The achey (good) winter days in Ladakh

By Hajira Bano Balkhang Leh, Jul 31, 2014
Leh :
In the media world where news is made often for facts that are stranger than fiction, a PIL against the newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi, stating criminal breach of trust and seeking the whereabouts of the much elusive, utopian achey din. The amusing nature of the news notwithstanding had me wondering if we Ladakhis probably need to follow suit. We live in a place that remains untouched by the unholy shadows of development and the virgin beauty of which has people outside Ladakh viewing it as a living paradise for vacation. And yes maybe that is what it has been reduced to; a holiday destination for six months, or even less in some years. The rest of the time, which happens to be the raw, harsh winter season, the region seems to get buried somewhere in the unreachable corners of minds of both governance and people. The six months that see us trapped in the bubble of our own existence, cut off even from our own state, not to talk of the country or the world. Who do we hold accountable? Our immediate elected representatives, the state or the central government, just who among them will own up the responsibility?

For far too long the buck has been passing from one stakeholder to another with the people of Ladakh being reduced to helpless spectators in the whole scheme of things. We seem to have understood and accepted the annual ‘routine’ in the run up to the ‘hibernation season’ if I may put it. For the rest of the country, hibernation might be a word often used to tease each other for being lazy, but for us it is an enforced way of living, not even a valid choice. Very ironically, we have accommodated into the neglect that seems to be a special gift of governance to us. The Centre ensures that its armed forces are well supplied while the state and local government scrambles to get resources to ‘build the stock’ for the winter. It almost comically reminds me of the story of the ant and the grasshopper, and their attitudes towards storing things for winter. Looks like we are neck deep in grasshoppers! Ladakh is being administered in this ‘ad hoc’ manner since India gained independence. Living in distant dreamland has its curse I guess. What else explains the longing we Ladakhis have for the summer that quite matches the longing of a Ladakhi mother waiting for her son to come back home after completing his education outside, separated by years of painful loneliness.   

Ache din aane waale hein is not just a onetime election sloganeering, it’s an annual dictum for us! We keep hoping against hope that the good days are just around the corner, just within reach. We survive on the bare minimum and an undying optimism for six months. While the rest of the country imagines Ladakh as a picture perfect fairy tale land where people live a happy life, blissfully breathing in the mountain air, Ladakhis struggle to live a quality life in these winter months. While the masses in the rest of the country lament inflation of fruits and vegetable items, Ladakhis on the other hand consider it a luxury even to find it available. And when available finally we pay 4 to 5 times the value of the commodity. Inflation is the price we pay for belonging to a far flung, remote mountainous region. So the next time you eat a potato that you brought for say Rs. 20 a kg, just spare a thought for the people who buy it for over Rs. 100 a kg. The irony is that even after spending such a huge amount of money on vegetables the locals have to stand in queues for hours in the chilling cold, so that they can relish the simplest of God’s gift to humans. It just doesn’t stop at the simple exercise of buying commodities. The region can ‘boast’ about the astronomical fuel prices, air travel and even health care. The list is far too long to be woeful about. The region whose economy thrives on tourism in summer paves way for the gloomier version of itself in winters almost breaking the back of those who inhabit this mountain cradled place.

Ladakh has been like a baby that has been neglected by its mother and the maid she hired to look after it. The successive, continuous casual approach towards addressing even the most basic of problems of the people of the region has led to a drain of its human resources towards the clichéd ‘greener pastures’. Families have been living far apart from each other, forced that way by the lack of basic infrastructure in the region. The annual winter migration for those who can afford it is another expense. For those who can’t, they find themselves rewound into yesteryears that almost look primitive to anyone from outside of the region. In the times that we live where ‘human rights’ discourse is one that has almost become compulsory, it is almost laughable how nobody takes note of the violation of the most basic human rights in Ladakh. How the outrageous nature of living with harsh conditions and unavailability of basic commodities combined, goes unnoticed by the top brass is unfathomable. The most they do is calculate ‘how much’ of ‘what’ is to be stored in the Himalayan ‘storeroom’, never even bothering to see if it enough for the people to survive. God’s mercy is the only thing available in abundance. Quite often people from other parts of the state are left open mouthed; unable to absorb the fact the Ladakhis live in such conditions that are unimaginable for them. However, I wouldn’t blame them. Media as it happens has left Ladakh often out of the picture for even the right news; to have the issues of people reach the larger state is completely out of question. The idea of responsible journalism isn’t very popular in the state. But that doesn’t exonerate the media of its responsibility of bringing the truth to other people; to participate in creating pressure on the government. Empathy they say goes a long way in solving many problems.

Despite all the hardships that we face, despite living every year on the edge, despite belonging to a country that guarantees basic rights for all its citizens, I am hopeful. And that is what sums the Ladakhi people up, optimist; an optimism that doesn’t die or relent even in the most harrowing circumstances. The optimism that keeps us alive in the absence of basic commodities in the winter, while we bask in the scorching heat of neglect by our representatives at various levels, is what we hold on to.  That notwithstanding the hardships we endure, we smile. I recall an old Chinese saying ‘A kind word can warm three winter months’ and despite all the shortages, I believe kindness is never short in supply among the Ladakhis. Braving the chill, coupled with shortage of commodities, we still retain the warmth and the cheerfulness that Ladakhis are known all over the world for. We are indomitable in our spirit and souls. We might not get the requisite concern from others but we make sure that for all those who spend even a day in Ladakh, it is a acha din.