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'Truth, Environment, Democracy': Behind Sonam Wangchuk’s Climate Fast in Ladakh

Around 10,000 people are expected to march to the Line of Actual Control to mark the land lost to China.

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Cameraperson: Athar Rather

Video Editor: Kriti Saxena

22 March, Friday, marks day 17 of climate activist and Ramon Magsaysay Award winner Sonam Wangchuk's 21-day-hunger strike and fast unto death in Ladakh.

Sonam Wangchuk’s protest began on 6 March when hundreds of people gathered in sub-zero temperatures at an altitude of 3,500 metres above sea level.

Speaking to his fellow protestors on 6 March, Wangchuk said,

“Twenty-one days – because this is the longest fast that Mahatma Gandhi kept during the independence struggle, and I want to follow the Mahatma’s path where we inflict pain on ourselves so our government and policymakers notice our pain and act on time.”

This is not the first time that Wangchuk has gone on a hunger strike, surviving only on salt and water. There have been multiple phased protests since 2019. So why is this one making headlines?

The Quint breaks it down.

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What Are the Demands?

The main demands that the people in Ladakh have raised are:

  • Special status and statehood for Ladakh

  • Implementation of the sixth schedule of the Constitution

  • Protecting the ‘fragile’ ecosystem of Ladakh

  • Separate Parliamentary seats for Ladakh and Kargil

  • Separate Public Services Commission for Ladakh

The sixth schedule of the Constitution, under Article 244, gives the local tribal people administrative rights in Ladakh.

It is meant to provide for the “administration of certain tribal areas as autonomous entities.” It is already in place in the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram.

In conversation with The Wire, Wangchuk said,

“Why this fast? It’s about truth, it’s about [the] environment, and it’s about democracy. This [schedule] is tailor-made for hilly regions with distinct indigenous tribal communities. And normally, 50 percent tribal population is enough to qualify for that, but Ladakh has 97 percent. So we were hands-down qualified for that.”
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What Are the Environment-Related Demands of the Protesters?

There are multiple development projects underway in Ladakh. According to a 2023 Scroll report, the current work in progress projects are:

  • Geothermal power plant in Puga valley, to be set up by ONGC

  • Green hydrogen unit, to be set up by NTPC

  • Solar power-generated electricity system for transmitting power from Ladakh to Haryana

  • 7 other hydropower projects on river Indus

  • Clearing out of 157 acres of forest land to set up electricity transmission lines

With all these projects coming in, and other development projects helmed by the military such as the building of roads, the locals are protesting against the depletion of their natural resources – such as borax, gold, granite, limestone, etc, which the region is rich in.

Additionally, the Union government is also undertaking tourism projects in Ladakh. Under the Swadesh Darshan 2.0 initiative, close to Rs 15 crore has been allocated to develop key destinations in the Leh-Ladakh-Kargil region, according to the Union Tourism Minister G Kishan Reddy’s comments in the Parliament in February this year.

Another Rs 9 crore has been allocated for the development of the Zanskar-Padum regions in Ladakh to give tourism a boost.

Sharing visuals of his protest on social media, Wangchuk wrote,

“Our nomads are losing prime pasture land to huge Indian industrial plants to the south and Chinese encroachment to the north. This Government likes to call India the ‘Mother of Democracy’. But if India denies democratic rights to the 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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What Has the Government’s Response Till Now Been?

Ever since the abrogation of Article 370, multiple protests have erupted in the Leh-Ladakh region, helmed by local civil groups. These groups met with Home Minister Amit Shah in 2020 to discuss their demands.

At their behest, the Ministry of Home Affairs also constituted a High Powered Committee (HPC) on Ladakh back in 2023, whose main aim was to discuss the constitutional safeguards required in the region. 

With people and civil groups from Kargil also joining their protests, the Leh Apex Body (LAB) and the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA) met with the HPC on 4 December, 19 February, 24 February, and most recently on 4 March.

However, in a statement issued by the leaders, they said that the meetings so far have had no “concrete outcome.”

Writing for The Quint, earlier this month, independent journalist Aquib Javeed said, “On 4 March, the central government made it clear that they couldn’t meet the expectations of the people. However, some safeguards can be extended.”

Javeed also quoted Praveen Donthi, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group Think Tank based in New Delhi, as saying,

“Unless there are substantial political dividends to be gained, the BJP government seems to be reluctant to make any administrative moves.”

However, the protesters are also quick to point out that their demands have not come as a surprise to the government.

In fact, in the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto for Ladakh had promised – “Declaration of Ladakh under 6th schedule of the Indian Constitution (Tribal Area).”

Around 10,000 people are expected to march to the Line of Actual Control to mark the land lost to China.

In 2020, during the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council elections, the local political bodies, as well as the people, boycotted the polls.

The implementation of the sixth schedule was in the manifesto of the BJP for these elections too.

A statement released by the political leaders said,

“The Apex body of People's Movement for 6th Schedule for Ladakh, unanimously resolved to boycott the ensuing 6th LADHC Leh election till such time the constitutional safeguard under 6th schedule on the line of Bodo Territorial Council is not extended to Ladakh and its people.”

Wangchuk, while speaking to India Today last week, said, “It's about (the) environment. It's about democracy. And thirdly, it's also about truth now. It has become because if promises in elections are broken like this, then elections will become a joke...you win an election and form a government, but do not keep the promises. So we are going to go in 21-day cycles, notwithstanding any code of conduct or anything.”

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What Else Should You Know?

According to the 2011 Census, the population of Ladakh is close to 2.75 lakh. Every day, for the last 15 days, hundreds of people have shown up to the protest site in solidarity.

School and university students, civil bodies, local farmers, an environmental group called ‘Friends of Ladakh and Friends of Nature’ are among the people who’ve shown solidarity with Wangchuk’s protest so far. 

What next? Wangchuk has called for a “border march,” with two dates being shortlisted for it – 27 March and 7 April.

Around 10,000 people are expected to march to the Indo-China border and the Line of Actual Control, to mark how much pastoral land has been lost to the Chinese troops. 

Apart from this, the climate activist has also appealed to people across cities to hold protests and meetings on 24 March. 

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from climate-change

Topics:  Ladakh   Sonam Wangchuk   climate activism 

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