Have You Heard of ‘Zanskar’? This is the Tale of a Forgotten Land

(Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them)

We, the people of Zanskar or Zangskar, a tehsil of the Kargil district, in the eastern half Jammu and Kashmir, have been shouting ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ for the last 70 years every Independence Day – never mind the fact that we haven’t really known ‘true independence’.

Each Independence Day, the people from Zanskar and various nearby villages make their way to Padum, which is the administrative headquarters of Zanskar, and celebrate India’s independence in a big way.

It may sound normal, and like no big deal to be celebrating 15 August, but let me tell you that it is a Herculean task for these people to reach Padum, in the absence of proper motorable roads and bridges.

No Real Freedom

I doubt whether 15 August carries any historically important significance in their lives but it does not matter as every Independence Day brings momentary joy and happiness. If we look at our history, on this day we got Independence from the British Raj and since then, India has been growing in leaps and bounds to become one of the fastest growing economies of the world. Though India has progressed in many areas, Zanskar has failed to achieve true freedom.

Even after 71 years of independence, it has hardly seen any development; if nothing, the situation has worsened.

It would have been much better if the Government of India had not disturbed Zanskar’s old setting, with its ill-conceived policies. Today, we have roads but I have seen locals and tourists sayings that a trail would have been a better option, where you can have a comfortable walk at least. The present road has made our life more problematic. Now, neither can we afford to walk or ride horses leisurely, nor can we have a comfortable ride without any damage to vehicle or uneasiness among people.

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Absence of Proper Motorable Roads

It was my grandfather’s dream to have roads; and it saddens me to recall that he could not see a ‘true road’ in his lifetime. All he saw were roads with potholes and mud, where the risk factor was always higher than the happiness of travelling.

The absence of roads is only the tip of the iceberg in the vortex of problems we have to live with. We technically have ‘everything’ – in official records – hospitals, proper roads, colleges, schools, electricity, communications network.

The mere existence of these systems being in place come handy for politicians and bureaucrats to flaunt their contribution to our society, but those who have visited Zanskar, know the naked truth.

Living under such circumstances makes me to think: are we really free in our free country?

Governments have changed but our life has not seen the change it ought to. We are still the underdeveloped, tribal people, but certainly not like our predecessors who had deep trust in the government and policies. Embroiled in this broth of injustice and inequality, I am often reminded of the lines of Ambedkar, who writes, “The question whether the Congress fought for freedom has very little importance as compared to the question for whose freedom Congress fought”.

In our case, we seem to be the people for whose freedom neither national parties, nor regional parties have done anything worth appreciating. Whatever development we have seen in Zanskar is in the form of small perks distributed during election season or a few big projects started for their own welfare.

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Severe Network Issues

We have only one mobile tower which caters to central Zanskar and its adjoining areas. It works only in limited areas where one has to travel solely to have network on one’s phone. I remember how my friend and I had to walk for half an hour just to pass on an important message to Jammu to his brother.

Life looks (tragically) funny, when you see someone moving around tracing network in the open air, just to send an important message.

But this is a common phenomenon in Zanskar, and I know of many who have lost their jobs and important opportunities primarily because of poor network. There are still many villages in Stodh, Sham and Lungna areas of Zanskar where the only source of communication is a DSPT (Digitial Statelite Phone Terminal). Whenever there is a problem in this phone, villagers have to take it Kargil or Leh for repair, and communication is lost for months.

Deplorable State of Education & Healthcare

There are around dozens of primary and middle schools, four high schools, one secondary school, and one college. In addition to these government schools, Zanskar has around four private schools up to middle and matriculation standards. Zanskar has the capacity to be a self-sufficient educational hub if the government takes the necessary steps in this direction, which it has not taken till date.

Outgoing students from these four government high schools and private schools have to travel outside Zanskar to places like Leh, Kargil, Himachal, Delhi, Chandigarh or Jammu for higher studies due to the unavailability of full-fledged courses and the unavailability of lecturers in the only Higher Secondary School of Zanskar. The same is the fate of graduating students of secondary schools who have to travel outside Zanskar due to the poor infrastructural and low educational standards in the only degree college in Zanskar.

But, why is the government not taking any steps to alleviate the poor educational standard of Zanskar? Perhaps, it is hampering their policies of development in other parts of Jammu and Kashmir.

The health sector too is in a state of hibernation like other infrastructure development in Zanskar. There is only one community health centre in Padum with only limited facilities for the whole of Zanskar. There are only five doctors, with the posts of various specializations like gynaecology, pediatrics and ENT being vacant for a long time. In their absence, local people have to go to Kargil ,Leh or to Himachal for treatment.

There are many instances of people dying, or women taking the Chadar Trek – the famous frozen river adventure to Leh, just to deliver a baby.

Zanskar – A Mere Election Ticket

Whenever, I am in Zanskar, I feel out of my element: where am I, and where do I belong? These questions crop up in my mind due to this step-motherly treatment from the Jammu and Kashmir government and central government. The biggest reason for this step-motherly treatment is the absence of our own people in the State Assembly. The Assembly constituency is named after Zanskar, but till date, no one from Zanskar has succeeded in holding this seat.

The background story of this misrepresentation is the merging of the heavily populated areas of Suru Valley of Kargil in Zanskar constituency.

From the very beginning, Zanskar has been an independent kingdom with very little or no political connection with Suru Valley which is located on the other side of Juldo.

Juldo marks the boundary between Zanskar and Suru Valley. People of Suru Valley never associate themselves with Zanskar except during the assembly elections and in this case, ‘Zanskar’, in the nomenclature of Zanskar Constituency, is their ticket to development. Such political misrepresentation has pushed Zanskar to the lowest level of the receiving end of this apathy, and Suru valley has been progressing at the cost of funds meant for Zanskar.

This is the ground reality of Zanskar that people hardly know about.

(Jamphel Sheyan is a resident of Zanskar sub-division in the Kargil District of Ladakh, and is a research scholar at the Central University of Jammu.)

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