Ladakh: Winds of Economic Change

30 May, 2013    ·   3962

Zainab Akhter on the impact of external influences on the traditional economy of Ladakh

Zainab Akhter
Zainab Akhter
Research Officer

Traditionally, Ladakh’s economy has always been based on small farms and livestock herding. But with the introduction of tourism in the 1970s, the deployment of the army, and the alternative job avenues provided by the centre and state governments, a drastic change has been observed in the pattern of the economy since then.

This commentary looks into how tourism, the army, and other similar factors have brought about changes in Ladakh’s economy; and argues that only a few groups are reaping economic benefits, which is widening the gap between the core and periphery.

The traditional way
Historically, agriculture has been the mainstay of the Ladakhi economy. The majority of Ladakhis are self-supporting farmers, living in small settlements scattered across the high desert. Small-scale farming was developed by them, which gave a boost to the economy. People work in their farms in the summer season and also, at the same time, stock essential commodities for the long winter months when the region remains cut off from the world for seven long months.

With the opening up of the region to tourism, people began to look for specific markets for selling agricultural products and started exporting Pashmina and apricots to other parts of India. Farmers started using chemical fertilizers and pesticides which was a blow to the traditional form of farming.

Impact of Tourism
Ladakh was thrown open to tourism in 1975, which brought with it imported food, consumer goods, global media and western education. The romanticised impressions of the West gleaned from the media, advertising, and fleeting encounters with tourists had an immediate and profound impact on the people.

The tourism industry is not uniformly divided in Ladakh, and a majority of the population still lives outside the business industry. Due to this, the gap between the core and periphery regions is rapidly increasing and developmental work is concentrated mostly in the regions where there is an influx of tourists.

With rapid growth of tourism, people from the villages flock into Leh town in search of jobs, thus decreasing the number of population involved in farming. As more and more people are pulled off the land, the number of unemployed Ladakhi’s competing with each other for already scarce jobs is growing exponentially. The result has been a growing insecurity and competitiveness, even leading to ethnic conflict.

The Army Factor
The economy of the region is heavily impacted by the need to maintain a parallel market that caters to army personnel. The deployment of the army has increased immensely after the Kargil War; and now, it is the biggest employer locally not just of soldiers but porters, vegetable growers, and road workers. Under Operation Sadhbhavana, the army   is running computer centers, schools, and hospitals in many parts of the region.

In the Nubra Valley, most of the youth leave their traditional farming and are employed by the army as daily wagers and porters in the Siachen Glacier. They earn handsomely by working for a couple of months and then spend the earnings by coming down to Leh.

Earlier, the army was concentrated only in few regions where India shares borders with China and Pakistan but today they have spread their bases as far as Zanskar Valley. The need to battle these changing trends in the economy has led to the birth of NGOs working together to develop alternatives to the global economy.

Economic Revival: Alternatives
Today, more and more people are waking up to the fact that, because of its environmental costs, an economic model based on endless consumption is simply unsustainable. However, because there is far less understanding of the social and psychological costs of the consumer culture, most believe that making the changes necessary to save the environment will entail great sacrifice.

Helena Norberg-Hodge, an analyst who studies the impact of global economy on cultures and agricultures worldwide, talks about the need for “Economic localisation” in Ladakh in her writings which implies bringing economic activity closer to home by supporting local economies and communities. She has worked extensively in the region in order to spread awareness about economic localisation and has consistently stressed the fact that the only way to restore the imbalance in the economy created by external factors in Ladakh is to work towards the old traditional ways which she describes as “Economics of Happiness”.

To offer ample opportunities and freedoms to this human resource, the development of alternative livelihood opportunities is another challenge before the Ladakhi society. There is a need to explore traditional patterns of economy such as medicinal herbs, fruits, and premium and exotic vegetables and flowers.

Despite the increase in possible sources of income from other sources today, primarily through government employment, military service, and the growing tourism industry, the centrality of agriculture in Ladakh persists. Unemployment among the educated youth in the area is the result of apathy toward traditional agriculture. The changes brought about by the introduction of external sources have raised the economic bar of the region and cannot be undone completely. However, at the same time, there is a need to preserve the traditional forms of economy so that the agrarian region does not completely fall prey to the consumer market.