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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 6, February 4, 2023

Fasting Himalayan activist draws scorn from insensitive Modi government | K Raveendran

Saturday 4 February 2023


by K Raveendran

(India Press Agency, January 31, 2023) Even the British succumbed to the moral pressure of Satyagraha, but that is not the case with the present day Indian rulers, who have responded to a fast by a Magsaysay award winner to attract the attention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the need to protect the environmentally sensitive Ladakh region with insensitivity and intolerance.

Instead of appreciating the cause he was seeking to propound, the government put him under house arrest, so claims noted environmentalist and activist Sonam Wangchuk, who then carried out his 5-day hunger strike on the roof-top of the Himalayan Institute of Alternative Ladakh (HIAL) beginning on the Republic Day. He had planned to undertake the fast at the 18,000 feet high Khardung La pass, which has the world’s highest motorable road, but has a temperature is -40 degrees centigrade.

The government has denied that the activist has been put under house arrest and claimed that he was prevented from going to the dangerous Khardung La pass in view of the threat of landslides and avalanches. But Wangchuk in a tweet shared a copy of a bond, which among other things sought an undertaking that he will not make any comments, statements, public speech, hold or participate in public assemblies or any activity related to the recent events in Leh district.

Three days before going on the fast, the activist who has inspired the Bollywood box office hit ‘3 Idiots’ had sent a communication to the prime minister urging to take immediate action to save Ladakh as climate impact is already visible in the Himalayas, with 25 glacial lakes and water bodies witnessing an increase in water spread area since 2009. But he failed to draw any response from the prime minister, as expected.

According to a report titled State of India’s Environment 2022, jointly produced by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment and Down To Earth, an activist website devoted to environment and nature, there has been a 40 per cent increase in water spread area in India, China and Nepal, posing a huge threat to seven Indian states and Union Territories. Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh have seen the highest increase in water spread area from 2009-2020 at 388 per cent. Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Sikkim, Bihar and Himachal Pradesh are the other affected states and union territories.

Wangchuk ‘urgently’ appealed to people to help protect the environmentally sensitive region of Ladakh and asked the PM to safeguard the region under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. He also uploaded a YouTube video, titled Ladakh ke Mann ki Baat, named after Modi’s own radio programme Mann Ki Baat. But as expected, the entreaties did not draw any response from the prime minister.

Ladakh residents have been demanding the inclusion of Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule for a long time to ensure overall economic development and autonomy in decisions, the video clip pointed out. The issue has also been previously raised in Parliament, but with no results.

Hundreds of people had Wangchuk on the final day of his hunger strike, who included leaders of the Leh Apex Body of Peoples Movement for Sixth Schedule and the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA), which is an amalgam of socio-religious, political and youth organisations, jointly spearheading a campaign to press for their four-point demands, including full statehood to Ladakh. On January 15, the Apex Body and the KDA jointly staged a protest in Jammu in support of their demands, including protection of land and jobs, and announced a similar protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi in the third week of February.

Although the fast has ended for the time being, Wangchuk has threatened to intensify his agitation if there is no appropriate response form the government. Barring the BJP, almost all major political parties, social and religious groups and student organisations have come together in both Leh and Kargil districts in support of Wangchuk’s demands.

The activist, who has been honoured with a number of awards, pointed out that If measures are not taken, the industries, tourism, and commerce will continue to flourish in Ladakh and will eventually finish it. He cited recent studies from Kashmir University and other research organizations, which concluded that a third of glaciers in Leh-Ladakh will disappear if proper care is not taken. In fact, a study by Kashmir University has found that the glaciers surrounded by highways and human activities are melting at a comparatively faster rate. (IPA Service)

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