Leh’s lost glory
Little remains of nature in her original pristine, glorious form in this beautiful yet stark region of Ladakh. Stanzin Kunzang Angmo on the need to conserve environment in this seat of a great civilisation

AS I stroll down the streets in Leh, my mind meanders down memory lane, revisiting all those moments of my wonderful childhood. All those childhood pranks suddenly come alive, being naughty at school, laughing with my friends. What remains as a backdrop for all those years is the pristine purity of the land itself. In my mind’s eye, I can still see those lush green gardens and what remains a vivid memory — the water, crystal clear, sparkling, rushing down the village stream.

Very little of this remains today, of nature in her original, glorious form, enriching not only my childhood but the lives of all those living in this beautiful yet stark region of Ladakh. While I have grown from childhood to adulthood, the size of the pastures have shrunk, the quaint city area has become congested with shops and hotels and the water gushing down the streams is not crystal clear anymore.

There was a time when the stream flowing through Leh was the source of drinking water to the inhabitants of the city. It is simply unimaginable now. Let alone drinking the water, it is probably unhygienic to dip your hand into the stream.

Why this degeneration? If you ask any local, the answer you would get is the effect of the burgeoning tourism industry. With it has come, all manner of shops, establishments, travel and hotel services, trekking companies, restaurants, the works.

Polo is a major attraction for visitors to Leh
Polo is a major attraction for visitors to Leh Thinkstockphotos/Getty images

The local eco-friendly toilets of Leh are fast being replaced by modern ones for the convenience of tourists
The local eco-friendly toilets of Leh are fast being replaced by modern ones for the convenience of tourists

Yet in the high-pitched activity, no one seems to be paying attention to what we are losing out, indeed the price, we are paying for this fast-track modernisation. If today, the clear streams from the Himalayan heights resemble a municipal dustbin in some places, then we must be doing something grossly wrong. Something that needs to be first recognised and then corrected, pronto.

Of course, one would need a detailed study of the situation, recommendations by experts and finally action from the political establishment from the civil society. But again if you ask any local person and just observe the causes of this degradation, they become clear. What strikes one as glaring is the use of modern toilets, which may make complete sanitation sense in other parts of the country, but for a cold desert like Ladakh, chronically short of water supply, flush toilets are totally inappropriate. Firstly they use up enormous quantities of water and what is worse is the lack of drainage and sanitation facilities to cater to this enormous amounts of waste. They simply are not in place. So you see untreated toilet waste being released into the ‘yurbas’ and ‘tokpos’ (local water bodies). Is this at all acceptable? Is this contamination not an affront to the region and its people?

However, what is curious here is the fact that the locals seem to be less and less perturbed about a phenomenon that is getting more and more disturbing. Indeed, they themselves to be joining this bandwagon! Dumping of household waste in water also has become a normal practice among the people. Even family picnics and romantic dates in picturesque spots mean dumping of waste in those areas. Why are we bent upon destroying in bits and pieces, this hallowed land, the seat of a great civilisation in the Sindhu? People often complain to the authorities about their lack of corrective action but seem to be blissfully unaware of their own contribution to the sorry state of affairs. What you do see instead is a concentration of one’s own selfish needs to the exclusion and the detriment of the common good. For instance, the mushrooming of hand pumps all over the city.

Yes, it provides a permanent 24-hour-round water supply in individual homes and establishments. But how come people are oblivious to the devastating effect on the level of the ground water? At some point of time, it will just run dry. That is a scary scenario to which nobody is waking up to. All this, however, does not absolve the authorities from their responsibility and indeed the lack of proper planning and a policy to maintain the cleanliness of the water bodies in Leh is sorely missing.

When I think of all these aspects, it is very painful. I can imagine how much worse it would be for the older generations, our parents and even our grand-parents, who inherited a truly lovely land of Ladakh from their ancestors, only to see it vanish before their very eyes? That idyllic beauty and purity already seems a fairytale. So what is it that we will hand over to the next generations? Is it still retrievable? Can we still salvage it so that what they inherit is not a fairytale but a live environment?

Let us learn to strike a balance between modernity and what is truly valuable in our traditional way of life. Ladakhis are forgetting that what attracts people to this land of Lamas is its rich cultural heritage, nature-friendly traditions, pristine and peaceful environment. Would it really matter to them if they are told to use local toilets and not the westernised ones? On the contrary, I think they would learn to respect the local traditions and help preserve the natural beauty of the land. What is more, we ourselves need to respect the values inherited over generations that have kept this land protected and beautiful. — ANI