Holding out against change in the Land of the High Passes
Anzara Anjum Khan, Leh, Ladakh
July 10, 2017

The bond between farming communities and their land is unmistakable. So is the bond between them and their animals. The dzo is foremost amongst the farm animals that Ladakhis have used over generations. Gradually, modernisation and mechanisation has been eroding the bond. Practices that have sustained cultivation and communities in the harsh terrain are also disappearing. Still there are pockets holding out, retaining old farming practices, which spells hope

The breathtaking mountainous terrain of Ladakh is a magnet for travellers, nature lovers and many different kinds of seekers. Not many though know of the hard life of the farmers there. Cultivation of crops is as much about conserving scare natural resources in the icy desert.

A male hybrid of the yak and domestic cattle, the dzo (female is known as dzomo or zhom) has always been crucial for agriculture in Ladakh, which at 15000 feet and more, is easily one of the coldest and most daunting regions for farming. Although the yak is a bigger, studier animal, locals prefer the dzo. It is more nimble and suited to plough the fields.

Pix 1- Dzo in Action on the field
A male hybrid of the yak and domestic cattle, the dzo plays an important role in Ladakh’s agriculture.

The vast ice desert lying in the lap of the Himalayas is an ecologically sensitive zone. For centuries, communities here have stuck to traditional agricultural practices that conserve and replenish scarce natural resources to maintain the delicate balance. With mechanisation creeping in, more and more families have been replacing their trusted dzo with the mechanised version –the tractor. True, it is faster but it also allows rampa (weed in Ladakhi) to grow unchecked, eating into the space of the cultivated crop.

Ploughing with the dzo on the other hand allows ample time for uprooting the weeds. There are other glaring disadvantages. Wangail in his mid-80s, a farmer in Ullay Village says, “The condition of roads leading to our village at a height of 15700 feet, is poor. Why would I rent a tractor and bring it up? It produces noise and fumes – bad for our environment. Much better to use a dzo.”

Wangail’s logic eludes many others but he is quick to dismiss it as herd mentality. “People just imitate other people. If villagers of Hemis Shukpachan see their neighbouring village using tractors, they will simply follow without questioning why,” he remarks, clearly exasperated.

Wangail is pragmatic, be-longing to a generation that has faced the elements, toiling on the fields with their hands, their animals and some tools. But for Ishay Dorjay, 70, also a farmer living in Phyang Village, the concerns go beyond the pragmatic. People are losing their social and cultural traditions, their connect with the land, he believes. “Earlier tilling the land was a way of life for people; it sustained them. But now they don’t till at all and this is sad.”

Pix 3- Two families and thier Dzos ( the writer is 3rd from left)
Two families with their prized possession – the dzo. The writer is third from left.

Interestingly, Dorjay’s farm lies adjacent to Sonam Rigzin’s, another old farmer. The neighbours have come to an understanding, a unique partnership. They share all the tasks on both farms, sticking to traditional farming ways. The dzo is central to this. The animal strikes a lonely but imposing figure in a village where mechanisation has been edging it out. “Its very difficult for us; struggling to keep a dying tradition alive. It’s like going against the tide,” says Dorjay. He quickly adds, “But this is what makes us different.”

The families of Rigzin and Dorjay fully support the partnership and participate vigorously in the common tasks. Says Dolkar, 50, “The most important thing is that our bonds have become stronger.” Dressed in loose woollen garments, she moves about with a spring in her step “We are happy being together, doing this together.”
Being closely bonded constitutes the core of Ladakhi society. There is a sharing of labour, tools and animals to a remarkable degree. This defines the age-old Bes System where community members harvest the crop on each one’s field in turn. Collectivisation not only makes work easier; it makes for cohesion within society.

Slowly, the old culture has been fading out, replaced by a mechanised, individualised approach to work and social relations. Dolker has been witness to this, “It became each one for themselves. Farmers began to hire Nepali and Bihari labourers from Leh to work on their fields. After paying them they’d hardly save anything and began losing interest in the land,” she says. “Earlier we used to be all together. Now see what modern agriculture has done to our social bonding,” she sighs.

Dolker’s lament is reflective of something larger playing itself out in the region. Communities living in the highland plateau have combated the elements by evolving a unique way of life based on mutuality. Coming under fire today, this is also leading to traditional agricultural practices being abandoned. The earlier system of grinding grains preserved nutrients. With mechanised grinding at high temperatures, this is being destroyed. Organic farming that was the norm is giving way to increased use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

The combined fall-out of the changes is now visible. In Phyang, field after field is emptying out with farmers increasingly migrating to Leh for work. Sonam Rigzin is worried. “Now with fields lying fallow, what are people going to eat after some years? When will they realise how important it is to till the land, grow food and rear livestock.”

In the churning that is taking place in Ladakh, Sonam Rigzin and Ishay Dorjay signify a drop in the ocean. They are holding out in the face of relentless change; upholding a throw-back to the simpler and sustainable way of life of yore. There are some who taking their cue, those who are rethinking, others who have taken a step further to revert to traditional practices. “This is the second year in a row when we are using the dzo for ploughing. Nor are we using chemical fertilisers,” says a beaming Phungchok Dolma from Gangles Village.

The two families and their dzo in Phyang Village stand out in contrast to the emerging trends in the region. They strike a powerful image. The lives they have chosen are a compelling narrative of contemporary Ladakh – the change sweeping over the Land of the High Passes and the small voice resisting such a change.

(Courtesy: Charkha Features. The writer had received the Sanjoy Ghose Rural Reporting Award for 2016-17.)

June 2017