The Ladakh drift

As China intrudes, India must pay urgent attention to the region

Since 1986, China has taken land in the Skakjung area in the Demchok-Kuyul sector in Eastern Ladakh. Now, it has moved to the Chip Chap area in Northeastern Ladakh. As in Kargil, India has been lax in patrolling. Unlike the lowlands in Eastern Ladakh, the Chip Chap valley is extremely cold and inhospitable. Until end-March, it remains inaccessible, and after mid-May, water streams impede vehicles moving across the Shyok River. This leaves only a month and a half for effective patrolling by the Indian side. For China, accessibility to Chip Chap is easier. No human beings inhabit the area. No agencies except the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the army have a presence there. And both are locked in inter-departmental disputes.

The Chinese intention is to enter from the south of the Karakoram and cross the Shyok from the east. That would be disastrous for Indian defence, leaving the strategic Nubra vulnerable, possibly impacting supply lines and even India's hold over Siachen. It is quite possible that China is eyeing the waters of the Shyok and Chang Chenmo rivers, to divert them to the arid Aksai Chin and its Ali region. The only provocation from the Indian side was the recent opening of airbases at Daulat Beg Oldi, Fukche and Nyoma.

In Eastern Ladakh, the 45-kilometre long Skakjung area is the only winter pasture land for the nomads of Chushul, Tsaga, Nidar, Nyoma, Mud, Dungti, Kuyul, Loma villages. The area sustains 80,000 sheep/goats and 4,000 yak/ ponies during winter. They consume over 75,000 quintals of tama or dry forage, worth Rs 10 crore annually. The Chinese advance here intensified after 1986, causing huge scarcity of surface grass, even starvation for Indian livestock. Since 1993, the modus operandi of Chinese incursions has been to scare Indian herdsmen into abandoning grazing land and then to construct permanent structures.

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