Tashi Wangmo, 38, runs a stationery-cum-bookstore she took on rent two years ago, at a market complex near the Leh Deputy Commissioner’s office. On Wednesday morning, she is busy negotiating the three-month lockdown rent with her landlord, Tsewang Norbu, as her daughter Yangchan, 10, attends online lessons on a phone. Schools shut, the Class 4 student has classes for two hours a day — noon and evening. But, the skies are rarely silent in Leh these days. And as the Indian Air Force’s fighter jet sorties scream overhead, Wangmo quickly covers Yangchan’s ears with headphones.
That also means Tashi, a single parent, can talk freely about the difficult times she is facing, with almost zero sales at her shop since the lockdown began in March end, a pending rent that amounts to Rs 54,000 per annum, school fees that needs to be paid, and the war clouds now hovering overhead.
The double whammy
It is 10 days since India and China clashed in Galwan Valley, with 20 Indian troops including a Commanding Officer killed in the worst face-off between the two countries in four decades. However, tensions have been brewing since May, particularly in Pangong Tso, around 200 km away. Its transition from a tourist hotspot a year ago to a hot zone, amidst the lingering shadow of coronavirus, is casting a pall on the rest of Ladakh.
Landlord Norbu says he understands Wangmo’s problem, but adds they are also facing a crisis. “Shop owners like me have requested the administration to give us some relief too,” he says. “The tension between India and China, and Covid, are two demons that have ruined our lives.”
Ladakh, especially Leh, is under total lockdown, given both the situation at the border and the Covid-19 surge. Officials ward off queries, there are numerous check-posts across the UT’s Capital, and anybody coming from outside, by road or air, must spend a minimum of seven days in quarantine — the wait can get prolonged due to the delays in getting test results.
An odd-even formula is in place to check the numbers of both private and commercial vehicles. While essential commodity shops are open through the week, Leh’s traditional cloth market is allowed only Friday and Saturday.
In this stillness, the movement of troops, plus the IAF aircraft, is a constant presence. The 14 Corps of the Army’s Ladakh Scouts and several units of the ITBP and Border Roads Organisation are based in Leh.
Since the first case was reported in March — a resident who had returned from Iran — the drumbeat of coronavirus too has been rising. On June 24, the tally stood at 242 in Leh — 87 of them cured. Kargil has nearly three times that number — 690 — with 187 cured.
With all cases asymptomatic or mild, and only one death across the UT, Chief Medical Officer, Leh, Motup Dorje, is confident of their readiness. “We are fully prepared, with enough isolation and ICU beds.” Community leaders are helping monitor patients in home isolation.
What Ladakh is struggling with is testing, with its sole lab, in Chuchot Yokma village, equipped to handle just 25-30 cases a day. After flights from outside resumed and cases surged, the authorities started flying samples down to Delhi and Chandigarh. While officially the waiting time for results is 48-72 hours, it usually takes several days.
The checkpoints across the two national highways — from Srinagar and Manali — to control movement from outside are slowing supplies. The trucks from outside stop here, and goods are transferred to local vehicles, following sanitisation.
Phuntsog Wangyal, the president of the Leh Merchant Association, says, “Scarcity of essential commodities is a major issue… The entire ration for the city comes from outside. By the time they reach, the goods are far costlier.”
Ghulam Mustafa, a leading Leh hotelier, adds, “Transporters are not willing to bring in supplies because they fear getting stuck on the way due to both the Army movement and the curbs. Entire stocks can get ruined.”
The Ladakah Transport Cooperative Society based in Leh has a network of around 1,200 trucks. Many have been requisitioned by the Army for transporting rations, ammunition and troops to forward areas. The society’s secretary, Nawang, says they are grateful for the business.
April to September is peak tourist season for Leh — this year, it threatens to be a total washout. Compared to the 1.33 lakh tourists it got in 2019 till June (over 2.79 lakh the entire season), Leh has got barely 6,050 so far. Its over 400 guesthouses and hotels are shut. With 70% of Ladakh’s economy dependent on tourism, hoteliers put the expected loss at over Rs 600 crore. The border tensions mean there won’t be any early respite.
Tsetan Angchuk, the president of the Leh Travel Association, says they expect little business for another 12-18 months. “Tourism is the only full-fledged industry here… Leh has 4,000 taxis and 300 tourist buses. All are jobless.”
Angchuk adds that the government’s laws for the sensitive region have always been a drag on Ladakh’s tourism. “When Ladakh was opened for tourists, they were allowed to explore very limited places. In the 1990s, restricted areas like Nubra valley, Pangong Tso were opened. Now, Inner Line Permit is needed to visit these places and the Chinese and Taiwanese require another permit, from the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi. Nearly 15% of the tourists here are from China and Taiwan, Buddhists coming to visit monasteries.”
According to Angchuk, encouraging tourism in border areas near the LAC would also fortify India’s claims regarding these when it comes to China. “Take the nomadic tribes. While we have imposed so many restrictions on them, not allowing them to go to their pasture lands, the Chinese have been encouraging them to spread out.”
Stanzin Chospel, the president of a taxi union, says, “During the five-month tourist season, a taxi driver earns Rs 3-3.5 lakh, which supports him the entire year. During normal conditions, the Army also hires a large number of taxis. But these days, we are sitting idle.”
The Covid blow came even as the industry was still working out the glitches since Jammu and Kashmir was split into two Union Territories — of J&K and Ladakh. Tashi Gyaltson Khachu, Chairman of the Ladakh Chamber of Industry, points out the absence of a procurement policy. “When we were a part of J&K, the J&K Small Scale Industrial Development Corporation promoted the local MSME sector. We had requested the Union government and Ladakh Lt Governor R K Mathur that till the time there was a similar body for Ladakh, have a tendering process for projects above Rs 1 lakh, and restrict the same to only those units registered with respective districts in the UT.”
Among the businesses hit due to the border tension is the much-coveted Pashmina wool, worth Rs 13-14 crore annually. The sheep from which the wool is acquired are found in regions near the LAC. Pashmina traders claim most of the livestock grazing pastures are now out of bounds.
Sonam Tsering, a former councillor from Chushul and one of the leading Pashmina traders of Leh, says around 1,200-1,300 families in the city are in the business. “There are about 2.5-3 lakh Pashmina goats in the Nyoma and Durbuk sub-divisions. Most of the traditional pastures are along the Indus River in the area of the LAC and used to be shared by Tibetans and our nomads. While our Army has imposed restrictions, China has been sending Tibetan nomads to these pastures. First they push them to the forward areas, then they put up mobile towers, shopping complexes there, and stake claim to the land. On our side are a few dilapidated kuchcha houses. So the few people living there are also migrating.”
While the border tension is set to further hit business, Tsering says even previous payments are pending. “In March-April, we receive payments for Pashmina sold during the winter. Due to Covid-19, our clients who process the raw wool said they were not able to sell their goods either, and hence could not pay us.”
Tsewang Norbu and his friends Jigmet Dolkar and Jigmet Dolma, all students of Class 10, climb up a 30-feet hilltop on the outskirts of Leh every day with a laptop. That’s the only place in the area where they get proper Internet connectivity, for sessions with their class teacher.
Leh has 358 government and 46 private schools, with 7,782 enrolled in the former and 15,840 in latter. Punchok Paldan, the head of the National Informatics Centre in Leh, admits the Internet is a major issue, now emerging as a major problem with schools shut.
Tavleen Singh writes | Chinese checkers
Chetan Dorje, District Education and Planning Officer, Leh, says, “To ensure students don’t miss out, we have deputed teachers who liaison with sarpanchs in villages to provide homework and lessons. Teachers also share lessons on WhatsApp.”
The administration is also reaching out through radio and television. Since April 11, the Leh Education Department has been broadcasting lessons to students of Classes 10 and 12 on the radio. “Theory subjects like English, Social Studies, Urdu, Bodhi language and Science are taught on a station from 11 to 12 noon daily. For subjects like Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, which involve equations, diagrams etc, we have been using a Doordarshan channel since May 19,” Dorje says.
However, the tension along the LAC means officials fear disruption in reaching out to students in the forward areas. “Areas like Changthang, Zanskar, Nyoma, Nubra and various zones have 40-45 villages. We send teachers there once a month, to share lessons, even stationery items,” says Dorje.
Noney P Wangchuk, the owner of Ladakh Public School in Leh, says many of their 1,200-odd students have returned home to far-flung areas after the lockdown. As many families share one phone or device between themselves, Wangchuk says, “We give lessons till late in the night. Teachers teach even till 2-3 am.”
The road to Pangong
National Highway 3, connecting Leh to Pangong, runs along the Indus River, with the Stok and Matho glaciers on one side and hills on the other. But the picturesque villages, a mix of Tibetan, Muslim and Christian families, hide an underlying anxiety these days —about Covid as much as China.
The Shey village, the ancient seat of Ladakhi kings, is located down this road, as well as the historic Thiksey monastery and a residence of the Dalai Lama.
Resembling Lhasa’s Potala palace, Thiksey monastery is a 12-storey structure housing Buddhist art. In 1970, a Maitreya temple came up on the premises to commemorate the visit of the 14th Dalai Lama. Usually, at this time, the place is thronging with tourists. Now, everything is shut.
An Army checkpost marks Karu, where NH-3 splits into two — one road going up towards Sakti village and further to Pangong Tso, and the other towards Manali.
Sakti, a village of 3,600 people, lies at an altitude of approximately 11,800 feet. Its greenery, with fields of potatoes, tomatoes and peas (the region’s summer staple), is a rare sight for Ladakh.
Sitting at a roadside dhaba near the entrance to the village, Chamba Gelek, a 60-year-old farmer, says they have been hit hard by coronavirus. “We do not have any case, but due to the numbers in Leh, no tourists are coming towards Pangong.”
Stanzin Tashi, 36, the owner of the dhaba, says, “If the tensions increase in Pangong Tso, our livelihood will be ruined. I will be left with no money to feed my family.”
Gelek remarks that for months now, their effort had been to ensure no outsiders entered the village, to prevent coronavirus. “Villagers even told their relatives and friends not to come.” Now, there is almost no break in the continuous stream of Army vehicles going past. “For hours, we don’t see any private car.”
The road to Pangong Tso, about 104 km away, stretches next to him — empty for miles, but for the Army trucks and troops.