Saturday, October 26, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Land of Passes made passable
by Reeta Sharma

THE first thing that hits you as you land in Ladakh is the barren terrain. The mountains are bare and so are the plains. The landscape fills you with both thrill as you are overawed by its sheer starkness. It beauty, perhaps, lies in this.

Though spread over 98,000 sq. km, Ladakh has a population of only 1.80 lakh. It has two districts — Leh and Kargil. Leh is the largest district of India with a land area of 44,000 sq km, while Kargil occupies 14,000 sq km. The cultivated land amounts to only 25 per cent of the total area.


There are a number of lakes and streams, fed by melting snow, which add to its mysterious charm. Except for Quin-Teso, which is a fresh water lake and hence its water is sweet, all other lakes in Ladakh are brackish. The Pang-Gong lake is not only the largest but is also the highest lake in Ladakh. One-third of the lake is in India, while the rest of it lies in Tibet. It is a salt water lake with no marine life. The Indus (Sindhu) river is not only the lifeline of the locals but also a major attraction of Ladakh. It rises to the north of Mt Kailash and is worshipped by Hindus.

Ladakh is known for being a "Land of Passes." Ladakh has as many as 10 passes. While the lowest pass is Zoji La at the height of 11,578 feet, the highest is Khardung La at 18,380 feet. The other passes include Tanglang La at 17,582 feet and Chang La at 17,356 feet. The world’s three highest passes are in Ladakh.

You do not need airtight jars to maintain the crispness of your biscuits in Ladakh. You can leave your hot pakoras in the plate without any fear of their loosing crunchiness. If you were to eat them even after two days, these will be as crispy and crunchy as you had left them. The secret lies in the fact that there is no moisture in the air. This is precisely also the reason why people of Ladakh develop wrinkles on their faces much before their age. The oxygen levels are also so low that one can hardly breathe.

Even at the peak of summer, Ladakh’s temperature rarely exceeds 28 degree centigrade. However, the winter temperature plummets to minus 30 degree centigrade. In areas like Drass, the temperature is as low as minus 50 degree centigrade. No wonder, it is called the world’s second coldest inhabited place. Speaking about the frozen passes, it is important to point out that in 1948, the Gilgit Scouts of Pakistan infiltrated from the north-western frontier and captured the strategic Zoji La, Kargil and Skardu. However, the Indian forces made a befitting counter attack after crossing the treacherous passes on the Manali-Leh road and recaptured the entire area.

As Brigadier K S Kang (retd) recalls, "Ladakh was a secluded and totally inaccessible land. I remember, when we landed here on November 7, 1962, during the Chinese aggression in the Chushul valley, we had to sleep in makeshift parachute tents. It was a land where everything was frozen. We were given posteen (dried sheep-skin coats) to keep ourselves warm. The food was air-dropped for us. Whether it was eggs or potatoes, everything used to get frozen like stones. Finally, we were the first to establish the Tangse valley camp after the cease-fire".

Ladakh, which is strategically located, has China on the north and the south-east and POK on north-west. On the northern side, it has the mighty Karakoram Range, while on the southern side it has the Himalayas. Any wonder then that Ladakh has witnessed all the wars — that of 1962, 1965, 1971 and the latest waged in Kargil. Despite Ladakh’s significance from the angle of national security, successive Indian governments did not pay due attention to the development of Ladakh after Independence. Till the 1960s, people of Ladakh and defence personnel were using mules as the only mode of transportation.

It was as late as 1960 when the first road from Leh to Srinagar was constructed. With the vision of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru came up a specialised task force, Border Roads Organisation (BRO), in 1960 to facilitate the task of the defence forces. The BRO introduced Project Beacon to develop backward areas in Jammu and Kashmir, including Ladakh. But Beacon inevitably was required to pay more attention to Kashmir than Ladakh. When Ladakh was thrown open to tourists in 1974, the need for giving special attention to this area was felt.

Finally, in 1985, the BRO carved out Project Himank for paying special attention to Ladakh alone. Thanks to the BRO, Ladakh has witnessed a lot of development in the past 15 years.

The project is being taken up at the highest inhabited place in the world, between the great Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges. Ladakh remains cut off from November to May due to heavy snowfall in Manali and Zoji-La axis. The main task of this project is to provide a communication network. Emphasis is laid on keeping open the lines of communication to Siachin and Aksaichin throughout the year. Despite battling a tough terrain and extreme climatic conditions, and having the disadvantage of a working season of just four months, Himank has carved a niche for itself and can rightfully claim the title of "The Mountain Tamers".

Despite working in such a challenging climate, personnel of Project Himank have succeeded in achieving all tasks assigned to it, so far. Today the vast land of Ladakh is linked with roads not only from Sonamarg to Kargil but also from Kargil to Leh and Leh to Chushul. Even the secluded and scattered 112 villages of Ladakh are today on roadmap. This has led to development on the educational front and resulted in socio-economic and agricultural progress.

Ladakh is also known as the land of monasteries. There are as many as five orders of Buddhism that are being practiced in these monasteries. Most of them were built in forlorn and secluded areas and people had to walk for days and even months to reach their favourite monasteries for their annual festivals. Today, they are connected by motorable roads, thanks to the BRO. In order to provide early access to Ladakh via Manali and Srinagar in summer and to keep communications open for the defence forces in winter, snow clearance is yet another challenging task assigned to Himank. During Operation Vijay, the BRO staff had worked day and night to ensure that the Leh-Manali axis remained open. This was extremely important because of the interdiction of the Zoji-La axis by the enemy.

There are two airports in Ladakh, one at Leh and the other at Thois. Both are at such a location that they get only about three inches of snow. For clearing this snow, Himank workforce has been using manual labour. However, recently, it tried to import "mechanical brooms" but the ever -fertile brain of the Department of Customs let loose an avalanche of heavy customs duty, which ensured that these mechanical brooms could never be put to use.

One comes across innumerable memorials constructed in the memory of those staff members of the BRO who had laid down their lives while taming the mountains. It is touching to see workers bow their heads whenever they pass by these memorials. In the past about 15 years, at least five officers and 119 personnel of other ranks of the BRO have lost their lives in these high altitude areas of Ladakh. It is thanks to their sacrifices that today Ladakh has found a place on the international tourist map. In 2000-01 alone, Ladakh witnessed a 400 per cent increase in tourist traffic.

The Director-General of the BRO, Lt Gen Prakash Suri, says: "In the ensuing year our organisation is poised to commence work on four-laning of National Highway 1-A from Pathankot to Jammu, as part of the North-South Express Highway. Another prestigious project being entrusted to the organisation is construction of the Rohtang tunnel."

— Photos by Surkhab Shaukin

BRO banks on Bihari labour

THE peace-loving and contented Ladakhis’ main source of livelihood is agriculture. Though in Ladakh the sun shines throughout the year, solar energy has never been tapped except for the installation of a small number of solar panels and photovoltaic cells here and there. The same is true about wind generators despite the fact that strong wind blows almost throughout the year.

Ladakhis have to make the best of agriculture in the short duration of four months in summer. Even marriages are postponed during this period. The BRO has generated a lot of employment opportunities, but the Ladakhis are not available when they get busy with their agrarian pursuits. Hence the BRO has no choice but to fall back on migrant labour from Bihar.

Interestingly, the Bihari labour is unofficially, informally and popularly called Dumkas, as they all belong to the village by this name. Hired through contractors, the BRO transports them through IAF flights and the army loans them the required winter clothing.

The BRO does display consideration by not only providing highly subsidised army ration but also constructing shanties for these Dumkas to live in the high altitude areas where they are employed.