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Posted at: Jul 16, 2017, 1:26 AM; last updated: Jul 16, 2017, 1:26 AM (IST)

A paradise in trouble

The unregulated tourist rush at Ladakh has been ringing alarm bells for the locals as well as environmentalists

Sanjeev Singh Bariana

A blatant fiddling with the natural environment of popular tourist destinations in Ladakh makes for a befitting case for the National Green Tribunal to intervene. The NGT had done so in case of Manali in 2016 by restricting the entry of vehicles in the Rohtang Pass area. A little more delay, and it could well be a step too late.

One does not need any research to see the irreparable scars of human carelessness on an unblemished land.

Seeking intervention by the NGT, a cross-section of inhabitants of the thinly populated region, which is spread over 86,904 square kilometres, talk to this correspondent, who had been revisiting the region after 20 years.

Ruing what he calls a ‘Paradise Lost’, James Shelton, a resident of Birmingham (UK), who revisited the region after 29 years, says, “I brought my son along this time. I’d told him that we would go on long walks in absolute silence. Here I am shocked to see SUVs growling their way through the waters of the once-placid Pangong Lake. I got stuck at Khardung La twice in traffic jams in the last week of June. One of these lasted for more than 14 hours. Piles of garbage in Nubra, too, have been a big disappointment”.

A study commissioned by the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) has revealed that foreigners started coming here around 1974 while the domestic Indian tourist started arriving here after 1985. Their numbers did not cross 17,000 till 2007. Foreigners would always outnumber the domestic tourist. The growth of foreigners peaked in 2011 at 35,000 while the number of domestic tourists shot up to more than 1.4 lakh. Latest year’s official figures revealed that the number of domestic tourists had crossed two lakh.

Tourists are a welcome change for the economy as these help generate employment. Yet, concerns have been raised over the unregulated growth, particularly in context of insufficient infrastructure like roads, garbage disposal, etc.

Nurzin Saldon, principal of a government school, says, “we are upset because our lives have been affected.The stream in middle of Leh provided us with drinking water when we were young. However, this flow now contains opening of house sewers.”

Elsewhere in the region, the 125-km-long Pangong Lake, popularised by the Bollywood hit movie Three Idiots, has more than 35 camps in tents, lending human and food waste, during the peak tourist season. Similarly, the number of hotels, all over the region, has been multiplying big time. The infrastructure, however, has failed to match up.

“Look around, and everywhere you’ll find cars and motorcycles. Sadly Ladakh seems to be fast approaching its breaking point,” says Rajeshwar Pathania, a tourist from Nurpur in Himachal Pradesh, who has been coming here for the past two decades.

During the early 1980s, a majority of tourists here were Europeans who stayed for long periods. Many of them even engaged in various welfare activities. Jean Francois Marine, from France, who has been coming here annually since 2005 to work with the Youth Association for Conservation and Development of the Hemis National Park, says, “I keep coming here for solar projects we are setting up in villages. We have five villages in the Zanskar area and three more in the remote countryside”.

“More than asking the government, it is the thinking citizens who need to get together and decide about the future of their region,” feels Niyamdu Dro, a geology researcher on tour from Europe.

Wangchuk Dorjee, an executive manager of the Jammu and Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute (J& KEDI), feels, “the vehicles, particularly motorcycles, are not merely polluting the air but also disturbing the usually quiet surroundings. The administration needs to restrict the entry of too many vehicles in residential areas. The administration also needs to strictly monitor the emission standards.”

“The profile of tourism has changed from that of an explorer to a traveller to now a tourist here. Ladakh has transformed into just another market,” says Tsering Goji, owner of the La Terrasse Restaurant.

According to Rinchen Namgyal, president of the All Ladakh Tour Operators Association, “The entry of word ‘luxury’ in the tranquil atmosphere has changed the face of tourism. Instead of hiking or moving among the locals, tourists want to rush to destinations like Pangong, flash a ‘Facebook’ picture’ and rush to Khardung La, and so on.  Leh town alone has more than 6,000 luxury cabs and people are willingly paying the high rental’.

A councillor of the LAHDC, Phuntsog Wangdan , feels “It is time we got together now and acted on an action plan to save Ladakh unlike the formality of an exercise under ‘Ladakh 2020’ by the earlier government a few years back”.

Anmol Rattan Dhillon, a B. Tech student from Chandigarh, says, “with increased spending power of the middle class, people have started venturing outdoors. Law enforcement needs to stricter”.  

Mozes Kungzang, Additional Deputy Commissioner, says, “Ladakh should stay clean but it cannot stay in a glass box. Tourist rush has brought in more revenue for the locals in the form of hotels, guesthouses, and even creating employment opportunities. The administration is working on a few initiatives like regulating certain heavy traffic roads like Khardung La by making these one way.  For the sewerage, we have got a JNUURM project of Rs 217 crore for setting up a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant (STP). Work will commence very shortly. Besides, it has been mandatory for all hotels with 19 or more rooms to have independent STPs.”

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