Front-Line Himalayan Herders In Conflict With China Claim They Are Losing Grazing Grounds: Their Only Way Of Life

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The residents of a remote area in northern India, high in the Himalayas, worry that their way of life is in danger due to shifting weather patterns, impending development, and border disputes with China. They contend that the future of Ladakh, one of the highest altitude areas on Earth, where native tribes continue to live nomadic lifestyles on vast plains surrounded by mountains and dotted with Buddhist temples, is in jeopardy.

Following the seasons to locate grazing area, Lopzang Dadul roamed his sheep, goats, and yaks over the vast, dizzying terrain close to India’s disputed border with China for years. 

India And China Maintain Significant Military Presence In Their De-Facto Border

However, Dadul claims that the Indian military is now preventing shepherds from accessing areas that have supported Ladakh’s nomadic lifestyle for decades. He and others claim that this has gotten worse since a border skirmish between Chinese and Indian soldiers in 2020 that resulted in fatalities.

The Indian army is preventing us from entering areas they refer to as “no-man’s land.” Dadul, 33, a father of two from the Phobrang hamlet, states that people are no longer permitted to visit that location. “We will have to sell our livestock and look for another option if we do not get enough land.” The herders of Ladakh live in what is today a very sensitive geopolitical region, where tensions between China and India over their disputed 2,100-mile (3,379-kilometer) border have existed for many years due to their nuclear weapons. Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the Indian think tank Centre for Policy Research, claims that “many of these grazing lands are in contested areas between India and China, and (after the 2020 clash) these grazing lands have now been denied to the locals because they have been brought as part of buffer zones between India and China.”

Along their de facto boundary, the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which has never been formally drawn and has been a source of conflict since the Sino-Indian border war of 1962, both China and India retain a sizable military presence. Tensions along the border surfaced four years ago after a fight in Ladakh-Aksai Chin resulted in at least 20 Indian and 4 Chinese soldiers being killed, the first known casualties in a confrontation between the two nations in over 40 years. Following the violence, there was a disengagement process, buffer zones were established, and border discussions are still underway. However, the situation is still tense, and neither China nor India have made the locations of the zones publicly known, leaving the ground reality unclear.

Thus, some of those zones’ locations could “not be clear to the local people,” according to Manoj Joshi, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank in New Delhi. “Graziers go first, then you set up tents, and your soldiers arrive and you declare, ‘This is our area,'” he added, explaining why India is preventing them from accessing these areas. The Chushul constituency in Ladakh, which includes four border villages, is represented by councilor Konchok Stanzin, 37, who claims that these limitations have affected herders’ access to land.

Gurung Hill, Black Top, Helmet Top, Mukhpari, and Rezeng La. These are all Chushul village’s winter grazing grounds. Nowadays, getting there is rather tough for many. Since 2020, Stanzin has been bringing attention to these concerns; “these areas are now no-man’s land.” “We are aware of the situation on the ground and the truth. Stanzin stated, “Whatever we have lost is already lost if the (Indian) administration claims we have not lost an inch of territory. The Chinese are continually approaching us, according to Dadul in Phobrang. They have been entering and stepping over the border,” he said. “The Indian Army is not allowing us to go there, the Indian government is saying nothing is lost, and China is capturing the land.”

The existence of the restricted terrain mentioned in this article, as well as any allegations of Chinese incursion or Indian territorial loss during the 2020 conflict, could not be independently verified. “No Indian territory has been lost during the standoff,” the Indian Ministry of Defence said in a statement to CNN. Disengagement talks are presently taking place at the remaining sites of tension. “All disengagements achieved to date have been based on the principle of Mutual and Equal Security,” the ministry stated about the buffer zones. To preserve peace and tranquility, there is now an agreement between the parties to halt military operations in regions where disengagement has been impacted.

Following the events of 2020, the government stated that the “number of Indian graziers and livestock in traditional grazing areas has seen a sharp rise.” “There hasn’t been any negative effect on the locals’ standard of living as a result.” 

How The Herders Have Been Protesting Against India-Chaina Disputes?

Thousands of people from all over the region have flocked to Ladakh’s joint capital city of Leh in recent weeks to demand more rights ahead of India’s general election, which takes place this Friday, as concerns over threats to the region’s way of life—from lost grazing lands to climate change and industrialization—have grown. The people living there, at a height of around 3,500 meters (11,550 feet) above sea level, are demanding that Ladakh become a state of India to guarantee political representation and that it be included in the Sixth Schedule of the national constitution, which gives specific rights to tribal territories. At least 10,000 people, according to the organizers, flocked to Leh on a single day last month to support the beginning of a weeks-long hunger strike. Following a contentious decision by the Indian central government to deprive the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir of its statehood and divide Ladakh, which had been a part of it, into a distinct region, Ladakh lost unique restrictions over its land in 2019.

The move gave the Indian central government direct authority over the area. However, detractors claim that the government has recently weakened environmental regulations nationwide and supported the drive for environmentally damaging infrastructure development in other environmentally vulnerable areas of the nation. China claims that the “western section of the China-India border has always belonged to China,” rejecting the notion that what the Foreign Ministry has referred to as the “so-called union territory of Ladakh” exists. The region of Ladakh is bordered not just by China but also by Pakistan, a neighbor with whom New Delhi has tense ties.

Many in Ladakh are now worried that future industrial projects supported by New Delhi would cause harm or that an influx of people will change the region’s predominately tribal demographics.

“Only locals will consider the coming generations; others will not care about that.” Sonam Wangchuk, an activist and educator well-known throughout India who is spearheading the hunger strike to raise awareness of the environmental concerns facing Ladakh, stated, “Make mistakes at best and sell off the place at worst.” In an interview with CNN last month on the 19th day of a 21-day fast, Wangchuk stated in a firm but feeble voice that “we will have no control over how to secure these mountains” in the absence of safeguards and representation. He referred to plans for a solar project and the possibility of future ecologically harmful industries. Local authorities have put pressure on the activism. Wangchuk and other leaders of civil society had earlier this month called off a peaceful march toward the border that they claimed would reveal grazing lands lost to Chinese encroachment. They did so because local authorities had forbade gatherings without permission and had temporarily slowed internet speeds, citing an “apprehension of breach of peace.”