'Ladakhis still want UT status'
5 June 2003
LEH (J&K): Despite being part of the coalition Government in Jammu & Kashmir and securing more powers under the new regime, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council is persisting with its demand for Union Territory status for the region. Talking to reporters here, the Chairman and Chief Executive Councillor of the Council, Thupstan Chhewang, argued that nothing in Article 370 prevented reorganisation of the State to make Ladakh a Union Territory. Arguing that this was a legitimate demand of the people of the region, he also made out a case for stopping people from other parts of the State from buying land in Ladakh to protect the ethnicity of the locals. With the Ladakh UT Front - the banner under which the two MLAs from the region were sent unopposed to the Assembly in the October 2002 elections - being part of the PDP-Congress coalition Government, Mr. Chhewang was diplomatic in his response to questions on whether he was satisfied with the Mufti regime's attitude towards Ladakh. Stating that the situation was being monitored, the Chairman said the J&K Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, had kept his word vis-a-vis elevating the status of the Council and enhancing its powers. 'This was done as a matter of right, and not given to us as a dole.' After the PDP- Congress Government took over, the Chairman of the Council was given the status of a Cabinet Minister and the Executive Councillor put at par with Deputy Minister. Also, the Council has been given greater financial powers and is today able to sanction projects up to Rs. 5 crore. Earlier, the Council could only sanction projects up to Rs. 50 lakhs. While the Centre's attitude towards the demand for greater autonomy remains an irritant, the Council was particularly pleased with Sindhu Darshan as it has had a spillover effect on domestic tourism. Though foreign tourists still outnumber domestic tourists, the seven-year-old annual festival has helped turn Ladakh into a tourist destination for Indians. And, with the Deputy Prime Minister, L. K. Advani, assuring the Ladakhis at this year's Sindhu Darshan festival that efforts would be made during the forthcoming China visit of the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, to open the Ladakh route to Kailash Mansarovar, the Council is pinning its hopes on such a development as it could do wonders to the region's economy.