“ We would change on our own terms. Change should not be imposed from outside”

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After coming into limelight in 1989 agitation, Nawang Rigzin Jora has been in politics for around three decades, representing Leh in assembly since 2002. In a long interview with Masood Hussain, the vocal Congress leader detailed the arid region’s priorities, successes, potential and the challenges

KASHMIR LIFE (KL): How has Ladakh changed since your days of activism? Earlier it was a sort of a Leh-Kargil polarization. But now, there is polarization within Leh, it is ‘communal’ BJP versus ‘secular’ Congress?

NAWANG RIGZIN JORA (NRJ): After we got the Hill Council, there has been massive development, exponential economic growth. Now sometimes, particularly in Lok Sabha elections, there is the polarization between Leh and Kargil because Leh people want their MP to win and Kargil people want their candidate to win. This is obvious. You can’t blame either people of Leh or of Kargil. Each would like to see their own candidate winning. Apart from that, I don’t think there is any tension at all.

All societies have bad apples and that is true to Ladakh too. Overall, there is communal harmony. Occasionally parties with agenda try and instigate people but better sense prevails among the population and whatever little things that come up, those are nipped in the bud. Overall I think it is harmonious and the kind of growth that is taking place is, I think should be the envy of any region.

KL: But how has actually a right-wing party gradually neutralized the impact of Congress, a party which has done immensely for Leh?

NRJ: It also depends on the leadership. Earlier Thupstan (Chhewang) sahab and I were together but then we had split. He has got his own stature. In fact, if I can be honest with you, he is considered to be the tallest leader. Delivery or no delivery, doesn’t make a difference. He comes from a background, you know, of Kushok Bakola, from a royal background and especially among the elderly people he commands enormous respect. Now my appeal is more with the educated and young section. Thupstan sahib introduced BJP there and that is more for his stature and individuality, rather than of BJP as an ideological party. People voted for him and he won by 34 votes only. Then came my elections and I won by the massive margin. I think it must have been historical. In the last 25 years, nobody has won with that kind of margin. Now again my opponent was a BJP fellow who has been an MLO who is now minister as MLC. Good man, mind you, good man. But you know people respect the leaders who deliver. And in the Council, it has been like Himachal, you know alternate between Congress and whoever is in the opposition, so Council we lost. But hopefully come election again, we should hopefully pull off.

KL: There have been some irritations in this summer because of that particular incident?

NRJ: Inter-marriages have always been a spoilsport. Now is it avoidable, yes it is avoidable. I think things cool down but can we ensure such things do not happen. Nobody can say. When we live in a society such little irritants come. The important thing is whether we are able to overcome it or not. And let me tell you, we overcame it. Things are back to normal. The two communities are living in absolute harmony. But many at times it also gets exploited unnecessarily for political reasons and our people go through it and then things are back to normal.

KL: Politics apart, I wanted to ask you why is not Leh growing in numbers? What are the issues there?

NRJ: Listen. Ladakhis have been very clever. By and large liberal, irrespective of whichever community they come from, they are forward-looking and progressive. Family planning had a big impact in Ladakh. Our people know that if you produce more than what you can sustain, that is not in your interest. Buddhists or Muslims, does not matter. Any educated Muslim in Ladakh who is in the government, or running a business, he won’t be having more than two kids. So because our people are enlightened, and they see where their interests lie, growth in population has not been much. And do I blame anybody for that? No. Is it envious? To some extent, yes, except for politicians. Politicians are worried about it. Otherwise, as a society, this is what should happen. Now our people compare it with Kargil, and again MP elections come in, they think because the electorate is dwindling, Kargil is increasing.  Why should politics dominate everything in life?

Kargil is more conservative, more orthodox. And I would be belittling them if I tell them they are not more enlightened. But somehow that is orthodoxy, which is conservatism. Therefore, they keep on producing and their population growth is more. But this should not worry either us or Kargil. Now Kargil is getting better educated. You go to any school of Kargil, you will see three rows of girls and one row of boys. With education and exposure, they will also come around to adopt family planning, which is also in their interest. But I am no one to make the judgment: it is their choice. Why should politics overwhelm every aspect of life?

KL: Ecology is very fragile.What is the state and status as it is linked with the prosperity and the footfalls you have?

NRJ: No society and no community in J&K would be as sensitive as Ladakhis are to environmental concerns. You know, I think if environment movement in J&K has picked up anywhere, we were the ones who gave it a start. Way back in the early eighties when ecology was not a buzz word, we were the ones who started it and the reason for that is part of our socio-cultural milieu for ages. You know Ladakhis have been very clever, living in harmony with nature. This has evolved over thousands of years. And our people know the importance of the conservation of ecology and environment. And now with the global warming, we are the victims just like the people living by seaside or ocean side are victims, equally Ladakhis are going to be the victim of it because glaciers are receding. You remember the fresh fall of 2010 that is what global warming does to us. Earlier the rain-bearing clouds would come and hit the Himalayas and all the downpour would be in Kashmir, and Himachal. Now because of the global warming, the rise in temperature by 1-2 degrees, part of it rose up, crossed the great Himalayas and stuck in Ladakh ranges and we had a flash flood.

A concerned citizenry, various agencies and the NGOs have done a decent job on sensitizing people on ecology. Now people say there is increased tourist footfall in Ladakh, you should be concerned. I am not worried.

Don’t forget Ladakh is spread over 47000 sq km, which means half of the territory of Jammu & Kashmir, so this 1.7 lakh tourist is spread across over so much of area. In quantum tourism, I don’t think so but there are particular spots, for example, the Pangong lakeside, I agree, there are too many camps sites, means, there has been sewerage problem, the problem of garbage, those needs to be taken care of.

And I think the council will take the necessary measure as and when they go into those areas. I think we are in the process of coming up with STP for those people, there is an NGO which is working on it. So we should be able to overcome all this.

KL: How is increased earning changing Leh?

NRJ: Affluence brings material prosperity and certain negativities as well. Up till now, the positive side has been more dominating. The negative aspect of it, yes, families nucleating. But until now, we have managed in a way clever way, very smart way.

People are saving for their economic and material growth for six-seven months. Then in winter, spiritual and cultural rejuvenation takes place. It is actually imposed on us by the geography. Come winter, we are back to ourselves. All kinds of festivities are taking place in winter.There are discourses by the spiritual leaders which rejuvenate the society in terms of the spiritual aspect and the cultural aspect. So there is a fine balance.

Leh bride and Kargil groom created a sort of momentary tension in Ladakh last summer but Jora says it did not impact harmony in the desert.

KL: There are three types of spending’s that happen: public funding, personal spending and offshore charity funding. Which one is doing the best to Leh?

NRJ: I won’t point out any particular segment but all the three are doing equally well. Public spending, to the very large extent, is the cause for our economic prosperity, and nobody can deny it. Equally, the income from tourism and allied sectors, also the presence of huge army – unlike Kashmir where the footprints of army and security forces is a bane, in our case, it is a boon because we have had an exemplary rapport with the security forces all along. They are a captive market for our vegetable and other products. They also provide you much needed employment.

The NGO’s in Ladakh are doing excellent work. I think nowhere in the country, you would have NGO’s doing such great work whether it is SECMOL, the fellow who got the Rolex award, the Ladakh environmental and Health organisation (LEHO), Dr Din – all are good work. Taking farming back to organic, and then we have Mahabodhi, who is doing the spiritual aspect of it. We have Ladakh Ecological Development group, it was among the first of NGO of India to get the alternative Noble Prize. They were the ones who educated people on ecology and environmental concerns. These are ones who are doing excellent work in Ladakh.

KL: Is there something happening on two fronts: Pashmina, Seabuckthorn? I see a lot of stagnation.

NRJ: On the Pashmina front one value addition taking place. Earlier the raw Pashmina would come to Kashmir and in Kashmir, most of the value addition would take place. But now, we have a de-hairing plant, which has been installed there by the Council and now the Pashmina fetches much better price than what it used to do. But the kind of value addition and workmanship that is taking place in Kashmir will take generations.

On the Sea buckthorn, it is one of our most precious produce. Some value addition is taking place but those are very little. It needs to be done on the larger scale. And we will work towards it.

KL: But why is there an impression in the market that Leh is too negative towards a non-local investment. Is it correct?

NRJ: Look, it is like Kashmir. We are sailing in the same boat. And I don’t see much of a problem with it. If we allow outsiders to come and buy land and own properties, the first of place it is illegal you can’t do it. Secondly, this will go the Manali way. Look what has happened in Manali. All your people from Mumbai have invested in 5-star hotels and the natives are working there as bellboys and waiters. We don’t want to see that happening to Ladakh. Doesn’t matter if a five-star hotel hasn’t come, we will change things as per our own wishes. If people want to go to five-star hotels on holiday, don’t come to Ladakh, go to Goa. We would change on our own terms. Change should not be imposed from outside. And this is how I see it. Over a period of time it has come, we have Grand Dragon hotel, we have Zen hotel. It has come late, so what. These are being owned by locals. So we would, in the days to come, have more local entrepreneurs with investment plan with star hotels and other things and this is how it must be.

KL: Summer tensions between China India does not impact Ladakh?

NRJ: It should not impact. Because it is not something that has happened last year only. This is happening over a period of time. And do I rule out such things in the future, no? Because you must understand the landscape of Ladakh. Your border is not on state land. It is undulating topography. And your border is not fully demarcated. There are some disputes, so these will keep on happening they should not bother us. Luckily for us unlike in Kashmir, the North Korean channels, they do not have much of an access, so they can’t play the spoilsport.

KL: Has this debate for an access to Tibet gone too slow off late?

NRJ: We have been pressing for the opening of Kailash Mansarovar route in Tibet. Our pilgrims, be it Buddhists or Hindus, they go via Nepal, paying the huge amount of money or they go via Pithorgarh or through Himachal. You know going through this arduous track, one and a half month and they get there. The easiest thing would be to open it from Ladakh and then within about a week or ten days’ time you can go, do your pilgrimage come back to Delhi and you don’t need to trek.  It is all road link right up to Kailash Mansarovar, the lake in the Kailash Mountain. So this is the easiest way and this would in a way boost our tourism. You know unlike Amarnath, where all kinds of pilgrims come, here only the one who has a deep pocket will be coming because airfare is not cheap. This way we have least people coming.

I am not against the common pilgrimage, but if you look at it from the point of view of tourism, you would prefer to have less number with more affordability. Lots of people have this concern that all kinds of tourists will come. No there are airlines, because they charge exorbitantly, and not everybody can afford to come and go there. And relatively prosperous people would be coming and going on pilgrimage there that would be good for our tourism. But so far the government hasn’t succeeded in it.

Tourists out in Leh enjoying their stay.

KL: Isn’t Congress giving it as a challenge to BJP led Council?

NRJ: There is one aspect of Ladakh’s politics that you must appreciate that the culture of politics in Ladakh is very clean. Whether it is MP Sahab in BJP or me, we have imbibed certain values from our predecessors Kushok Bakola, Tsewang Nurbu Sahib, P Namgyal who has been a union minister. They have set a good precedence for us for probity and public life. Although we are too small to fit into their big shoes, we are trying to follow their footsteps. So relatively our politics is very clean, as the other thing is we are adversaries and not enemies. We respect each other. In election time we fight. After that, we all are trying to work for Ladakh together. And that is what we do. There is that respect for each other which is where it should be. So this way I will say, in Jammu and Kashmir it must be one of the unique places where opponents are not considered to the enemies, but adversaries.

KL: What about infra?You were the power minister and there was substantial investment in two power projects both by NHPC in addition to what PDC owns here. But why has not Ladakh been able to utilize the generations that the two NHPC projects produce?

NRJ: No, generations are there. In Leh, it is fully used and whatever surplus is there, that goes to the army, so that they don’t run their DG set and create pollution. In Kargil, there are some problems. In Kargil, the project has been suffering from some problem or the other.

During my time, this was taken up that we have this transmission line coming up. Supposed to be commissioned in September 2016, it is not commissioned even now.

Now the Indus basin has the potential of 3000 MWS and because our state is power deficit, the government must try and harness those potentials there and it would require viability gap funding from the government of India. I think Rs80,000 crorePM package should have been a good chance for the viability gap funding I don’t know why they have not done it.

KL: What about Zoji La tunnel?

NRJ: Our friends in BJP are trying to take credit for it. But the fact remains that the cabinet decision for construction of the tunnel was taken on September 17, 2013. But prior to that, you have to have a tunnel for the Z-Morh, so we had taken up the Z-Morh tunnel. It has taken us 2-3 years to get clearances and that is what happened. In the meantime, BJP government came in and now they are going around beating drums that we are doing it. So, that does not matter as long as tunnel comes up. I think in the next ten years, we should have all-weather connectivity to Ladakh

KL: How you see the coalition?

NRJ: This coalition has created anarchy in the state, particularly in the valley. It also concerns us because our lifeline comes from there that impacts our tourism. That impacts Ladakh’s economy.

In my short span of 15-20 years of politics, I have never seen this kind of anarchy. Yes, we had our share of trouble in 2008 and 2010, but things were not as bad as they are now. There is no end to it.

They talk about the South Pole and the North Pole. Mehbooba Mufti’s core ideology is Kashmir’s identity, Kashmiriyat, self-rule. What is BJP’s ideology: no 370, integrationist policy and this is playing out.

One of the reasons for anarchy that you sow is Kashmir’s identity is seen to be subsumed under the overall jingoistic nationalism of BJP.

From the point of advocating self-rule, Mehbooba in the last assembly session was seen shouting hoarse for protection of 35 A not 370. That is a larger issue. She has been reduced to such position. She has ended up compromising not only her own party’s position but the position of all the mainstream parties. In Kashmir because of this anarchy the space for mainstream parties, has been shrunken. In 2014 election we had about 60 percent participation.In the last parliament election, the percentage was 6.1 percent and Anantnagelection had to be postponed. This is what they have reduced democracy to.

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