Shadows in the Kingdom
The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh is creating its
own alternatives to the global economy
The Ecologist, November 2000
The monk is angry but, being a monk, he is trying
not to show it. Shaven-headed, the sun-wizened old man
is dressed in the maroon robes of the Dugpa Buddhist
order. He is standing in the monastery courtyard looking
down at a group of four English tourists. One is chewing
gum, another is swigging from a can of Pepsi. On all
sides of the courtyard sit hundreds like them, all gathered
at this mountain pilgrimage site for the most important
festival of the monastic year.
'We've got a ticket!' says the gum-chewing girl. She
waves a small yellow slip of paper in the monk's face.
'Please,' says the monk, patiently, for the third
time, 'please, you cannot sit here. This space reserved
for monks only. Please, you move.'
He obviously hasn't got the message, so the girl repeats
herself. 'WE'VE GOT A TICKET,' she says. 'We got this
space hours ago. We paid TWENTY RUPEES.' She waves the
yellow stub again. 'We've got the best view,' she says,
to general agreement. 'We don't want to move.'
Twenty rupees is approximately 30 pence. The girl and
her companions have paid this princely sum to witness
the annual masked dances celebrating the birth of Padmasambhava,
legendary founder of Tibetan Buddhism. The dances are
one of the most sacred religious festivals of the year
in the tiny hill-kingdom of Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas.
She and her friends will have travelled for hours to
reach the 17th century Hemis monastery, the oldest in
Ladakh, which hangs like an alpine plant to the side
of an unassailable mountain.
Now she has parked herself in the corner of the courtyard
reserved for monks, and she's damned if she's going
to move. She is matched in her determination by most
of the other tourists, who scuttle about like termites,
obstructing the monks as they circle the arena in their
ritual costumes, to the sound of conch trumpets and
drums. Like the girl and her friends, they have come
to see the show, and no one is going to stop them. They're
not sure what the show is about, but they know the photos
will be good.
The fat man sits back in his chair and lights another
cigarette, his second in five minutes. A lizard blinks
down at him from the flaking wall of his government
'This is torture,' he says. Outside, bored officials
sit on the collapsing wooden stairs in the sun, or chase
each other along the balcony for something to do.
'Here in the agriculture department,' says the fat
man, 'there is work for 100 people, yet there are 200
of us employed. Torture. I am a TRAINED MAN, sir. I
train in Delhi, for three years, and then they send
me here.' He looks around, disgustedly. To be sent to
the Ladakh Department of Agriculture is the Indian government
official's equivalent of Siberian exile.
'My job is to teach Ladakhi farmers about new technology.
We have some wonderful things now: power tillers, many
fertilisers, high-yielding seeds. So I come here and
I sit in this office and nobody calls me. Nobody asks
me anything. These farmers, they don't want to know.
They have two acres each and a dzo and they don't want
to change. I don't understand them.' He sighs.
'More tea?' he says.
Twenty miles away, in a grove of trees at the edge
of a village in the Indus valley, a group of women farmers,
dressed in traditional costume, sit in a circle, listening
to the village headman speak. They are all members of
the Women's Alliance of Ladakh who aim to preserve the
best of their small-scale, ecological farming traditions
in the face of an avalanche of change sweeping in from
the outside world. It is people like them who stop the
smoking man in the agriculture department from getting
on with his job.
'What you are doing is vital for Ladakh,' says the
headman. 'It is important that women teach our future
generations what education really is. Now our children
go to school, and learn to read and write. But there
is education also in farming, nurturing, spinning, running
a family. Our children must understand this, so that
they can support themselves and not end up at the mercy
of outsiders.' Everyone nods in agreement. A group of
curious children who have gathered on the other side
of a stone wall to see what's going on, decide to go
and play football instead.
Tourist brochures describe Ladakh in the usual clichés.
'Kingdom of light', 'land of endless discovery', and
perhaps the most well-worn of all, 'land of contrasts'.
In this, though, they are right, for this ancient mountain
kingdom, which only opened up to the outside world a
few decades ago, is undergoing a process of tumultuous
change as forces bigger than anything it has experienced
roll in and threaten to sweep away the past. But Ladakh
is also home to a unique network of people and organisations
who, between them, are battling to turn the tide in
their direction - and who are beginning, slowly, to
Ladakh is a high-altitude desert, sandwiched between
the mountain ranges of the Karakoram and the Himalayas
in the far north of India. Culturally and religiously
much of the region is part of neighbouring Tibet; it
is often referred to as 'Little Tibet'. Politically,
it is part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir,
with which it has an increasingly uneasy relationship.
Its population is divided almost evenly between Buddhists,
in the east, and Muslims, in the west.
What makes Ladakh so special is - or was - its economic
independence. Though Ladakh has been invaded by outsiders
from the Sikh emperors to the British, its local farming
economy has always remained in the hands of its people.
Even today, with trans-Himalayan roads linking it to
mainland India and daily flights to the capital, Leh,
from Delhi, Ladakh remains virtually cut off from the
outside world for more than half the year by heavy snows.
This has meant that, though it has been a trading centre
for centuries (Leh was one of the crossroads on the
silk road from China), it has, until recently, needed
to rely on itself. Its isolation allowed it to develop
a remarkable rural economy, based on small-scale farming,
which enabled its people to make a living out of their
high and hostile landscape.
Over the last three decades, though, things have changed
fast. Until the 1960s, the region was virtually ignored
by the rest of the world, and the rest of India. All
that changed when the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950,
going on to launch an attack on Ladakh in 1962. The
Indian government flooded the region with soldiers,
who, because of the continuing Chinese and, more recently,
Pakistani border conflicts, have never left. In the
mid-60s, Ladakh's isolation was broken once and for
all with the construction of a trans-Himalayan road
linking it to the subcontinent.
Then things really began to change. The Indian government
pursued an energetic policy of drawing Ladakh in to
the Indian economy. In 1974, it opened the region up
to foreign tourism. The army, the tourists and the Indian
government have combined to subject Ladakh to the biggest
change that it has probably ever seen. And today, as
India throws its own economy open to the global market,
that change is gathering speed. Globalisation, tourism
and politics are combining to produce a cocktail of
communal tension, environmental destruction, social
disintegration and economic breakdown that threaten
to engulf this once stable and peaceful region.
Living from the land
What has happened to Ladakhi farming since the region
was opened up is symbolic of its wider experience. The
Ladakhi economy has always been primarily agricultural.
In itself this is remarkable, as Ladakh's landscape
is supremely hostile. Under snow for more than half
the year, dusty and dry for much of the rest, it is
a place of climatic extremes and unforgiving soils.
At altitudes of between 10,000 and 14,000 feet, where
Ladakh's villages are situated, the growing season is
only a few months long every year. Animals are scarce,
and water is in short supply.
But over the centuries, the Ladakhis developed a farming
system uniquely adapted to a unique environment. Farming
is small-scale; traditionally, each family owns a few
acres of land, and their whitewashed mud houses are
grouped together in villages whose size varies according
to the availability of water. The land is irrigated
by a system of channels which funnel water from the
melted ice and snow of the mountains. The principal
crop is barley, the mainstay of traditional Ladakhi
food. In the valleys there are orchards, and up on the
high pastures, where not even barley will grow, people
husband yaks, cows or sheep. Draft animals, especially
the ubiquitous dzo, a cross between a yak and a cow,
play a central part in the farming economy.
In order to get the best from this harsh landscape,
systems of co-operative labour sharing have developed;
Ladakh's traditional farmers have always known that
to survive they need to work together. But for many
years now, the fate of Ladakhi farming has been largely
out of their hands. The state government of Jammu and
Kashmir, following the example of the national government
in Delhi, has been working to 'modernise' Ladakhi agriculture
for decades. The results have been dire.
The way they went about achieving their aim is an interesting
example of how policy can be deliberately set up to
replace a local economy with one dependent on the outside
world. First, a food grain distribution programme was
set up by the government, under which vast quantities
of subsidised rice, flour and wheat were trucked across
the Himalayas and sold for virtually nothing to the
Ladakhis. Rice had previously been a luxury in the Ladakhi
diet, but now that it was so cheap, it quickly became
Within a few years, Ladakh became virtually reliant
on rice and wheat from the outside. There was less need
to farm, and so less farming was done. Large-scale infrastructure
projects built by the Indian government - including,
crucially, road links - helped consolidate the new economy
and create an urban alternative to farming. The combination
of subsidised food and the new infrastructure accelerated
a mass migration of menfolk from the farms into Leh,
the capital, to service the burgeoning tourist industry
and the new urban economy.
With the food grain distribution programme having
the desired effect, the Ladakh Department of Agriculture
was able to persuade farmers that their only means of
survival was export-led development. College-trained
experts were brought in from Delhi to oversee the introduction
of high-yield seed, chemical fertilisers and machines
to replace the communal labour system which was breaking
down as people left the farms. Traditional crops, bred
over centuries to fit in with the local climate and
soils began disappearing, replaced by crops grown for
export. Chemical fertiliser and pesticide use, previously
unknown, rocketed. What looked like an inevitable trend
began to take hold.
But the trend was not as inevitable as the government
seemed to think.
Challenging the 'Inevitable'
Helena Norberg-Hodge, a Swedish linguist and environmentalist,
probably knows more about traditional Ladakh, and how
it has changed in the face of such pressures, than any
other outsider. She first arrived in the region in 1975,
to study the language, but soon became more interested
in what development and economic globalisation were
doing to this ancient land. She has since become one
of the most passionate, and controversial, advocates
of the Ladakhi people as they struggle to adjust to
modernisation; her book on Ladakh, Ancient Futures,
has been translated into 32 languages.
The changes wrought on the Ladakhis over the last
few decades, she says now, 'brought them a great sense
of cultural inferiority. The combination of economic
and psychological pressures led to a dramatic loss of
self-esteem amongst people who had previously been very
emotionally healthy. A sense of shame developed about
their traditions and their way of life.'
What has happened in Ladakh, she says, exemplifies
what has happened to local economies and communities
around the world: 'It highlights the conflict between
what I'd call the 'real economy' of water, soil and
natural resources, and a centralised highly subsidised
artificial economy that pulls people into a system over
which they have no control.'
As an outsider, Norberg-Hodge came to see that what
was being presented to the Ladakhis as inevitable and
evolutionary was, instead, a Western-driven imperative
towards a very specific economic model. This belief
led her into a 25-year project to inform and arm the
people of Ladakh, and enable them to confront the coming
of a new way of life on their own terms. It has been
a project with results. Her institute, the UK-based
International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC),
has founded a number of local organisations that aim
to open up both sides of the development story to its
One of the best-known is the Ladakh Ecological Development
Group (LEDeG). Its pioneering work has included promoting
organic agriculture, local handicraft production, small-scale
solar technologies and general ecological awareness
amongst Ladakhis; work which was recognised in 1986
when LEDeG won the Right Livelihood Award - the 'alternative
Nobel prize'. Norberg-Hodge was also instrumental in
the founding of the Womens' Alliance, in 1990 - which
began with just 70 members and now has over 4000, scattered
across more than 80 villages - and the Amchi Association,
which promotes traditional Ladakhi medicine. ISEC also
runs projects which aim to bring together Ladakhis and
Westerners, to, as she puts it, 'open everyone's eyes
to the real impacts of development and globalisation.'
'These include 'reality tours' in which Ladakhis visit
the West to see for themselves both sides of the modern
world; a tourist education programme which reaches 3000
visitors a year; and a farm project, under which Western
volunteers work on Ladakhi farms.
Together, these organisations, and others, most of
which are all now run by local people, have planted
the seeds of a genuinely alternative future for Ladakh;
seeds which are now beginning, shyly but persistently,
'We have to go back'
To understand the impact all this is having on Ladakh's
development, take a trip to the office of its chief
agriculture officer, hidden in a dusty maze of run-down
government offices on the edge of the world's highest
polo ground in Leh. Mr Tsewang Dorje is a kindly, well-meaning
and confused man. A Ladakhi himself, he is in charge
of the region's agricultural policy, and he has a tough
job to do. It's difficult to believe he enjoys it.
His first recourse, when asked about the future of
Ladakhi agriculture, is to take the government line.
Ladakh is backward, and must be modernised. Ladakhis,
he says, have 'lost interest' in traditional agriculture.
Leh is now full of shops selling trainers, televisions,
consumer goods. People have motorbikes and jeeps and
transistor radios. The old ways are breaking down, and
his job is to help ease the transition. 'It was a very
good system,' he says, of traditional Ladakhi agriculture,
'but it's gone. The world has changed. We need to export
now, to survive.'
With that in mind, Mr Dorje wants the Ladakhis to
replace their barley fields with vegetable cash crops,
and their dzo with power-tillers. 'It is a very inefficient
animal, this dzo,' he says. 'You need to keep it and
feed it all year, but you use it to till at most for
just 10 days. With power tillers, productivity will
go up. Then people will be able to keep Jersey cows
instead, which produce much milk.' But power tillers
rely on outside input for fuel and parts. Jersey cows
are not adapted to high altitudes. And as for productivity
- studies have shown that Ladakhi traditional agriculture
is among the most productive in the world.
'Yes, well,' says Mr Dorje, 'we can compromise. Let
me read you this.' He pulls a scrap of paper out of
the top drawer of his desk. It is covered in pencil
scrawls and is, apparently, Ladakh's new agricultural
policy, drawn up by Mr Dorje and Ladakh's Hill Council
(see box p 36) just a few weeks previously. He reads
out its nine points, which talk of importing new crop
varieties, diversifying and mechanisation. But they
also talk of preserving small farms, promoting organic
food and protecting the livelihoods of small farmers.
Isn't there a contradiction?
'No, no,' he says, 'you see, we can
do both. Small farmers can produce for export. They
can build greenhouses and ... they can ...' He stops,
and thinks. Then, after a minute, he says, very quietly,
'eventually ... yes, we will have to go back.' Go back?
This doesn't sound like government policy. He leans
over the desk, cautiously. 'We will have to go back,'
he says, again. 'We have no other avenues. We cannot
rely on the outside - the market and the tourists. We
need to support ourselves. We know this, but until people
realise...' Then he says a most remarkable thing. 'This
is what the NGOs have taught us,' he says.
Mr Dorje's epiphany is just one example of how the conventional
model of development is being challenged, successfully,
even in the minds of those responsible for implementing
it. But none of the NGOs in Ladakh are under any illusions
as to the scale of the challenge they still face. A
walk around Leh shows how far things still have to go.
As with so many of the world's beautiful places, tourism
has become one of Ladakh's greatest problems, as well
as a source of benefits. Central Leh is awash with Coke
stands, 'German Bakeries,' trekking agencies, T-shirt
shops and unshaven men shuffling around on street corners
muttering 'you want good smoke?' More than half of Ladakh's
tourist shops are run by non-Ladakhis, and few of them
sell anything made in the region. Dreadlocked backpackers
roar around the unpaved roads on hired motorbikes or
sit in cafes complaining about the price of guest houses.
And Leh continues to grow. More and more impoverished
farmers, their livelihoods destroyed or destabilised,
drift in to Leh to try and make their fortune from tourists
and the urban economy. They end up in run-down government
housing colonies on the edge of town; a vacational underclass.
Leh's population, largely due to the pull of tourist
dollars, has doubled since 1975.
This causes problems all of its own, for Leh has no
infrastructure to support this growth; as a result,
the state of the capital is a pressing problem. Non-degradable
rubbish litters the streets and blows into the streams,
which are polluted with detergent from the laundries
which have sprung up to service the tourists. Traditionally,
virtually everything in Ladakh was made from natural
materials and reused or recycled. Today, rubbish bins
have sprung up around Leh, but there is nowhere to empty
them; litter is dumped on a mountainside on the edge
of the town.
Water is another problem. Traditional Ladakhi compost
toilets used no water, and rural Ladakhis knew that
such a scarce resource must be used carefully. No such
considerations inform the tourists or the new generation
of young urban Ladakhis who emulate them. Today, compost
toilets are being replaced with Western-style flush
systems, despite the fact that Ladakh has no sewers.
The new toilets, along with the increasing numbers of
baths and showers, are seriously depleting the amount
of water available in Leh, as gallons of precious fresh
water are flushed into unreliable cesspits which regularly
leak into the rivers and pollute the water table. As
a result, much of Leh's drinking water is now trucked
in across the mountains in government tankers.
But here, too, change is coming. The Women's Alliance
of Ladakh, headed by the energetic Dolma Tsering, is
having a remarkable impact. It is a grouping of Buddhist
farming women, who exist to promote and protect Ladakh's
rural culture, and to instil in Ladakhi women the self-confidence
they need to see modernisation on their own terms. Its
work in Leh has been pioneering too; it was largely
due to the work of the Women's Alliance that a ban on
plastic bags was introduced in the capital in 1998.
The Alliance organises litter-picks in Leh every year,
and works to educate people about the dangers of pollution
and consumerism. Dolma Tsering believes they must go
further. 'Development has brought some benefits for
wealthy, educated women,' she says, 'but for much of
our culture, mainly it has brought problems. But things
are slowly changing. Year after year, there are more
people understanding the problems, and taking part in
what we do.'
What much of this comes down to is education; something
that Sonam Wangchuk knows very well. Wangchuk is the
founder and director of SECMOL - the Students' Educational
and Cultural Movement of Ladakh - whose purpose is,
as he puts it, 'to strengthen Ladakhis through education.'
Wangchuk, in common with most of the other activists
and community leaders in Ladakh, believes that education
is the key to the future; only when it is its run in
a distinctively Ladakhi way, he says, will Ladakh's
people appreciate the value of who they really are.
'The Indian education system, which was based on the
British colonial system, has done terrible things to
Ladakhis,' he says. 'It helped convince people here
that they were backward and primitive, that their language
was worthless, that their traditions were bad.' SECMOL
is trying, says Wangchuk, 'to create a balanced view
of the West,' so that students are not lulled by the
siren song of global consumerism. 'Ladakh will change,'
says Wangchuk. 'In 20 years, who knows what it will
be like? But we must remain Ladakhis still - culturally,
economically, in our hearts - and not some imitation
of what we think the rest of the world is like. Education
is the key to regaining our sense of who we are.'
Ladakh carries many expectations on its fragile shoulders.
'Little Tibet' has been romanticised by Western travellers
for centuries. According to the anthropologist Ravina
Aggarwal, 'most visitors to Ladakh carry with them this
romantic notion of an idyllic land, eclipsed from time
and space'.1 This can lead to controversy, as campaigners
and NGOs, particularly those from outside Ladakh, are
accused of wanting to airbrush out aspects of its past
and present that don't fit with what they want to see.
So, say critics, we hear much about how development
has brought new health problems to Ladakh (incidences
of obesity, diabetes, coronary artery disease and various
cancers are increasing as diets and lifestyles change)
but less about the fact that, according to some researchers,
traditional Ladakh has one of the highest rates of hypertension
in the world, possibly caused by traditional salt tea.2
Similarly, much can be heard from campaigners about
the wonders of Ladakh's co-operative farming culture,
but little about the caste system which has made the
original tribal people of the region, the Mons and Bedas,
in the opinion of one academic, 'the most despised people
in Ladakhi society.'
There is undoubtedly some truth in this; there is no
doubt that, for an outsider, Ladakh is an easy place
to romanticise. Norberg-Hodge, as a Westerner, has been
the butt of such criticism for years. She is clear about
'In fact,' she says, 'it is the consumer culture that
is being romanticised, and this is a global problem.
Campaigners here are not saying that traditional Ladakh
was perfect and shouldn't change. But it's important
that everyone gets a realistic picture of what's happening
in the West.'
Furthermore, she says, 'one of the lessons that any
foreigner working here learns is don't try and come
in and tell the Ladakhis what to do. Don't presume to
know enough about their culture to be able to say "oh,
it's so wonderful, don't change". They know you
don't know enough, so it will ring hollow. What you
can do is speak from your own experience of what is
happening in the West, and how it could happen here,
and give them much needed information that will help
them make their own decisions.'
Whatever happens to Ladakh, its people are beginning
to see that they can shape their future themselves,
to their own agenda. Dolma Tsering, who has witnessed,
and participated in, the massive changes that her land
has seen over the last three decades, is optimistic
about the future. She can see, she says, the perspectives
of her fellow Ladakhis changing as time goes by; and
for the better.
'For a while,' she says, 'we in Ladakh lost respect
for ourselves and for our culture. But now we know we
have no reason to feel inferior. Now we feel more confident
about who we are. In fact, we know now that the world
can learn a lot from us. It is important that our young
people understand that. There is much that Ladakh can
teach the world.