The tourism industry accounts for nearly 60% of Ladakh’s total revenue. More than half the population of Ladakh, particularly the Leh district, is dependent on the industry as a source of income, particularly in the short window from May to September end.
This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the region’s tourism industry has come to a complete standstill. Everything, including hotels, guest houses, shops, cafes, taxi services, restaurants and other ancillary businesses, are shut, and the people associated with them have not had any work or income for close to 9 months at this point.
Just take the example of taxi services in the region. In Leh district itself, there are about 4,000 taxis which are entirely dependent on tourism. Reports indicate that because of the pandemic, taxi drivers have cumulatively incurred losses around Rs 25 crore.
According to a survey conducted by BOTT Travel Sentiment Tracker in partnership with seven national associations, as many as 40 percent of companies face the risk of complete shutdown in the next three to six months, while another 35.7 percent may go for a temporary shutdown.
The report goes onto state that “81 percent of travel and tourism companies have lost their revenue up to 100 percent while 15 percent of the companies have witnessed it slide up to 75 percent.”
Making matters worse, quite a few of these business establishments are over-leveraged. With no income coming in, but compelled to pay instalments with interest, the losses these businesses are incurring are possibly far worse than initial estimates. However, there is one possible silver lining, provided we see it.
Maybe this is just the opportunity to slowly wean many off their dependence on tourism and possibly diversify into other sectors. Yes, the Coronavirus epidemic is a once in a lifetime episode, but with the current border standoff against China heating up, there are more obstacles in the way.
We can’t have vast segments of the populace dependent on a sector heavily affected by the vagaries of geopolitics, national politics, nature, etc. Tourism has brought in a lot of wealth and prosperity, but it has also come at a significant cost, particularly for our fragile environment.
In fact, last week, my cousin mentioned that the main Leh area today feels like the 90s before the onset of mass tourism. There is less pollution, the weather is pleasant and it is less congested than he can ever remember.
Maybe this is a sign to explore real alternatives beyond tourism.
So, what are the solutions? How do we get out of this mess? Besides short term government support, in terms of financial assistance for struggling tourism businesses and deferment of loan payments, we need to think long term, so what are the alternative avenues for income generation?
A return to agriculture, particularly of the organic variety, and animal husbandry could be one possible alternative, but with greater scope for income generation than traditional systems. Instead of building more hotels or guest houses, why not grow a variety of crops throughout the year?
There is a possible agriculture renaissance on the horizon for Ladakhi farmers. Under the guidance of award-winning agriculture scientist Dr Tsering Stobdan, a research team from the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR) have found unique ways of helping small and marginal farmers in Ladakh double their crop productivity.
These methods are helping them save water, without the use of chemical fertilisers or pesticides, to grow even crops like watermelons and tomatoes. Using techniques like black polythene mulching and building their own brand of passive solar greenhouses that can allow crops to grow even through the winter, farmers have a real shot here.
Ladakh has some of the best varieties of apricot and sea buckthorn in the world, and offers fertile ground for non-native crops like quinoa that are potential money makers. There is also the option of desert agriculture already practiced by the likes of Israel where we can grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. This can help turn large tracts of desert land in Ladakh into cultivable fields given the appropriate technology and the necessary environmental checks.
Before Ladakh became a Union Territory in August last year, there were major restrictions on exporting fresh fruits and vegetables outside the region. Assuming that these restrictions have been lifted, it’s imperative that local authorities and farmers, who can coalesce into Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs), can find ways of selling their produce to a larger market. With all weather road connectivity a distinct possibility in the near future, why not?
Additional Alternatives to Tourism
The government has even turned its focus on building a major high-elevation all-weather, snow-free rail axis for connecting Ladakh with the rest of the country. These infrastructure projects will take a few years for completion, but why not prepare to reap the benefits?
Just think about the possibilities if these farmers can create market linkages with food processing and other agri-enterprises in the mainland. What are the other potential sources of employment generation? From building infrastructure for solar energy and telecommunications in remote corners to making Pashmina apparel, engaging in sustainable architecture, besides a variety of other business opportunities I haven’t even considered.
Another possibility posited by P Stobdan, a former diplomat, is to “optimise Ladakh’s strategic advantage as a pivot to accessing Central Asia, China, Russia and Mongolia for political, trade and commercial ties.” Yes, this suggestion may seem ill-timed given the current border standoff, but just think about the possibilities.
For centuries Ladakh, particularly Leh, was an important stopover along international trade routes—from Mongolia, China and Tibet in the east to Kashmir, Central Asia, and Europe in the West. Why not make this a reality once again?
As Stobdan says, “it is for the prime minister to set the stage for exploring Ladakh’s strategic value as a gateway for gaining direct access to Tarim Basin and the Tibetan plateau. By doing this both, Kashmir and Ladakh can once again be brought at the centre-stage to become the economic and cultural hubs of India’s connectivity to the north.”
Mohan Guruswamy, former advisor to the Vajpayee government once noted, “There is much that Ladakh and the country can gain from the opening up of trade routes with Tibet. Opening of the border from Demchok will make it possible for Indian pilgrims to motor down 600 km to Kailash/Mansarovar in little over a day, as opposed to the arduous and dangerous two-week trek required now…Thus another market is being created which can be accessed from Ladakh. The road from Demchok joins the Tibet-Sinkiang highway. If you turn right you go deep into Tibet. If you turn left you go to Sinkiang over the Aksai Chin.”
In other words, there is immense commercial and STRATEGIC potential here. Having said that, this option is strictly subject to national security concerns.
However, if none of these measures work out, setting up quality universities, vocational training institutes and upgrading educational and technological infrastructure in Ladakh will have a multiplier effect. Not only will it help the local populace achieve better life outcomes it can also attract massive investment in the area without upsetting the ecological balance.
Also, as one friend told me during a discussion on social media, “Any sort of economic intervention ultimately has to take into account the fragile ecology of Ladakh. In this regard investments in education and technological infrastructure are the one investment that makes solid sense. If nothing else will improve HDI indices massively.”
But to ensure these changes remain positive, it will require strong political leadership that does not simply pay obeisance to New Delhi. It is time for our local leadership (Hill Councils) to ask serious questions about the administrative powers it does or doesn’t have in running local affairs. COVID-19 exposed how powerless our Hill Councils are in running local affairs. Without strong local representation, the future I envision will fall apart.
Also, only strong and common sense regulation can ensure that this vision for economic freedom comes true. Yes, this transition away from tourism will not happen overnight, but the least leaders and common citizens back home can do is start preparing now so that one day if tourism suffers for whatever reason, our people have alternative means of income.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)