The draft of a new industrial policy for Ladakh has been met with alarm and anger as the Union territory’s residents believe it may endanger its fragile ecology and take away the powers of its elected hill councils.

“There are two major problems we see,” explained Chering Dorjay, former chief of Bharatiya Janata Party’s Ladakh unit and a veteran Buddhist leader from Leh. “The power to allot land for any purpose is currently with the hill council. But the authority to allot land under the policy has been given to the Union territory.”

Dorjay and other leaders also flagged a “lack of concern” for Ladakh’s fragile environment in the proposed policy. “Environmental safeguards are not mentioned in the policy. Every type of industry should not come to Ladakh because we have a fragile ecology,” Dorjay added.

On November 9, Leh’s influential Apex Body Leh – a collective of different socio-political groups fighting for greater autonomy under the Sixth Schedule for Ladakh – submitted its reservations against the policy in writing to the government. Similar objections are also being voiced in Kargil district of the region.

“The new industrial policy poses a significant risk to the delicate environment of Ladakh and threatens the indigenous cultural identity of the region,” Sajjad Kargili, a prominent political activist based in Kargil, posted on Twitter on November 6.

“The introduction of this draft without the consent of the people of Ladakh is undemocratic and deeply concerning,” Kargili said. “Moreover, undermining the opinions of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils indicates a continued disempowerment of the people of Ladakh.”

Protestors in New Delhi on February 15 demand statehood for Ladakh. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/ AFP.

Outside investors

On October 26, the administration of the Union territory of Ladakh issued a public notice seeking comments and suggestions from the public on the draft of ‘Ladakh Industrial Land Allotment Policy, 2023’ within 15 days.

This is the draft of Ladakh’s first ever industrial land allotment policy. Before 2019, when Ladakh was part of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, it was governed by the state’s industrial policy. The proposed draft aims “to create employment opportunities, improve the living standards of the local population, and promote overall economic development of the region.”

But many residents say the proposed new policy puts the people of Ladakh at a disadvantage.

For one, the industrial land allotment policy says that non-local or outside investors “may be permitted” when it comes to industrial units seeking investment in manufacturing sectors. However, the draft says, “preference may be given to the local entrepreneurs.”

The service sector has been reserved only for local businessmen.

That has not reassured residents. “Nobody in Ladakh is able to compete in the race with outside investors when it comes to large-scale investments,” explained Mustafa Haji, a lawyer who advises the Leh Apex body on legal matters. “It’s basically a Trojan horse to enable people from outside to invest in Ladakh.”

The policy’s avowed accommodation to outside or non-local industries has aggravated the existing anxieties of residents.

Ladakh’s residents do not have numbers on their side – a tiny population of about 3 lakh people live in the vast, desert-like region.

As part of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh’s residents had exclusive rights when it came to jobs or buying immovable property. Following the bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019 and scrapping of its special status, Ladakh, like Jammu and Kashmir, also lost those protections.

The fear of losing their claim over their resources has driven a rare and unified popular movement seeking statehood and constitutional safeguards under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.

The Sixth Schedule offers protections and an amount of autonomy to tribal areas. In Ladakh, over 97% of the population are members of the Scheduled Tribes.

The leadership of People’s Movement for Sixth Schedule for Ladakh – as the amalgam of the Leh Apex Body and Kargil Democratic Alliance representing two districts of the region is called – has held several meetings with the Union government over these demands. But the Centre has not agreed to them so far.

Disempowering councils?

It is not the fear of outside investors alone which is driving the opposition to the policy. According to Haji, the policy is also aimed at making Ladakh’s influential elected hill councils irrelevant – a grievance which has become recurrent in Ladakh after it became a Union territory.

For example, the draft of Ladakh industrial land allotment policy says a total of three committees will decide on the allotment of land to prospective investors.

While the projects with the investment in plant and machinery up to Rs 5 crore will be assessed by the district-level single window clearance committee, investment proposals ranging between Rs 5 crore and up to Rs 20 crore shall be decided by the department-level single window clearance committee. Any investment proposal above Rs 20 crore will be assessed by a state-level single window clearance committee.

A look at the composition of the committees shows that most of the members are government officials and experts from various departments. There is not a single member of the hill council in these committees.

This runs contrary to the land allotment process prior to 2019 in the Ladakh region.

The powers to allot government land for industries rested only with the locally elected autonomous hill councils in the region, said Haji.

“Before 2019, if any land needed to be allotted to industry or the government, it would be decided by the hill council,” he said. “Despite hill councils being empowered to decide on matters of land allotment, the Union territory is taking these decisions on its own. That makes the hill councils meaningless.”

‘Only bureaucrats’

Autonomous hill councils in Ladakh were set up in the 1990s, as a response to the growing demand for greater autonomy and role in decision-making related to its development. The council members, like members of state assemblies, are elected through elections every five years.

The hill council functions as a grassroots body that implements government schemes, prepares plans and budgets and ensures development of the region. Except for lawmaking, it is empowered to function like a district-level elected governance body – and even collect and levy tax on behalf of the government.

Most importantly, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Act, 1995, under which the councils were set up, says that the power to deal with “allotment, use and occupation of land [is] vested in the council by the government…”

According to Haji, who helped draft the Apex Body Leh’s feedback to the policy for submission to the government on November 9, it is not the first time the body has raised these objections before the government.

Last year, too, a draft industrial policy had shrunk the powers of the hill councils.

“We told them certain clauses in the policy are problematic and should be amended,” said Haji. “We told them to give a role to councils and make them part of the land allotment committees. None of these suggestions were heeded.”

The sidelining of hill councils in the land allotment process assumes significance given the threat to Ladakh’s fragile ecology from industrialization.

“Ladakh is an ecologically sensitive zone,” said Haji. “The industrial policy talks about ‘rapid industrialisation’. In a place like Ladakh, you can’t implement that. This is a paradox.”

In a situation like that, the role of local elected representatives becomes more imperative, Haji argued. “There is a reason why the council alone was empowered to allot and decide about land in Ladakh. It is because the council represents the power of people. In industrial policy, the people who are going to decide the allotment of land are bureaucrats.”

Centre’s ‘doublespeak’

On August 5, 2019, when New Delhi scrapped the special status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and carved Ladakh as a separate Union territory, people in Buddhist-majority Leh district of the region erupted in jubilation. In contrast, the people of Muslim-majority Kargil district had protested the Centre’s decision of being bifurcated from Jammu and Kashmir and its special status.

However, as the realisation of the loss of its special protections dawned on the people of Leh, both the districts of the region came together in 2021 to express their displeasure over its status as a Union territory without legislature. By 2022, the demands on behalf of the people of Ladakh were platformed through People’s Movement for Sixth Schedule for Ladakh.

The representatives put forward a set of four demands to negotiate with the Union government: statehood to Ladakh; constitutional safeguards under the Sixth Schedule of the constitution; separate Lok Sabha seats for Leh and Kargil districts and the establishment of Public Service Commission for jobs.

Since then, the region has been simmering because of the Centre’s lack of commitment when it comes to protection of land and jobs.

Chering Dorjay, the veteran Buddhist leader from Leh, feels the Union territory administration has confirmed their fears by floating the controversial policy while the negotiations between the government and representatives of Ladakh are on.

“This policy actually justifies our demand for Sixth Schedule,” said Dorjay. “A lot of mischief is being done towards the land and the people of Ladakh. That’s why we want constitutional protections.”

Haji too said the introduction of a policy that deals with the issue of land in Ladakh is a “violation” of the process of negotiations set in motion by the Union government. “The government till date has not denied our demands,” he said. “It has said that it will accommodate the demands of the people of Ladakh. In the middle of this process, they are bringing a policy in which they are not taking into account the wishes of the people of Ladakh,” he added.

Director of Ladakh’s industries and commerce department, Mohammad Nazir Sheikh, said the administration will examine the objections and suggestions from all stakeholders. “Whatever amendments are needed will be made,” he said.

Sheikh, the head of Ladakh’s industries and commerce department, pointed out that the industrial policy has not been finalised yet. “It’s still under process and that’s why we had put it in the public domain to get feedback,” said Sheikh.