Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Sonam Wangchuk calls for statehood, 6th Schedule


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By Our Special Correspondent

SHILLONG, March 11: Sonam Wangchuk, a scientist with a mission who inspired the movie 3 Idiots, is no stranger to Meghalaya. He has visited the state on two occasions, the last being in December last year. Wangchuk had come here to try and understand the powers and functions of the district councils granted by the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. He met with prominent public leaders here and members of the KHADC. He also met with Pramode Boro, the Chief of the Bodoland Territorial Region Council. Wangchuk had told those he met that he was ready to go on fast if the demand for statehood and the Sixth Schedule arrangement is not granted by the Centre.
On March 6, at freezing temperatures of minus 16 degrees, Wangchuk launched his fast unto death after talks between the Union Home Ministry and the leaders from Ladakh failed. Since 2019, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh became two Union Territories after Article 370 was struck down. A Union Territory is ruled from Delhi via the Lieutenant Governor and as such there are no special provisions that can protect the land and resources of the people of Ladakh as is the case with tribal states that have the Sixth Schedule or other special provisions like Article 371 where land cannot be alienated to non-tribals.
Wangchuk is of the opinion that tiny Ladakh cannot be overrun by polluting industries and big corporates and that the people of Ladakh need special protection. He has always been concerned about the fragile ecology of Ladakh and desires that its culture and traditions are given special protection as happens under states where the Sixth Schedule is applied.
But more than that Wangchuk is disappointed by the lack of attention of the mainstream media at what is happening in Ladakh and even now when he is on a fact in such extreme climatic conditions so few are reporting the matter.
Wangchuk’s friends and supporters in Meghalaya have been in touch with him and expressing their concern. This correspondent spoke to Sonam Wangchuk who responded in his frail voice that he had to do this for his people and land.
Besides demanding statehood and the 6th Schedule the Ladakhis are also asking for separate Lok Sabha seats for Kargil and Leh districts.
Below are the excerpts of an interview given by Sonam Wangchuk to The Shillong Times:
What is the current situation of Ladakh as it stands today?
Global warming has been leading to melting glaciers in the Himalayan region, where Ladakh is located. Shifting weather patterns are resulting in frequent flash floods, landslides and droughts that are impacting the lives of people living in the sparsely populated villages in the region. To safeguard the mountains of Himalayan region particularly Ladakh from indiscriminate exploitation, mining which has already caused havoc in places like Uttarakhand, Himachal all the way to Sikkim and now it’s going to come to Ladakh.
What is the Sixth Schedule demand and why the climate fast unto death for it?
In Ladakh, we are trying to do everything possible to safeguard the mountains. There are various tools and provisions in the country but in the region of Ladakh where the indigenous tribal communities are the majority (about 97 percent are tribal communities), there is a very special provision in the Indian constitution that is called the Sixth Schedule of the Article 244, which gives safeguards to these regions, the people and their cultures where they can determine how these places should be developed without interference from others. This is what Ladakh has been demanding for a long time, much before it was made into a UT.
We are very grateful that Ladakh became a UT in 2019, which was a demand since the last 70 years. Now there are no safeguards to these hilly regions like in Article 370. People took it for granted that we have the Sixth Schedule in the Constitution and it shall be applied in places like Ladakh with 97 per cent tribal. The Sixth Schedule contains provisions that grant indigenous tribes significant autonomy. It provides for the formation of Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) that have legislative and judicial powers. These Councils can make rules and regulations governing land, forest, water, agriculture, health, sanitation, mining, and more.
That was our hope and this hope converted into certainty when the Government also generously gave UT status to Ladakh and promised that Ladakh will be safeguarded under the 6th Schedule. There were mega gatherings where union ministers gave both verbal and written undertakings in various minutes of the SC/ST Commission. Then it was put in their manifestos. The ruling party had 6th schedule safeguards for Ladakh as the No. 1 to 3 of their manifestos, and they won heavily but after that things changed and they started backtracking on it. Now that’s what brings us to assert.

*What is the importance of the Sixth Schedule rights in Ladakh?
I am an environmentalist. I am very concerned about the fragile sensitive ecosystem of the high Himalayas with its glaciers and flora fauna. Ladakh and its glacier system is known as the 3rd pole of the planet. It feeds 2 billion people directly or indirectly. One billion on the Indian subcontinent; that’s 1/4 of the world population. If we bring up mining industries in these areas, not only will the local people suffer but entire north Indian planes will suffer from shortage of water so it is crucial that we safeguard these fragile regions as sacred zones of water. That is why we consider it very important to preserve this. For the local people it’s about protecting their region, customs, culture and land which is all in the sixth schedule of the constitution as our Forefathers put it 75 yrs ago.
The beauty of our Indian constitution is that it not only tolerates diversity, it encourages and protects diversity. The Sixth schedule is an example of that. The world respects us for this kind of provision and if we back track on promises the government made then it’s a problem. It’s a problem for me as an environmentalist, a problem for the people of Ladakh, for their culture, customs and environment but it’s a problem for the whole nation of trust and ethics. If a party promises in written in elections and wins them and then says we don’t care, it should be a problem for everybody. It’s like giving a cheque and the cheque bounces and then we don’t care. Hence, what happens to Ladakh with this promise will become a precedence to the rest of India in all elections to come whether leaders can just say anything and don’t care about it later or Ladakh becomes a case in point where they tried, people stood up and laid their lives and finally the government was made to keep their promise. Then future leaders will not make promises they can’t fulfill or they will keep their promises. It is also an issue of ethics.

*Why do you fear that Ladakhi culture will not be protected and how do you think further development will affect the region?
If Ladakh is left free for all with no safeguards, there will be mining companies coming and we hear often they are scouting the mountains and valleys. Soon huge hotel chains will come up. Each of these will be bringing lakhs of people. And the dry desert ecology of Ladakh is very fragile; it is not possible for you to imagine from Delhi or Lucknow or Chennai. It is a very intricate system where people have to make do with 5L of water a day. Not 150L like people do in Delhi. Imagine if 200,000 people using 150L water come to Ladakh, there will be no water for anybody. It will be spoilt for them and the locals forever and this is what the locals fear. Every drop here is imp. Ladakh can’t support large numbers. Even tourism has caused so much havoc.
Now imagine if the population rises it will make refugees out of locals and even those who come it will not be any good, that’s what people fear what will happen to our land, our culture, a culture that is fine tuned over thousands of years to survive in these mountains will be diluted and it won’t be able to sustain.

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