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    How Leh is besieged by pandemic, loss of tourism income and the shadow of war

    Synopsis

    A fresh spell of Covid-19 cases, consequent loss of tourism revenue and incursions by the People’s Liberation Army of China across the Line of Actual Control on its eastern border have dampened spirits. Fear and frustration is in the air as residents closely track the news coming in from the flashpoints of Pangong Tso and Galwan Valley, about 200 km from Leh.

    It should have been peak season. But Leh sports a desolate and weary air. Most people stay indoors. Shops open only on select days and vehicles ply according to odd-even scheme.
    At 11,500 feet above mean sea level, an altitude that warrants acclimatisation for visitors, the mountainous town of Leh, normally a hub of tourists at this time of the year, sports a desolate and weary air.

    A fresh spell of Covid-19 cases, consequent loss of tourism revenue and incursions by the People’s Liberation Army of China across the Line of Actual Control on its eastern border have dampened spirits. Fear and frustration is in the air as residents closely track the news coming in from the flashpoints of Pangong Tso and Galwan Valley, about 200 km from Leh. Pangong Lake is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area.

    While Leh has always been on the international tourism calendar, the 2009 Aamir Khan blockbuster 3 Idiots catapulted the town to the top echelons of the domestic tourism league table. Hospitality ventures have mushroomed in the past decade. Prosperity has surged.

    In a normal year, this would have been peak tourist season, with a jamboree of adventure treks and motorcycle rallies, and travellers descending to take in the stark, breathtaking beauty of Ladakh, a high-altitude cold desert. Everything is still now. Most people stay indoors. They emerge only as per government timetable issued to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. Shops open as per schedule on select days in a week and vehicles ply on alternate days according to an odd-even scheme.

    “Leh looks like a dark ghost town these days. For the first time in the past many decades, I am witnessing a fearful summer here,” says an 80-year-old shopkeeper in Leh’s main market. These days, mostly armed forces, on the way to the border, buy essentials from the market.
    How Leh is besieged by pandemic, loss of tourism income and the shadow of war


    On Sundays, stricter restrictions are imposed to scuttle social gatherings or picnics, pushing the whole town into slumber. Leh district has recorded 227 Covid-19 cases since the first week of March. Currently there are 93 active cases and one person has died.

    The stillness is punctured by the roar of fighter jet engines, chopper blades and military transporters, whose pilots are negotiating the oxygen-deficient Himalayan air.

    From a colourful Buddhist tourist town, Leh has transformed into a base camp of sorts for the fight against Chinese aggression as well as the coronavirus in Ladakh district. Labourers and military men are trooping into town — this is the transit point from where they embark on journeys to their final destinations on the international border.

    Bad Omen
    There is a pervasive sense among the people that Leh is in the grip of some kind of a bad spell since August 5, 2019, when the J&K Reorganisation Bill was passed and the erstwhile state was split into two Union territories of J&K and Ladakh.

    “It (August 5) seemed like a bad omen for the whole region. Peace has eluded us since,” says Tashi Wangchuk, a 40-yearold trader in Ladakh market. The residents have yet to discuss, deliberate and understand the consequences of Ladakh becoming a UT, even though Leh celebrated the decision as against Kargil, which protested against it.
    How Leh is besieged by pandemic, loss of tourism income and the shadow of war


    The financial insecurity due to the pandemic has increased manifold with the sword of war dangling over these treacherous heights. Its inhabitants, already fighting the bitter Himalayan cold, economic hardships and disease, can’t imagine the cost of a flare-up at the border.

    “Tourism is the backbone of the economy here and this year the season didn’t even start. Four months of business in the active season from March to October have already been wasted due to Covid and now border tensions may extend that,” says a senior government official in Leh, who asked not to be named.

    Even a distant possibility of war is dangerous and ruins prospects, says a resident of Choglamsar, who has migrated from the eastern border for better employment and earning opportunities.

    “We fled from the border for a better life, but things have worsened here as well. The pace of Chinese aggression is extreme and they might build a railway line till Leh if they aren’t stopped soon,” says N Angchuk, a resident of Changthang region.

    Some locals are hopeful that things will change for the better, soon.

    “This too shall pass. What has to be remembered is that hollow political slogans never came to the rescue of anybody,” says Dolma, a 25-year-old professional. She says Ladakh should be declared a tribal area under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. This, she believes, can compensate to an extent for the absence of a legislature in the newly formed UT.

    The uncertainty in Leh is already pushing a major section of the population against the ruling dispensation at the Centre, and local BJP leaders might have to contend with disaffection in the upcoming Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) elections, scheduled in September this year. The BJP won the last LAHDC elections.

    "Both Muslims and Buddhists are sceptical of the growing footprint of RSS in Ladakh. There will be repercussions on the ground soon," cautions a 75-year-old retired central government employee.

    A prominent hotelier in Leh says that tourism remains the mainstay of the economy and if it revives properly, every other issue will take a backseat.

    "I am already receiving enquiries from foreigners about Galwan Valley. I hope we get back our land there. We will be sending tourists there from next year," he says.
    (Catch all the Business News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on The Economic Times.)

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    11 Comments on this Story

    raaj till35 days ago
    Hand ove rthe development to Mukeshbhai he has good brain trust work on it .. Convert it in to temple city wher replica of all temples of India be built all Gods at one place
    Nirlab Bharat35 days ago
    "Storm before Calm"...Don't worry my frineds of Leh....Everything will be alright come Dec2020 ! By Chistmas holidays People will throng and enjoy the Winter and it will be the Switzerland of India for sure !!!
    Narasimhan Bangalore36 days ago
    It’s a situation of getting in between a tiger and a crocodile. Trust the climate will improve for the betterment as early as possible. Wishes to the Indian army’s success at all costs with a minimum damages to the environment.
    The Economic Times