India - On the roof of the world,a lesson in democracy
Spirited show: A remote polling station in Thugsey Gompa, perched above the Tso Kar lake in the Leh constituency. Thugsey Gompa’s six registered voters braved -20 degree Celsius to vote in Monday’s elections
Six voters and six poll staff at Ladakh’s smallest poll booth brave brutal weather
THUGSEY GOMPA (LADAKH): From his perch on the stairs of the Thugsey Gompa monastery, at a majestic 5,500 metres above sea level, Tsonam Motup surveyed the frozen expanses of the Tso Kar lake.
“In another few weeks,” 77-year-old Mr. Motup said calmly, “it’s going to get really cold.”
Mr. Motup and the five other women and men registered to vote at Thugsey Gompaall, but one of them above 70 years old braved minus-20 degree weather and a brutal climb up the mountainside to the monastery to exercise their franchise in Monday’s elections to the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly.
All six are residents of the tiny hamlet of Samad, who have been assigned the task of caring for the homes of the 400-odd Chang-Pa yak and goat herders who will weather out the worst of the winter there.
Most of Samad’s residents will, until the pastures are snowed under in December or January, wander the great Chang Thang plains of eastern Ladakh with their herds and are registered to vote near their pastures.
Democracy and development
In the grand scheme of State politics, Thugsey Gompa and its six voters are an irrelevance.
But the political system Indian elites never appear to tire of reviling has brought real gains to this remote community.
Over the past five years, the Samad has acquired a health centre, a veterinary facility, a cold-weather food-stock, public toilets and hand-pumps.
While the blessings have been mixed — the health centre, for example, at most times has neither drugs nor a doctor — local residents hope their voting decisions will lead to better things.
Leh assembly constituency has witnessed unusually intense political contestation over the past five years. Less than two years ago, most people believed that Thupstan Chhewang, an independent representing the right-wing Ladakh Union Territory Front, would have an easy ride to power. Mr. Chhewang’s LUTF, which is seeking union territory status, has long controlled the cash-rich local government body, the Leh Autonomous Hill Development Council.
But Congress heavyweight Nawang Rigzin has surprised observers by running a stiff campaign against the LUTF. Backed by Jammu and Kashmir’s Congress-led coalition government, Mr. Rigzin succeeded in breaking the LUTF’s monopoly on patronage.
Across Ladakh, communities benefited from the race for influence.
“For most of my life, I had to walk hours to fetch water,” says 70-year-old Tsering Dolma. “I cannot describe to you my happiness that I can use the hand-pump next to my home in my last years.”
For the first time, both major regional parties succeeded in securing the support of a polling agent from among Samad’s six voters — a sign of just how intense expectations are. Samad residents have a well defined wish-list for whoever wins the elections. A school is high on their list of priorities. The nearest boarding school, catering to nomadic herders’ children, is at Puga, 30 kilometres away — a fact local residents hold responsible for the high dropout rate. Senior citizens in Samad also want implementation of a long-promised pension scheme.
All of this reflects a sophisticated understanding of the kind of intervention needed to address the wider crisis of change that is confronting the Chang Pa nomads.
Ladakh has seen massive growth in recent decades, driven by contracts handed out by India’s military forces in the region, State-initiated development programmes and growing influx of tourists.
But communities like the Chang-Pa have neither the cash assets nor education to capitalise on the new opportunities. Samad residents hope the new Jammu and Kashmir government will improve the marketing infrastructure for Yak hair and Pashmina wool and focus on improving educational access for nomads.
“Our children cannot compete with those in Leh or Srinagar,” says Samad resident Rigzin Tsewang.
“The future is passing us by. We hope our votes will help us change things,” he adds.