Eighty-five civil society groups on Friday jointly issued a statement in support of the ongoing protests in Ladakh over the people’s demand for statehood for the four-year-old Union territory.

“We express solidarity with all those fasting in the frigid conditions of Ladakh, including Sonam Wangchuk and many others,” read the statement by the Vikalp Sangam General Assembly, which includes the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, the Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation and Greenpeace India among others.

On Wednesday, Ladakh’s Kargil town observed a half-day shutdown as locals took to the streets in solidarity with activist Sonam Wangchuk, who is 17 days into a 21-day hunger strike that is he observing in Leh amid sub-zero temperatures, to voice the demand for the statehood, reported The Hindu.

On Thursday, the Kargil Democratic Alliance announced that they were set to join the hunger strike led by Wangchuk. Wangchuk and other civil society leaders in Ladakh are also trying to press the Centre to implement the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution for Ladakh.

The Sixth Schedule under Article 244 (Administration of Scheduled Areas and Tribal Areas) of the Constitution of India guarantees certain protections for land and a nominal autonomy for citizens in designated tribal areas. In Ladakh, more than 97% of the population belong to Scheduled Tribes while Kargil is a Muslim-majority region.

Friday’s statement by the Vikalp Sangam General Assembly said that the demands of the people of Ladakh are being “systematically sidelined” despite promises made to them by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in 2019.

On August 5, 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government had rescinded the special status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Constitution and bifurcated the state into the Union territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

This, along with the lack of a legislature in Ladakh, has led to increasing insecurities among the Ladakhi people over their land, nature, resources and livelihoods and stoked fears that the region’s cultural identity and fragile ecosystem are in jeopardy.

“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 statement read.

The groups pointed out that over 90% of the Trans-Himalayan biogeographic zone in India is located in Ladakh, 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,” the statement continued, warning Ladakh may now be exposed to “extractive modern unsustainable development that has impacted the rest of India”.

The rise of tourism in the region and along with the influx of businesses and mining interests could “destroy the livelihood and ecological balance that the people of Ladakh have achieved while pursuing their livelihoods”.

The statement said that fulfilling the demands of the people would “strengthen the local democratic processes and rights” and also enable locals to take part in decision-making.

“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 statement alleged.

The inclusion of Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule would also allow for the creation of autonomous development councils to govern land, public health and agriculture. Ten such councils exist in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram, the only states where the Sixth Schedule has been implemented.

The Centre in February agreed to examine whether the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution can be implemented in Ladakh.

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