It is not popularly known but the demand for Ladakh to be a separate Union territory, and not be coupled with Jammu and Kashmir, had started almost as soon as India became independent from colonial rule.
The region always saw itself as distinct in culture, heritage and history with a unique story and experience to share. Now that it finally is a relatively newly created Union territory, the time has come to consider the enormous potential of the region, and devise ways of fulfilling it.
First, why can’t Ladakh, with its almost universal literacy, dotted with monasteries and a spiritual tradition going back thousands of years, have a focused policy towards development as a home for inner wellness?
The argument for this writes itself. Ladakh, like many other pristine places in the country, needs thoughtful visitors who spend quality time and money in the place. It does not need tourists who treat it as ‘just another hill station’.
The Buddhist gompas of Ladakh are famously beautiful, and famously remote. Each of them is in fact the centrepiece of what could be communities of sustainable living and what I call ‘seeker-travel’.
In a notoriously uncertain world, seeking refuge for self-realisation and inner solace is rising. The world is, and shall, see many more people troubled and disillusioned by late-stage materialism and its destructive tentacles. Conflict, whether caused by territorial or political disputes, triggered by state or non-state actors, or fuelled by relentless global warming, is likely to seethe, with more frequent outbursts.
Such a world is urging more people than ever before to turn inwards and seek a better way of life, the high Himalayan shrines of Ladakh offer a certain stark quietude that is particularly conducive for reflection. This act of ‘seeking’ is something deeper and more fundamental than just periodic.
The region also offers the kind of clean air and water that is increasingly scarce around the world. What it needs are visitors who appreciate the rarity of what Ladakh offers and value it enough to ensure that they become partners in keeping it intact.
This requires constant reinforcement from the time tourists land, and even before that. What Ladakh needs are travellers who come to immerse themselves within the folds of its tranquillity, and not disrupt it. But this requires a new strategic approach which, through the right messaging, will place Ladakh’s uniqueness in context.
Placing Ladakh in such a framework will enable the growth of the region in a manner where it can be regarded as a global example of high-altitude development.
Already on issues like water conservation and solar energy, Ladakh is creating models that are suitable for its sustainable growth. It could become a hub for research and entrepreneurship in these areas.
Much has been written about the need to preserve and propagate the uniqueness of Ladakhi pashmina, and work in this direction is being done by some new entrepreneurs in this region. But other opportunities exist too to ensure such promotion. Two clear examples come to mind—the art of Buddhist thangka paintings, and the Paboo or Pabu (sometimes also written as Papu) shoes of Ladakh, which are made of wool but with a leather sole.
These are products crying to be reinvented for the modern customer and some innovation and assistance in this direction can help these get a new look and feel, and in turn a much wider customer base well beyond local citizens of Ladakh. Woollen shoes, for instance, are increasingly popular around the world, not least with the success of Allbirds, the Silicon Valley start-up that has made merino wool shoes a craze. This has resulted in tremendous growth for footwear made of natural fibres. Could Ladakh acquire a niche in this market? There is no reason why the answer should be no.
The establishment of Ladakh University is also a major factor that could assist sustainable development in the area. It could serve as a base for research and training and the backbone for innovation. The university could also be a place where some of the best high-altitude wildlife and sustainability-related content (like documentary films, for instance, or books) are created to ensure that this novel landscape is preserved.
There is a need, therefore, to join the dots to understand the full potential of Ladakh as a region that could receive worldwide recognition as a unique case study of sustainability in the wider Himalayan ecosystem.
Ladakh’s moment has arrived, it just needs more champions to push its case.
Vice President & Head of Research at Invest India, GoI's national investment promotion agency