The developments in land subsidence hit Joshimath in Uttarakhand have triggered an awareness wave that is moving across the Himalayan states. Voices are being raised with renewed vigour and pitch about securing the environment.

The message being sent from the hills in this harsh winter is loud and clear: the Himalayas are facing an existential crisis and something needs to be done at the earliest to save them. While Joshimath has continued to witness uninterrupted people’s protests seeking a decent compensation and rehabilitation, there have been demonstrations and protests in the neighbouring states as well.

In Ladakh it was social and environmental activist Sonam Wangchuk who carried out a five day ‘climate fast’ that concluded on Monday. He claimed that he was put under house arrest, but the authorities reportedly claimed that he was just prevented from carrying out the fast at Khardung La top.

His fast got support from across Ladakh and Kargil as it was dovetailed with the larger issue of the people demanding that the Union Territory of Ladakh be brought under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution for the protection of the rights of the local communities.

In a message on the social media Wangchuk said that his fast was to draw the attention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi towards safeguarding Ladakh. He also wanted to draw the attention of the people in other parts of India and the world towards leading ‘simple and carbon neutral lives’.

There is a lot of anger among the people in Ladakh who feel cheated on the issue of being brought under the Sixth Schedule. The claim that the Centre had promised to address their concerns after they had threatened to boycott the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) polls in October 2020. They had participated in the polls held later on the basis of the promises made to them and they now claim that things have not moved ahead on what was promised to them.

The matter had reportedly come up during the Winter Session of the Parliament. However, the government had reportedly evaded a direct reply saying that the Union Home Ministry had informed a Parliamentary panel that the main objective of the inclusion of tribal populations under the said schedule is to ensure their overall socio-economic development, which the Ladakh administration ‘has already been taking care of since its creation’.

The locals claim that under the changed circumstances after abrogation of Article 370 on Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh’s fragile environment can only be saved under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule. The autonomous district councils under the Sixth Schedule have the powers to make laws, rules and regulations in various spheres including land and forest management, water resources, agriculture, public health, formation of village councils, sanitation, village and town level policing etc.

These councils can also form courts to hear cases where both the parties are from Scheduled Tribes and the punishment is imprisonment up to five years. They also have revenue collection and taxation powers.

“If Ladakh’s environment is to be kept safe the people have to be involved in the decision making process. Proper policies cannot be framed till the tribal locals are involved,” pointed out Cherring Dorje Lakrook who is the vice president of the Ladakh Buddhist Association and also a member of the Apex Body of People’s Movement for Sixth Schedule for Ladakh.

He informed that the UT had witnessed a massive demonstration on January 15 and another one is to be held on Tuesday where Wangchuk will be given a rousing reception.

“The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had promised the inclusion under the Sixth Schedule as its top priority before both the 2019 parliamentary polls as well as the LAHDC polls but things are yet to move in that direction. The Sixth Schedule is essential for protection of the environment here. The bureaucrats coming from outside for just two years do not understand Ladakh’s ecosystem,” said Padma Stanzin who is the president of Ladakh Students Educational and Environment Action Forum.

Meanwhile, Thinley Namgyal who is the president of All Zanskar Students Association in Jammu pointed out, “Only Ladakhis understand the constraints of the fragile environment here. For example the area cannot handle more than 15 to 20 lakh of population. Already our villages are reeling under a water crisis. Many of them are making the problem of migration.

“Inclusion under the Sixth Schedule will not only protect our identity but also our environment. Apart from the inclusion under this schedule our demands include recruitment of unemployed youth in jobs, establishment of a Ladakh Public Service Commission and separate statehood and legislature for the union territory.”

In neighbouring Himachal Pradesh it was former deputy mayor of Shimla Tikender Singh Panwar who sat on a day long fast under the statue of Mahatma Gandhi on his martyrdom day at the Ridge in Shimla in support of Wangchuk’s initiative and to draw the attention towards the lurking dangers in Himachal Pradesh on account of the environmental degradation that is taking place.

He told The Citizen, “What is happening in the hills is not planned development but planned destruction. The whole trajectory of development in the Himalayan states needs to be completely revisited. Multilateral agencies, the central government and some of the state governments are responsible for this destruction.

“The right of the Gram Sabhas to give a no objection certificate for developmental projects stands smashed. There has to be people’s participation in the development process and they must have the right to veto. The people have to decide what kind of development they require. They have to reclaim their rights and spaces.”

He pointed out that the people of Kandhar village in Kinnaur are the latest to face translocation on account of the environmental destruction that has been brought about. According to Panwar his fast was not for mobilisation but for sensitisation towards the existential crisis being faced by the Himalayas. He said that the people’s future is secure only if the Himalayas are secure.

The same day, taking cognisance of the sinking of Joshimath, Chief Minister Thakur Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu directed the officers of his government to develop an advance warning system to mitigate disasters and improve the Disaster Management Response Capacity System.

A government spokesperson said the decision will go a long way in identifying the areas more prone to earthquakes and also help in preparing a detailed report of landslides and sinking zones.

Sukhu also directed to enhance the support being provided to the state electricity board through the State Disaster Response Fund and for the necessary amendment in the State Disaster Relief Manual. He has also called for proper mapping of glaciers through new and advanced technology and conducting a study of the areas more prone to earthquakes.

On the other hand there was a public outrage on display in Joshimath over the comments made by BJP’s state president Mahendra Bhatt on the sidelines of the party’s working committee meeting in Rishikesh on Monday. Bhatt reportedly said that some Left organisations were trying to disrupt religious activities and adventure tourism while instilling fear in the minds of the people in an area that is very close to the border.

His comments came when the women of the disaster hit area continued with their peaceful demonstration in the Tehsil premises.

Responding to his comments, social and political activist Indresh Maikhuri said, “The government has failed to deliver and these are attempts to divert public attention. It shows that the priority is to save those responsible for the subsidence of Joshimath and not the real victims.

“People having affiliations to all political forces including the BJP have been participating in the dharna. At a time when people are looking towards the government for relief they are being hit by such irresponsible propaganda and harsh words.”

Atul Sati who has been heading the demonstrations under the banner of Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti said, “The same Mahendra Bhatt had faced the anger of his own party men amid slogan shouting and had to leave the town some days back. What were these people doing in your party?

“The day you had invited us to your house were you talking to Indians or the Chinese? The day the Chief Minister had called us for a discussion was he talking to his countrymen or the Chinese? We are the protectors of the borders and the people of this area take bullets on their bodies.