The loneliness of Ladakh

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Leh, Aug.17 (ANI): Less than two weeks ago the word 'Ladakh' evoked images of a spectacular wind-swept land of an unmatched beauty nestling amongst the great Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges and the upper Indus River Valley.

Equally evocative were the images of tourists from far corners of the world seeking out the unique cultural heritage and the breathtaking trekking trails amidst the nature at its best.

On the night of August 6, everything changed when the nature's fury was unleashed as never before in living memory here. Cloudburst occurring on an open land, or mountains will largely invite academic interest. It will not have the destructive ramifications as in a populated area, particularly, in an ecologically fragile zone, of undulating mountains and rocky terrain like Ladakh.

Here the ensuing mudslides gobbled up everything in its path, buildings, tress, human beings and animals leaving a trail of destruction, death in a region ill-prepared for such a calamity, on a gentle, warm-hearted people who were looking forward to yet another tourist season which brings livelihoods and prosperity.

The priority, undoubtedly, is speedy and appropriate relief and rehabilitation before the onset of a long and bitter winter in this high altitude terrain. But it's a mammoth task. Equally pertinent, albeit in a reflective sense is the question of Ladakh's links within and with the outside world, not only in times of disaster but in normal times.

We need to ask ourselves, how much does the average reader or viewer of mass media really knows about this region besides the stereotypical images which have suddenly been demolished by the cloudburst in the wee hours of August 6?

Also how effective or widespread are media links within the region, knitting people together, sharing information, views and opinions about the region and the world beyond?

Ladakh's journey in this Information Age lies rooted in its history. Its distinct ethnicity and culture and perhaps the most defining aspect, its remoteness from the rest of the country, exacerbated during a time of crisis when the only two road links via Manali and Srinagar are disrupted. Since time immemorial, the people of this region of the country have remained secluded from the rest of the country. Most of the rural areas are inaccessible, mountainous, remote and isolated.

There are pockets within Leh district (Ladakh has two districts, Leh and Kargil), which remain cut off for six to seven months in a year during winter when the snow sets in.

This remained the situation till the 1970's when the region was opened to tourism which created new and lucrative sources of income for the local people. But that was not all. It brought in a plethora of information and new ideas linking this isolated mountainous region instantly to the fast-paced progress of the developed world.

Exposure to technology was one thing. Interaction with perhaps the best and brightest from across the globe was quite another! Academics, scientists, writers, artists came to Ladakh in a different capacity-as tourists and left their imprint on the region, on the minds and hearts of people. It was the first 'opening' of links ever since trade routes to Central Asia and Tibet were closed in early 1960s, following Chinese' Cultural Revolution.

Some of the visitors got involved with local issues of social and environmental concern, organized interest groups, even triggered the setting up of civil society organizations, local NGOs. Gradually the public domain in Ladakh grew making a quantum leap from a secluded, isolated community to one engaging more and more within itself and with the outside world. All this through communication which simply did not exist in this form.

The benefits have been tremendous.

Breaking the barriers of physical and situational differences and creating a forum for interaction and exchange of information has been the natural outcome. Today, around 50,000 tourists return with various different impressions to share with others through Internet, blogs multiplying manifold the horizon of the information on Ladakh. "Connectivity has brought Leh really into total churning of the world" says local educationist E S Gergan.

Yet we need to ask ourselves-is this enough? Which brings us to the home truth of a glaring absence of the print media in Ladakh. There are no newspapers or magazines published from this region. The only newspapers from outside, largely English are flown in every few days. All news thus turns stale before it reaches Ladakh.

"Over the years communication has developed rapidly in Ladakh in the form of Internet, radio, television and mobile technology but there is great risk of misusing these mediums that may cause harm to our religious and cultural views and practices. However, I feel that a newspaper or magazine published locally would result in a more transparent flow of communication", says Dr. Sonam Wangchok, a leading research scholar in Buddhist Studies.

At a time like this when Ladakh is in the throes of probably the worst natural calamity in decades, it may seem far-fetched to talk of the benefits of the print media.

Indeed mediums like the radio and television lend itself well to knit the people together, provide relevant even crucial information and updates on health facilities, road links, missing persons and relief measures.

It is an old adage that the media plays a critical role in the democratic process. It fosters an interchange of views, ideas and opinions on social, educational, cultural, economic issues which enhanced participation and awareness, the cornerstone of democracy. Yet all this is sorely missing in Ladakh.

According to Tsewang Rigzin, former Executive Councillor (Education) at the Ladakh Hill Council, presently Councillor Nubra constituency is in another capacity the "Ladakh is undergoing a period of transition and a powerful medium of communication like a local newspaper or magazine is the need of time." Rigzin is equally a journalist of repute and currently the Associate Editor of a monthly magazine 'Epilogue' published from Jammu.

According to Charkha Features, it is then time that Ladakh breaks out of its shell, both to integrate local communities within its natural boundaries and beyond to share current news and perspectives with the rest of the country.

Yes, the immediate need of the hour is to address the aftermath of the terrible natural calamity that has shaken this region from its serenity. But there is a larger message that should not be missed which is of creating in Ladakh, an informed and discerning public opinion that would be pro-active in sifting out its developmental priorities and taking collective action. By Rinchen Dolma(ANI)

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