In August last year, as I had set out for my university in New Delhi, my neighbours in the home village of Hemisshukpachan, 80 km west of Leh, asked me to return as a dispute had arisen among the villagers regarding the implementation of the Jal Jeevan Mission – the Centre’s scheme to provide tap water to individual households by 2024.

This seemingly minor problem in my village in Ladakh reflected the larger stakes involved in the protests in the territory demanding the implementation of the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which provides for some tribal areas to be administered autonomously.

The point of contention were the springs on which our village depends for water. But it was an indication of the heated debate now underway about how policies and laws related to using local resources are made.

Hemisshukpachan is located around 11,000 feet above sea level and is cocooned by the massive Ladakh range of the Himalayas. A glacier to the north provides water to one tokpo, or stream, that passes through the village before discharging its water in the Singay Kababs or Indus.

A series of channels lead from the stream to agricultural fields. Due to the cold, the water is frozen for most of the year, so the fields can only be cultivated in the short summer months of June to September.

However, during the sowing season, which falls in late May or early June, the temperature in the village is still cold. The glacier does not melt properly. So in the lean season, the village depends on two large perennial springs for irrigation.

One is located in the north. The water of this spring, called shuktingmo, is used during the sowing season for the agricultural fields located in the northern part of the village, which also has many fields owned by households from the southern part. Water from Shuktingmo is used by 57 households out of a total of around 100 in the village.

The second spring, called sachumik, is located in the middle of the village. Its water is used for fields located in the south. Many households in the north also own fields in the southern part.

As part of the Jal Jeevan Mission, two large water tanks – one for each section of the village – were constructed near each of these springs. However, the contractor decided that the tank for the southern part of the village needed more water from the north spring. This alarmed villagers living in the north. They feared that the Mission would undermine their customary right to the water of the spring during the crucial sowing season.

After some discussion, the problem was resolved when the contractor agreed not to take any water from the northern spring.

A stream flows by a farm in Ladakh. Credit: Mann Mishra, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In Ladakh, customary norms regarding scarce resources like water have evolved over the centuries to suit the conditions of living in the cold desert. Each village has its own norms. Some villages rely on the Indus, some rely on springs and others rely on streams. Some villages share a single stream. In this case, the norms would have been developed after a long process of inter-village assertion, conflicts and consensus.

Despite the differences in such norms across Ladakh, one thing is common: the norms are made locally. They are place-based norms made by people who use the resources.

Another line that connects the different norms, especially in Buddhist villages, for using local resources like water is the sacredness of the water. Springs are considered the home of the spirits of the underworld, the Lu. The fish, insects and other more-than-humans are also seen as the embodiments of the Lu. We do not pollute our water, knowing that the Lu will get offended. The belief system also helped keep the water clean for our fellow villagers.

Since August 2019, when Ladakh was carved out of Jammu and Kashmir and the status of both parts was downgraded to Union territories, policies for the region have been made in New Delhi or by bureaucrats appointed by the Centre.

The statutory hill councils of Leh and Kargil now only have executive power. The councils lack legislative power, which means that the councils cannot make laws that recognise customary norms regarding resource use.

Such norms are, as it stand now, not legally recognised. In this situation, the popular protest led Sonam Wangchuk, who has been on a hunger strike on March 6, to demand the implementation of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and statehood for Ladakh can be seen as a demand for the right to make policies, norms and laws locally.

The Sixth Schedule provides power to the regional councils to make laws for canal water, forests, land, village administration, marriage and divorce, inheritance of property, social customs, town village administration “including village or town police and public health and sanitation” and appointment of headmen.

In other words, if the provisions of the Sixth Schedule are extended to Ladakh, laws, policies and their execution would become place-based, not policies designed in faraway places by people unfamiliar with the ground. Without legal backing, locally evolved norms could be trampled upon if another project comes in. It could be bulldozed if a stubborn contractor, whose mandate is only to show a successful implementation of the project, rolls in with his machinery.

The historic protest, where both Muslims and Buddhist Ladakhis are on the same page for the first time, seeks the right to our place-based relations with springs, pastures, wild vegetables, rivers, glaciers, and much more.

Ladakh is becoming the centre of the unfolding ecological disaster, where rising temperatures, rapid melting of glaciers, dying spring waters, increasing rainfall, decreasing snowfall and water scarcity have become everyday experiences. The unfolding crises manifest how humans have gone wrong with their relations with elements of nature like soil, water, air, animals and forests.

In these dire times, our demand to allow placed-based governance and relations with our springs, glaciers, pasture and land is a sign that we hope to live with love with the planet. We know love is messy. We might fail to love. We might keep fighting like my villagers, often divided between north and south. We might agree or disagree over the right to use the spring. But we are at least fighting it locally based on local norms. The question is, will the Centre allow us the right to make norms, laws, and policies locally?

Padma Rigzin is a Shamma from Ladakh and researching for a PhD in social anthropology. He is exploring the evolving human-snow leopard relationship.