The Ladakhi people are working together, with assistance from many benefactors, to rebuild from the devastation caused by floods in early August that destroyed parts of Leh and surrounding villages. Several news stories from India last week focused on the continuing problems in Ladakh, and the progress that is being made as winter weather sets in.
The Times of India reported that at the Solar Camp, the largest temporary village set up for refugees whose homes were destroyed by the flooding and mud slides, people were finally able to move their few belongings into more permanent shelters for the winter. The conditions do not appear to be ideal in the newly constructed structures, but they are obviously better than they were in September, when many observers were pessimistic about the refugees getting into satisfactory living facilities before winter.
Thenles Chodol, a mother of three, pointed out to the reporter the rips in her tent, made by stray dogs tearing their way in at night. She had lost her home in the village of Byama, and had been forced to seek shelter in the Solar Camp.
The government was eager to show off the 170 more or less completed structures that the people were moving in to. The reporter noted that some of them did not appear to be completed, and that the large windows in the new structures, made of stone, cement, and pre-painted galvanized iron sheets, faced to the north, away from the warming rays of the winter sun, in a region where temperatures often go well below freezing. The new shelters also lack indoor toilets. Administrators had planned community facilities instead.
Tenzin Dolma, a 35 year old beautician who lost a daughter in the flood, has put her own money into improving the pre-fab room the government provided. She has added extra rooms and a bathroom to the structure. Inviting visitors into her home, she shows off the plastered and painted rooms and floor seating. She offers tea to her visitors and explains how difficult it would have been to make it through the winter with only an outdoor toilet.
Ms. Dolma’s sister and some friends have helped her by visiting and staying with her, so she won’t be alone. In addition to her daughter, she lost her mother, another sister, and a niece in the flood. “The close-knit community of Leh has come to the rescue,” the Times suggested, referring to the way the woman’s family and friends have responded.
T. Angchok, the Deputy Commissioner of Leh, added a similar thought about the way the Ladakhi people help one another. “The Ladakhi community is very supportive—the culture is such. They come together in difficult times,” he said.
The mudslides the evening of August 5th—6th destroyed many homes and buildings. In addition, they covered fields with thick mud, which has hardened like concrete. Planting new crops will be very difficult, if not impossible, in March, the beginning of the growing season. “Clearing [the mud] with bare hands is impossible, and nothing can be sown in it either,” said Mohd Azghar, a resident of the village of Phyang. He added that all of their food stores were washed away, and with their fields destroyed, he is pessimistic about surviving the winter.
Mr. Angchok, the Deputy Commissioner, admitted that work on clearing the fields with bulldozers has just begun. Some of the fields will be impossible to rehabilitate, he said, so residents will have to be compensated and induced to move to other locations. Agriculture is the foundation of the economy of Ladakh, and the loss of their fields is a serious blow to the affected farm families.
The flash floods and mudslides also disrupted most of the tourist business, the second most important sector of the region’s economy. Rigzin Spalbar, the elected Chief Executive Councilor of Leh-Ladakh, told one reporter that the flood of news reporting brought a lot of help to Leh and its surrounding villages, but it also scared away virtually all the tourists, on whom the economy of the small city has come to depend.
Stanzin Namdam, the owner of a hotel, explained how the tourist season, which used to last for only a couple months starting in July, had grown. In 2009 it had extended from May through October. In 2005 Leh received 40,000 visitors, a figure that had doubled by 2009. The number was expected to exceed 100,000 this year, before the flood hit. A large proportion of the visitors consisted of hiking and trekking foreigners, but in recent years, with occasional Bollywood films focusing on Ladakh, some Indians have begun visiting too.
Mr. Namdam indicated that Bollywood actor Rahul Bose had visited in September, but other than that, celebrities have been staying away. “Little else has come our way since,” he added.
Except for the Chief Minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, who visited Leh on Friday. Mr. Abdullah inspected the construction works at the Solar Colony, where families were moving into their new homes—two-room tenements, as one news report described them.
The Chief Minister inaugurated a new power station that will augment the electricity supply for the Solar Colony. He visited Phyang, where he announced that funds would be available for the reclamation of the devastated fields. He said that a comprehensive plan has been prepared that should help the work of cleaning up the fields. It has been submitted to higher levels of government for funding.