In Conversation with Dr. Mohammed Deen, Founder, LEHO, Leh

By Kunzang Chosdol LEH, Jun 30, 2018
The changing scenario of Ladakh in every aspect is posing a question on sustainability. With the introduction of tourism and army sector, people are giving up the land-based economy. People are facing social, economic and environmental challenges. A need for plan, awareness and action is felt to tackle the issues and move towards sustainable development.
In the year1991, Ladakh Environment and Health Organisation (LEHO) formed with an aim to identify various challenges and work on it by Dr. Mohammed Deen. 
Dr. Mohammed Deen completed his Postgraduate in Veterinary Science, from Mathura Agriculture University and joined training in and outside India. From 1972 to 1990 he worked in Department of Animal and Sheep Husbandry, Leh. He also worked as Chief project officers in Rural development.
In 1990, he cracked IAS examination and served as Additional Secretary, Deputy Commissioner in Kargil for two years, registrar cooperative J&K, Special Secretary, Secretary, commissioner secretary in Animal husbandry. In 2007, he retired as the Secretary in J&K State Finance Commission. Let’s hear more from Dr. Mohammed Deen IAS (Retd.) the founder of LEHO.
Q. Tell us about LEHO and how does it start in Ladakh?
Looking back from today, Ladakh has changed a lot in every aspect. A tremendous change was observed in the society in terms of agriculture practices, culture, tradition, values, language and food.  The changes observed in late 80’s was a matter of concern because we are losing our own values, culture and tradition. 
I and my wife are very concern about the environment and we saw the changes that were taking place at that time. We decided to form an organization to work practically to resist and uphold the valuable culture and tradition of Ladakh. Thus, Ladakh Environment and Health Organisation (LEHO) was established in 1991.
Putting the plan into action through a wider circle, discussion on a unique feature of different villages was held. We were self-sustainable in the past.  And our main objective was to keep our society intact with our culture, traditional farming system, cooperation system and most importantly the harmony in the village. 
The organization is trying best to work on it with more innovative technologies, improved technique and methods with an aim to generate income for the people.
Q. What are the roles, functions and objectives of the organization?
LEHO aims to sustain and improve the ecological farming system, promotes afforestation, biodiversity, ecological restoration, preserve the diversity of culture, tradition and languages. We are focusing on spreading awareness among the people. However, there are many people in the world who shows a keen interest in the environment, tradition and culture of Ladakh. We try to connect these people to the village communities and make them understand the problems faced in villages and find solutions.
We are in a society with a rich culture, values and tradition descended from our ancestors. The cooperation system among the villagers is an example for the people around the world. We have valuable assets. So, the organization also facilitates villagers to take up innovative concepts to make them realize these things.
Q. What are the various initiatives carried out by the organization for the sustainable development, ecology, and health?
The most important initiative is creating awareness about organic farming method and ecology. And health naturally comes under it.
To develop the ecological models in the villages, we have 46 models in different villages. The model has a concept of integrated holistic development for the villages and planning. For example, we select one farmer in a village, provides training about organic farming and ecological system. Then at his farmland, we demonstrate compost making and construct vegetable cellar or storage to preserve vegetables in the winter. Solar dryer and greenhouse are also provided. Through all this, we try to make people understand the best possible way of cultivating vegetables without using chemical fertilizers. This promotes healthy vegetables to eat and fertile soil to produce.
Secondly, we introduced greenhouse technology to yield more vegetables. Unlike rest of the world, the greenhouses in Ladakh are very simple. Initially, it was a single wall which doesn’t keep the greenhouse warm in the peak winter. But today, we have double insulated wall which keeps the greenhouse warm in the winter months. We have limited growing season in Ladakh but now it has been extended by two months each in spring and autumn season with the introduction of greenhouse technology. This has proved as a boon for the farmer’s income.
Till now, LEHO constructed 1,000 greenhouses alone and with the help of other networks, we have constructed 2,000 in Ladakh.
The major achievement is the passive solar house. The house is very good to use in Ladakh because of the harsh climatic condition. LEHO’s office is a passive solar house which records lowest 8 degree Celsius in winter months when the outside temperature dips down to minus 12 or 15. The house is very significant and useful for the health and economy and should be replicated in Ladakh.  We have demonstrated about 400 units in different villages of Leh, Kargil and Himachal Pradesh.
Q. Ladakh used to be self-reliant. How the changing time and introduction of Public Distribution System affected farmers?
Yes, till the 70s or early 80s, Ladakh used to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. The way of living was quite simple. All that we wanted was food, clothes, house and a good culture and tradition. People used to be completely depended on agriculture. 
But in the early 80s, three factors completely change the society of Ladakh. Firstly, with the coming of tourism people started switching from agriculture practice to easy money making. 
Secondly, there were lots of consultancy in the army and many went in different services of the army. Thirdly, the provision of subsidized ration completely changed the whole system. People got an alternative for the food and also it was impossible to produce our own barley and wheat in comparison with the subsidized rates. 
So these three factors, tourism, army and public distribution system completely changed the system of self-sustainable in Ladakh.
Q. How can we revive the traditional land-based economy? Is it important?
We can’t revive what we had, because it was too traditional and very inefficient to retain it. We have to plan for a system which will be nerve for the economy. LEHO works to make the villages a sustainable unit. For which we introduced greenhouse technology to enhance the production and extending the growing period.
In the past, we cultivate only barley, wheat and peas. But now the barley consumption is decreasing as people don’t consume much. So, we should use the land for cash crop cultivation. Vegetables have a larger market in Ladakh due to tourism and army. People should explore different types of vegetables and fruits. There is a need for change in cultivation pattern.
We say that there is a scarcity of water due to global warming as glaciers are melting. We should not really look for that source only.  In order to meet the water scarcity for the land, we have enough water in Indus River which is running without any use. Today, we have good technology which is easily available to lift the river water and utilize to make wasteland into cultivable.
Ladakh is rich in solar energy.  People should use this energy in the land-based economy. While talking about land-based we have to see the potential of the whole village, mountain, livestock, rivers, and wasteland to convert them into a sustainable economy. We can work on sea buckthorn, yak, pashmina goat and many more.
There is a need for a holistic development plan for the village. We have to go organic.  The production of organic manure is not too complicated if we integrate animal husbandry into the system. We have to re-establish animal husbandry and agriculture system to make the village sustainable. If we have a holistic plan using modern technology and resources we can use the wasteland to trapping solar energy, for making waste cultivable land into cultivable and much more. The potential area of Pashmina, sea buckthorn, apricot, apple and other produce should be explored and work on it to make a sustainable village.
But, we have to use the latest techniques and method. Rearing of livestock and animal are not a hard job today. It is not like one man going behind the livestock, in rest of the world it’s all mechanized. They just put electrical fencing, grazing system with every facility.
Q. Brief us about the issues of climate change and water crisis in Ladakh? What are the positive and negative impacts?
When I was young, I remember that in winters we used to receive snowfall in abundance measuring four to five inches and sometimes 1 feet. The Khardongla pass used to be blocked most of the time. Because of the global warming, glaciers are melting rapidly. Climate change is visibly seen in Ladakh because I remember many glaciers which in front of my eyes have dried up.
It is said that the global temperature has risen by 1 and a half degree and the whole world is talking and worried about it. If this prevails than in the next fifty years, people residing below glaciers have to shift to another place.
Naturally, glacier melts in summer and in winters snowfalls re-cubes it but now due to the rising temperature, glaciers are melting rapidly throughout the year. Since people are giving up and not engaged in agriculture practice, the problem of glacier melting and drying is given least importance. But it is a matter of concern. There would not be a problem for now but we need to think seriously about how to adapt to an availability of less water.
The water crisis is going to be the biggest challenge in Ladakh. We have to be very cautious about the uses of water. Methods like sprinkle and drip irrigation, water harvesting needs to be adopted. The concept of artificial glacier needs to be adopted to make use of the streams and river water which remains unused in winter months. 
But along with the negative impact, global warming has enhanced the production of crops in Ladakh. In some places like Changthang, vegetables are easily grown and cultivated. But the controlled temperature is must for the long-term benefits.
Q. If we talk about the climate change, people of Ladakh take it as a blessing because it increases the production and exploration of new crops. To what extent it is true?
Yes, due to climate change, people of Ladakh can now produce almost all kind of vegetables, and fruits such as capsicum, cabbage, cauliflower, pear, watermelon, strawberry and even delicious apple which was not possible to grow earlier in Ladakh. In fact, we should use these benefit and explore more fruits and vegetables.
But on the other hand, it is also important to work more on how we can reduce the climate change. We can locally contribute by minimizing the pollution caused by us. 
Q. What can be various short and long-term solutions to curb the issues?
The simple short-term solution is to minimize the use of chemical fertilizers, activities which produce smokes and using cow dung cakes in a proper way. And the long-term solution is the plantation. It is one of the most effective ways to control the climate change. So we must plant and make the wasteland green.
Q. What are the changes seen in the agriculture practice over the years?
Agriculture practices are changing day by day.  In the past, we use animals for ploughing, threshing, sowing and almost in all activities related to agriculture. But today it has been replaced by tractors and other machines.
These machines have replaced the work done by animals. Animals are the part and parcel for village sustainability. Now when these tractors have come, people say that we don’t need animals.  These changes have also caused lack of manure for organic farming.
Q. With LEHO’s initiative Takmachik village is adopted as Eco Green village.  How challenging was it to work upon and what are the changes seen?
The concept of eco-village is basically for planning and implementation of eco-sensitive development plans for the village by producing most of the requirement for living based on the resources available, integrating with the culture, tradition and social values and community organisation. For sustainable development we have to identify the whole potential of the village and what the village can do.
We went to Takmachik, explained people about the concept of the eco-green village. So the first requirement for the eco green concept was to stop using the chemical fertilizer that has been already done by the villagers. We have done the baseline study of the villages, after five years when we rechecked the baseline study we found the produce is doubled, income has been doubled. People are very happy to adopt this concept.
Apricot being grown in this part is the best in the world for its taste and nutrient. The traditional systems of collecting and drying apricots are not proper. They just shake the tree and whole fruits fall down and let them dry on the cement block, stone or the roof of the house in the sun. This leads the flies and dust to stick on it which degrades the taste.
Now, we have a proper system. We put a net around the tree to collect apricots, put them in a basket and grade them accordingly. For drying, we introduced solar dryer. It is simple technique and almost like a greenhouse, where we dry them up properly and goes for packaging. The price was ₹200/kg earlier, but today it is sold at ₹450 per kg.
From Takmachik to Dha Hanu, 1, 87,000 kilos of dried apricot are produce. Takmachik village alone produces 35,000 kilos. When it became successful, we invited all the farmers in nearby villages of Takmachik and showed them how they collect, grade, dried and marketed. All the farmers were very excited to see this and wanted to adopt this concept in their villages also.
Every year, a group of foreigner comes to see Takmachik, eat organic food and live with farmers. So the income of farmers has been triple due to organic farming. 
In the beginning, it was looking very skeptical. Villagers were thinking that they lose everything and were not happy. We motivate them and bought another scheme to keep them happy. But in two years time, everything has changed.  People are very happy to see the production today. Other villages such as Domkhar, Stakmo, Achinathang, Gangles are interested to adopt as an organic village.
Q. Is there any plan of the organization to implement such initiatives in any other villages?
Yes, we have already started working in five villages including Achinathang, Dhomkhar Dho, Stakmo, Gangles and Kanji. Kanji village is the one who never received or used chemical fertilizers till today. It is already an eco-village. There are many potentials to promote Eco-tourism in this village. They have lots of Yak which can attract tourist and we are working on it.
Q. Today the stakeholders talk about organic farming, but on the other hand people are giving up the practice of cattle rearing? Do you think it will be successful with the changing scenario?  How can we make it 100% Organic?
It is not very challenging to make 100% organic, because today everything comes to health. The uses of chemical fertilizers, a pesticide etc causes many diseases. But the centuries-old practice of organic farming is all natural and improves your health. We should make organic food available everywhere which will meet the standard for production. Initially, it will take time but for the long run, it is going to be very successful. 
The cattle-rearing part is almost same as earlier everywhere in Ladakh but the only problem is decreasing numbers of livestock. In the past, cattle dung were used for cooking purposes but today we have LPG cylinder and the dung can be used in the field. 
If you practice organic farming for many years, the soil itself produces some organic elements because there are many microorganisms which make the soil fertile.  
We had a discussion with the Hill Council regarding the organic farming concept and two years back they have in principle agreed to reduce the chemical fertilizer availability. Last year, CEC and ECs told that they will reduce 20% from the total quantity of chemical fertilizer every year and they did also. So in the next four years, whole Leh will be completely organic.
Q. It is also the mission of your NGO to work for the health of people, in what ways do you work for the health and how?
When we started LEHO, health was a big issue.  The villages on the bank of rivers like Shey, Thiksay, Chuchot, Choglamar use river water. This water contains silicon dioxide.  Presence of silicon dioxide in human’s body caused severe issues and problems in the early 90s. It goes inside the human body through air and water which gets stuck and causes internal injuries.
We did a survey and found that women suffer more with it as compared to men. This is because men are mostly out of the village in daytime whereas women are mainly working at home and fields. Two women around 56 years old died due to silicon dioxide in Chuchot village. During that time, doctors treated them as tuberculosis but are actually not. So with many surveys and research along with the doctors and a team from the UK, we found it very dangerous for the health of people. Awareness was done and distributed mask specially made to stop dust particles of silicon. Because of the awareness, the cases came down tremendously but still, there is a problem.
Apart from that, every year, we conduct medical camps in different villages. We have adopted far-flung villages like Dipling, Nyeraks, Lingshed, Photoksar, and Kanji for reproductive child health. Women are educated about how to balance with nutrients during pregnancy, trained asha what to do during the delivery of babies etc. We supply vitamins and clothing like mattress and other requirement and also inform about schemes where they can get consultancy.
Other than that, creating awareness about the climate change, organic farming, less use of fertilizers and pollutions are also done.
Q. People of Ladakh are giving up the agriculture practices and choosing other sources of income. Do you create any awareness for the people to resume the old practices in Ladakh?
Yes, we tried but it doesn’t work because everybody wants money, good life and it is natural where there is money people will go towards it. Now what we are trying to do is to promote eco-tourism. This eco-tourism doesn’t spoil the tradition, village system and social values. The best example is Takmachik and Umla, those who went to the city have started coming back to villages. They saw the scope in the village and generate income from the tourist.
Q. What are the scopes in the agriculture sector and how important is to engage young educated youths in this sector?
Ladakh has lots of potentials not only for tourism based but in the land-based economy. Leh district has got 45,000 hectares of land but today we are using only 10,000 hectares for cultivation. Including all the region of Leh district, there is a total of 25,000 hectares of lands which are a cultivable wasteland. We are not using these lands because we have no water. Now in the new context, we have lots of rivers in Leh district, we have Shayok river, Zanskar river, Indus River, Nubra. What we need is technology to lift these water and make all these land cultivable.
Youths should explore this sector with the latest technology, research and development with a systematic planning for the future. We are rich in land and the water is also there, we need to use it and make it green.
Q. LEHO has also focused on preservation and promotion of the local cuisine but we rarely find any restaurant serving it, what is the reason and how important is it to sustain the same?
There is no doubt that local food is full of nutrients, but then it is given a second look. People are neglecting local cuisine because everyone looks for modern things today. If we can make certain improvement in the local cuisine in terms of nutrient, size and taste wise, this can work wonder. In the past, the situation was far more different and accordingly they cook the food. But today, we look for latest designed things which we can exactly do with the same but should stick with the essence of the traditional cuisine. There have to research and work on it.   
Q. Brief us about the importance of understanding sustainable development. How can we ensure the same?
Sustainable development means, wherever human exists, there are lots of natural resources like land, water, animals, plants etc. so try to develop this resources to meet your requirement and a bit to sell it to generate income for your family. 
If you use chemical fertilizer for production it might get a larger bumper crop, but will not sustain because that will spoil the land. In agriculture we should have an organic system of approach and integrated agriculture, this would help towards sustainability.
When we say sustainability it doesn’t mean land or other things, it implies on culture, tradition, cooperative system, sharing system, social values etc. All these have to be put together to make a sustainable society.
Today people are more depended on tourism and army, but they are not sustainable. For sustainability, we have to use our own resources, land, animals and human being collectively. There are lots of potentials which need to be explored.
Q. What are the future plans and initiative to maintain the sustainable development in Ladakh?
We have discussed with the Hill Council that the first plan is to declare Ladakh an organic region. Sikkim is an organic state and we have invited the chief minister of Sikkim to Leh. The aim is to understand and work in collaboration with Sikkim to get organic Himalaya. We have a larger plan to accomplish this dream.
Secondly, to make a law for organic, this should be done importantly. Law will control and check on the production of organic things. Today there is no law and policy for the same; this will benefit the consumer also. We are working on that law with the Hill Council.
 Message to the readers
“Ladakh is very unique in terms of landscape, climate, and resources. We should be very proud that we are not only rich in culture, tradition, social values and all but are rich in solar energy, water, availability of land. We have to make use of it and look for sustainable economy.”