Thousands in Ladakh protest demanding climate action and land rights in freezing conditions

Thousands in Ladakh protest demanding climate action and land rights in freezing conditions
  • PublishedMarch 25, 2024

Thousands of people in a remote part of India have begun a third week of protests in freezing conditions, demanding constitutional provisions from the government to protect their territory’s fragile ecology and to have autonomy over land and agriculture decisions. 

Nestled between India, Pakistan and China, Ladakh has faced territorial disputes and suffered the effects of climate change.

Shifting weather patterns in the sparsely populated villages altered people’s lives through floods, landslides and droughts.

Prominent climate activist Sonam Wangchuk is taking part in the demonstrations in the town of Leh.

He has been on a fast since the protests started on March 6, surviving only on salt and water in the open in sub-zero temperatures.

Temperatures have been as low as minus six degrees and snowing in recent days.

Sonam Wangchuk is determined to complete a 21-day hunger strike although supporters have urged him to end it early fearing further deterioration of his health.

However he said even after it ends, local people and supporters will take it in turns to go on hunger strikes until he regains sufficient strength to fast again.

A man lays under grey blankets covered with light snow on a mattress outside
Sonam Wangchuk has been documenting his “climate fast” protest on social media.(AP Photo: Sonam Dorje)

Mr Wangchuk, also an engineer working on solutions for sustainability at his Himalayan Institute of Alternative Ladakh, has called his protest a “climate fast.”

“We’re already facing climate disaster and these glaciers and mountains will be destroyed if there is not a check on unbridled industrial development and military maneuvers [in the region],” Mr Wangchuk told The Associated Press.

He has been joined by about 200 other people sleeping under the open sky as part of the demonstration.

Ladakh region a ‘water tower’ of the world

Ladakh’s thousands of glaciers — which helped dub the rugged region one of the “water towers of the world” — are receding at an alarming rate, threatening the water supply of millions of people.

The melting has been exacerbated by an increase in local pollution that has worsened due to the region’s militarization, further intensified by the deadly military stand-off between India and China since 2020.

Dozens of people hold signs in a street calling for government action
Locals in Ladakh have been protesting for more than two weeks demanding action from the Indian government.(AP Photo: Dinesh Joshi)

He also said Ladakh critically needs ecological protection because “it’s not just a local disaster in [the] making but an international one as these mountains are part of Greater Himalayas intricately linked to over two billion people and multiple countries.”

Mr Wangchuk said the Ladakh nomads were also losing prime pastureland to huge Indian industrial plans and Chinese encroachment.

The region’s shepherds complain that Chinese soldiers have captured multiple pasturelands and restricted them from grazing their herds. 

The shepherds and Mr Wangchuk are planning to march to the Chinese border later this month to underscore what they say is Beijing’s land grab attempts in Ladakh to gain territory.

In August 2019, Ladakh was split from Indian-controlled Kashmir after New Delhi stripped the disputed region of its statehood and semi-autonomy.

Protesters hold signs demanding statehood from the Indian government
The disputed Ladakh region is home to thousands of glaciers which locals want better protected.(AP Photo: Dinesh Joshi)

While restive Kashmir has largely been silenced through a crackdown on any form of dissent and slew of new laws, demands for political rights in Ladakh have intensified with demands of statehood and for local legislature to be able to frame their own laws on land and agriculture.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party promised in the 2019 national elections that Ladakh would be added to the list of states recognised under the sixth schedule of the constitution — which would allow the creation of elected local bodies to protect tribal areas — but that has yet to happen.

The region’s representatives have held several rounds of talks with Indian officials, including with the powerful Home Minister Amit Shah earlier this month, without any results.

“This government likes to call India the ‘Mother of Democracy’,” Mr Wangchuk recently posted on X.

“But if India denies democratic rights to people of Ladakh and continues to keep it under bureaucrats controlled from New Delhi then it could only be called a Stepmother of Democracy as far as Ladakh is concerned.”


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