The story so far: Ladakhi innovator and engineer Sonam Wangchuk completed his five-day “climate fast”, in an effort to draw the attention of Indian leaders to the region’s fragile ecology and to secure its protection under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, on January 30.
He had initially planned to fast atop Khardung La, one of the highest motorable mountain passes in the world. However, Mr. Wangchuk claimed that he was placed under house arrest at the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives (HIAL) by the local administration and denied permission to go ahead.
But police denied the claim, saying he was only prevented from observing a five-day fast at the top of Khardung La.
Mr. Wangchuk also alleged that he was asked to sign a bond instructing him to not make any public speeches or participate in public assemblies in Leh district.
Who is Sonam Wangchuk?
Remember Phunsukh Wangdu from the 2009 Bollywood movie 3 Idiots? There are some indications that the character, played by Aamir Khan, was inspired by Mr. Wangchuk. He is an education reformist and an engineer, and is known for taking on multiple challenges to improve the lives of the people of Ladakh and to protect the region’s ecosystems. He has received various prizes, including the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award. He is also the founding director of HIAL.
Ladakh’s fragile ecology
In a video ‘SOS’ message addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mr. Wangchuk drew attention to melting glaciers in the Ladakh region and the resulting effects on the region’s ecology. He said that Ladakh and the Himalayas form the ‘third pole’ of the world and are among its few frozen freshwater sources.
The Himalayas, along with all glaciers and river basins, are also called the “water tower of Asia”. Glaciers in Ladakh have been melting at an alarming rate. According to a study published in 2021, glaciers in the Pangong region retreated around 6.7% between 1990 and 2019.
Ladakh is a cold desert and extremely sensitive to climate change. People of the region depend on glaciers to fulfil their water needs. The melting of glaciers has three effects on the lives of Ladakh’s people: they lose potable water; agriculture practices specific to the region are threatened; and sustainable practices that support life in the region, like surviving on a minimal quantity of water, are slowly eroded. Loss of sustainable practices due to scarcity of water may also affect the livelihoods of locals and their cultural heritage, and force them to migrate.
A change in the ecological balance of Ladakh will also impact the biodiversity of the area. The flora and fauna of Ladakh are highly evolved to survive in harsh climatic conditions and will be threatened due to changes in the local ecosystems.
Even the slightest disturbances in an ecosystem as fragile as Ladakh can lead to the collapse of the whole ecosystem, Santonu Goswami, associate professor of climate change at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, said. According to Dr. Goswami, it is possible climate change will lead to excessive rainfall in Ladakh by around 2045 due to global warming. “An increase in temperature has a direct impact on precipitation in an area, which changes agriculture practices. This eventually affects food security,” Dr. Goswami told The Hindu.
Unabated development in sensitive areas like Ladakh, without keeping in mind the sustainable practices that have supported life under extreme conditions, will eventually lead to disruption of the area’s ecology. “It can also lead to land subsidence like we recently witnessed in Joshimath since Ladakh is even more fragile than Chamoli district,” Dr. Goswami added.
What is the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution?
The Sixth Schedule of India’s Constitution protects tribal populations and provides autonomy to communities to frame laws on land, public health, agriculture, etc. Currently, ten Autonomous Development Councils exist in the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram.
Ladakh was previously protected under Article 370, but the Indian government’s revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status removed the provisions for Ladakh as well. Ladakh became a Union Territory.
In response to a report tabled by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs in Rajya Sabha, the Home Ministry said in December 2022 that the main objective of including tribal population under the Fifth/Sixth Schedule is to “ensure their overall socio-economic development, which the UT Administration has already been taking care of since its creation. Sufficient funds are being provided to Ladakh to meet its overall developmental requirements”.
The standing committee recommended including of Ladakh in the Sixth Schedule because its tribal communities account for 79.61% of its total population.