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Melting Glaciers, 800 Hotels, Overflowing Garbage: Is This The Ladakh I Grew Up In?

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One pen!” “One Photo!” I remember screaming my lungs out whenever I saw a foreigner, and I’m sure many would echo this exact thought when they were young. Nowadays, you can hardly see this interaction. As a matter of fact, you don’t see it at all.

This hit me when I was cycling in Suru valley, Kargil, last year, where the kids would run after us, screaming for a pen, or chocolate, or just to greet us along the way. There was such an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia and at the same time another rather strange feeling. I was one of those kids once, and now looking at things from the other side made me realise how times have changed and also made me dispute the change itself.

Ladakh Going The Ooty Way?

The tourism industry here has blessed people with incomes that they would not even have imagined a few years ago, and that is undeniably evident with the rise of hotels at every corner of Kargil, each one bigger than the last, and the standard of living has no doubt rapidly ascended to a point where the ‘middle’ is becoming almost an obsolete class.

I was just an 8-year-old kid, who was sent away for a better education all the way to a quaint hill station called Ooty, in Tamil Nadu. I find this ironic now, because when I first reached the place, well past its prime days, it was going through the dying stages of its tourism. The hill station was quite popular during the early ’90s, where numerous Bollywood movies filmed on location. But, by the time I arrived, it had lost its charm, and what followed was just a stale holiday destination.

And, here I was; probably one of the first Ladakhis to ever set their foot in these lush Nilgiri hills, clueless of the culture and the language.

I was first asked about my native place, to which I replied “Ladakh”, and I still remember feeling agitated about their reaction, as they felt it was somewhere in Mongolia or Tibet. Ironically, today many people from the South don’t even know where Ooty is, but they know where Ladakh is quite well.

The contemporary setting of our tourism industry can be measured by the overwhelming success of a Bollywood film. A brief scene at one of the most alluring places you could ever see in India—that happens to be in Ladakh. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Right now, I am at a point of my life where I would like to see kids running after a foreigner, asking for pens and photos, rather than patronising them as just another international tourist. I feel the innocence of a kid’s spirit is lost somewhere along the way. They mirror the mood of what our society is going through.

I long for simpler times, when people were organically happier, and even friendlier, which we as Ladakhis are generally known for.

I remember greeting strangers and that did not feel strange. Nor was it strange hitchhiking from anywhere, without the worry of not getting a ride back home. Right now, those practices have become quite uncommon. I know I sound like an old, grumpy man, complaining about modern times, mind you, I’m only 28. So, Imagine how times have taken a drastic turn.

Is it for good or worse? I really don’t know. It is just an echoing concern of what our lives have become centred on. And the ironic part of all of this is that the movie in question conveyed a very different message, in contrast to what the region has turned into.

Don’t get me wrong, I welcome thriving tourism in Ladakh, and promoting the region, but in a much healthier form. Ladakh is undoubtedly one of the most surreal and alluring places that one can ever visit, especially in a country like India. I think it is a haven for any outdoor enthusiast. So, why not make it one of the best in the world? It sure has the potential to become one.

How Tourism Changed The Face Of Leh-Ladakh

There are more than 500 registered travel companies and in Leh, and almost every one renders the same service—because logically that’s where the money is. There are only very few companies that go beyond that, companies that really stress on developing a diverse platform for travelling in Ladakh, and trust me there is an only hand few of them. So, my argument lies in how stagnant and mundane the industry has become. It is just the classic Nubra, Pangong packages that are the hottest selling products. Period. And, to effectively sell that, you need grand vehicles to take people around, and even grander accommodation because that is what they demand. So, to meet those demands you tend to purchase more vehicles and build high-end hotels everywhere. This ultimately leads to all the space that once used for cultivation now becoming commercialised. Vegetables are now, after all, conveniently found in the market and winter is just a flight away too, so there is nothing much to worry about anymore.

Traffic is a new concept for us here in Ladakh, and yet we need more cars around. Every household now owns a vehicle; walking has become a thing of the past, while the environment deteriorates steadily. It has officially become the classic rat race, every man for themselves, where the ‘survival of the fittest’ mindset has frighteningly taken over. To think that we are a community-based society!

All of these have evidently taken a serious toll—be it socially or environmentally. For example, crime is something that I have never associated with our everyday life. But now we see an increased rate of different cases being reported, from petty crime to murder to rape. And, how can you forget the serious garbage problem that we are facing?

Once Beautiful, Ladakh’s Environment Is Now On A Decline

There are various streams that run through my town, and I remember gathering water from one of thm in my water bottle, while on my way back home. I would prefer the stream water than my own house’s. It was chill, and somehow tasted better. But imagine taking a sip from one of it right now. There is more garbage in it than water. Of course, it is the mindset of the people that has changed, and the influx of tourists does not help either. There are 30,000 plastic bottles being dumped in Leh every day during the summers.

For representation only.

Now comes the really concerning part of this whole matter. A recent study conducted by S. N. Mishra, a researcher form Indian Air Force, found that there is a drastic decline in precipitation during the winter, mainly due to the evident climate change. That’s nearly 70% precipitation that the entire region. Another study done by Ladakh Ecological Development and Environmental Group shows that locals use an average of 20 litres of water per day compared to 75 litres by tourists. They also found that the glacier on which Leh solely depends on would completely melt in the next five to six years. Add to all of this the strain of running more than 800 hotels in Leh, with 20 to 30 added on every year. Did you know the big hotels here generally consume more than 5,000 litres per day?

Tourism, without a question, has a major hand to play in all of this, directly or indirectly. So a drastic change is the need of the hour. What my appeal is to diversify the mode of tourism here in Ladakh. The mainstream is always a convenient way of looking at things, but where is the fun in that? If everyone became a more niche in what they would do, I think that will solve almost half of the problem that we face.

What I mean by that is there are numerous actions that one can promote and even make money out of it, without disrupting the place. The best example that can be given is for a company like GraviT. It is a bouldering company that deals specifically in rock climbing, and they have managed to build a stable community not only in Ladakh but have also become a household name in the climbing scene across the country. There are climbers who come to Ladakh form over the world just to climb boulders. Who would have imagined that? They hold an annual bouldering festival in Suru valley, Kargil, that attracts more than 100 climbers. This not only aids them as a company, but more importantly, it aids local business, and also helps in promoting the region in a sustainable way.

Yes, the current situation, unsustainable though it is, does help someone put a decent meal for their family. But, for how long? We are heading towards what Ooty had faced, or even Shimla for that matter. So, it is time to get our priorities straight and really stress on what the future holds for Ladakh.

This is an earnest appeal to the coming generations: be different, think different, and act different. Because different is what we need right now.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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