Vikalp Sangam, a collective of NGOs, on Friday urged the Centre to consider the demand of the people of Ladakh to include the Union Territory under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which makes special provisions for administration of tribal areas.

The government had on August 5 rescinded the special status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Constitution and bifurcated the state into the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and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. The Union Territories came into existence on October 31. Ladakh will not have an elected legislature.

Tribal-dominated areas of Assam and Tripura, besides Meghalaya and Mizoram are under the Sixth Schedule areas. Assam, Meghalaya and Mizoram have three tribal councils each.

On Tuesday, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs G Kishan Reddy had told the Lok Sabha that two hill development councils which govern Kargil and Leh districts were already empowered to address the matters concerning the locals, adding that “the powers given to these councils are in line with the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India”.

“UT status without legislature, or adequate constitutional safeguards to protect the unique cultural identity and fragile ecosystem of Ladakh, may jeopardize the prospects of ecologically sustainable economic processes for genuine well-being of the people of the region,” the organisation said in a statement. It said autonomous decentralised self-governance will safeguard the land, culture, environment and the economic interests of the people for current and future generations.

“Corporate giants have already begun exploring the area for business opportunities [including in tourism] and prospecting for minerals and other natural resources,” the organisation added. “If they are given open access, Ladakh will be damaged beyond repair, and India will lose a unique land and culture.”

Vikalp Sangam also recommended that villages in Ladakh be given the special autonomy granted to tribal areas under the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. “This is essential for local self-governance, and for the people of Ladakh to be involved in a direct and day-to-day basis in determining their present and future,” it said. “Both the Fifth and Sixth Schedules should be easily applicable to Ladakh given that more than 90% of the population are of Scheduled Tribe status.”

The organisation called for Forest Rights Act to be applied expediently to enable “ecosystem-dependent communities to secure collective rights over landscapes essential for their livelihoods”.

It said that without clear safeguards, the government might alienate the people of Ladakh. “This would be unfortunate, as the Ladakhis have always been manning our borders like a bulwark, living under some of the most difficult conditions with limited infrastructure and bare minimum resources,” the statement said. “Thus, the interests and aspirations of the people of the region, and the environment they depend on, need to be honoured and fulfilled.”