If you look at the monitor of a luggage scanner while checking in at Delhi or Jammu airport, you will see little clothes and lots of vegetables in a Ladakhi's bag. This is especially true during winters when the roads are closed. This was the funniest piece of information I got from Mansoor Khan, a young friend I made in Kargil. Once in Leh town I felt apologetic because a clamouring crowd at a co-operative store where Rs 100 can only get you a few tomatoes, coriander, capsicum and two cabbages is anything but funny.
This was March 2011 and the vegetables had been brought to Leh from plains by army helicopters because both the roads leading to this region, popularly known as the roof of the world, were shut due to heavy snowfall. Fresh vegetables, I was told, do grow here but only in summers. Not much except potato, onion and cabbage can be stored for long duration. People still dry peas and tomatoes but that happens on small scale and does not last the entire season.
Fresh vegetables, I was told, do grow here but only in summers. Not much except potato, onion and cabbage can be stored for long duration. People still dry peas and tomatoes but that happens on small scale and does not last the entire season.
For the residents, quite rightly so, the rest of the country is 'down.' Leh has a fully functional airport but only relatively well-off people are able to fly ‘down’ for a holiday when harsh weather forces most business activities to shut down.
“When these people return, they bring back veggies as gifts for their relatives and neighbours,” Mansoor explained. I felt guilty for not loading myself with 25 kilos (the maximum permissible weight in a domestic flight) of fresh vegetables for my Ladakhi friends.
This was not the situation earlier when the Ladakhi society used to depend on various varieties of barley, milk products and dried veggies for survival during winters. Also, earlier they were careful managers and stored mostly what they grew apart from certain things needed from the outside world like tea and salt. Sugar was not used much. As people moved away from agriculture and got more dependent on the public distribution system (PDS), the tradition of self-reliance broke down. Instead of growing food they buy it with money but find themselves at loss during winter because short supply pushes the cost of food items beyond their reach.
Earlier, Ladakhi society used to depend on various varieties of barley, milk products and dried veggies for survival during winters. Also, they were careful managers and stored mostly what they grew. As people got more dependent on PDS, the tradition broke down.
Situation is worse in Kargil,, the region that became famous after the low intensity war between India and Pakistan in 1999. Kargil is around 250 km away from Leh on the road that connects it to Srinagar and the rest of India. It too has an air field of the Indian Army where a single civil flight plies once in a while. “The flight is very irregular even though the government thinks they have done us a huge favour by introducing it. Stocking essential items for the cold season costs Kargil at least a few millions and our entire savings are exhausted in procuring excess supplies,” Mansoor informed.
The Srinagar-Leh road, a distance of about 400 km, is closed at Zojila pass. This small stretch, which is officially shut by October 15 every year due to heavy snowfall, generates a lot of heat during public discussions because Kargil residents feel that with some effort, the road can remain open throughout the year.
“It is not that they can't keep the road open if they want. In 2006, when we had severe shortage of essential supplies, the Kargil district administration used its own archaic snow cutters to open the road. In fact, a tunnel similar to one being built on Leh-Manali road can ensure that the road is open throughout the year. The fact is that Border Roads Organisation (BRO) just does not want to do it because it will not only lose the annual grant of Rs 30-40 million for snow clearance operations but also the expert status it enjoys in administrative circles,” claimed Nasir Munshi, a local politician.
It is not that they can't keep the road open. In 2006, when there was severe shortage of essential supplies, the Kargil administration used its own archaic snow cutters to open the road. BRO does not want to do it because it will lose the annual grant for snow clearance.
BRO is in charge of road construction and maintenance in all the border and mountainous regions of the country. “This year too, the road was opened early because all supplies including kerosene finished. If we have the resources, why can’t they be used at all times,” wondered Faizan Ahmed, an agricultural scientist based in Kargil. According to estimates, a tunnel similar to one being built on Leh-Manali road would cost around Rs 16 billion but the residents feel benefits of an all-weather road far exceed the initial investment. “The cost is nothing for the government considering the fact that we are being denied the basic rights to life like fresh food and medical care during winters. The road from Leh to Srinagar is a national highway which as per the rules cannot be shut down for more than three days in a row but as usual they never follow the rules,” Munshi added.
He along with other district council members has raised the issue of road closure several times with the authorities but their demands have never been heard. ““The residents of Kargil did a lot for the country at the time of the war but the government still discriminates against us by depriving us of basic facilities,” said Munshi. He also stressed upon the security issue when talking about the road to Srinagar. “It is very important to keep this road moving because Kargil is just 12 km away from Baltistan in Pakistan occupied Kashmir where China is believed to have its base camp. So in face of attack from that side, it would be difficult to move supplies if the road is closed,” he explained.
Personally, I am not very sure if the road really needs to be opened in winter as the cultural values of this surreal and sleepy mountainous region took a downturn only after roads were constructed and supplies from far off started destroying the self-sustained local economy. But the practical issues like shortage of medical facilities and food that these people face in the season are far too significant than my ideological concerns.