism, irrigation and agriculture.

Bajpai is the co-author of a 2019 study by Kalpavriksh’s research and action initiative Vikalp Sangam analysing the limited powers of the council since its formation. Financially too, the report found that only about 10% of the state budget allocated to Ladakh was under the council’s control.

“Decisions of important sectors like tourism, infrastructure and centrally sponsored programmes have…been made without the Council’s involvement,” the report stated. With the Council holding no disciplinary powers, officials were “more likely to listen to orders coming from Srinagar and Delhi than from Leh” and policies remained insensitive to the unique needs of the region and its people, it said.

Since 2019, the limited autonomy of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council appears to have reduced further with the Union Territory’s administration “interfering a lot more” in the Council’s work, said Lakrook.

Lakrook pointed out that there had been no movement on the files submitted by the Council to the district commissioner’s office on the allotment of land for personal property and government departments seeking land. “This shows that the Councils have no power left to influence decisions around land,” he said.

There is concern about the control the Union Territory’s administration has on Ladakh’s land. “People’s worry is understandable when the experience of Jammu and Kashmir post abrogation is already visible,” said Kothari, referring to the measures of the Jammu and Kashmir administration to develop land banks and set rules for business enterprises to buy private land.

Amid the discontent, the demand for statehood for Ladakh is growing, along with constitutional safeguards under the Sixth Schedule. Some groups have planned a protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on February 15 seeking statehood for Ladakh.

Karma Sonam said that the day Wangchuk’s fast concluded, there was a huge gathering of people, not seen in years.

“We are assured the Sixth Schedule is the only way to manage our resources and support our future generations,” said Karma Sonam. “As a tribal-majority region, this is our right, which is why our slogan during the meetings and protests has been this – hum apna hak maangte, nahi kisi se bheek mangte. We are not begging, but demanding our right.”