For generations, Gyalson and his family have lived in Chushul in India’s Ladakh region, near the disputed border with China. But the 50-year-old herder, from the Changpa nomadic community, is now considering leaving his home and settling somewhere else as a face-off between troops from both sides continue.
The situation has raised fears among villagers of a full-blown conflict. Both sides went to war in 1962 over their border.
“We don’t have access to our grazing lands and it is becoming difficult for us to feed our cattle,” said
Gyalson, who only uses one name. “Our cattle are our livelihood.” Tensions between India and China have intensified since June 2020 after their troops clashed in the uninhabited Galwan Valley, killing 20 Indian and at least four Chinese soldiers. This was the deadliest face-off between the two neighbours in the last five decades.
Since then, tens of thousands of additional troops and huge weaponry have been rushed to the border by both sides, leading to a massive military build-up. The Indian government is also making an infrastructure push in the region – building roads, helipads and landing strips.
Last month India’s Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari visited the site of the Zojila tunnel, which will connect Ladakh and Kashmir, reduce travelling time drastically and allow for travel even during the winter months when there is snowfall.
India and China held their latest round of border talks on Sunday with both sides blaming each other for a lack of progress. China accused India of making unreasonable demands, while India blamed China for not being open to its constructive suggestions to improve the situation.
The Indian military presence has grown in Gyalson’s village, which is around 200km southeast of Leh, the main city in the rugged Himalayan region. Worried residents are now asking the government in New Delhi for help, saying they do not have the resources to leave and resettle elsewhere.
Last month, Konchok Stanzin, an elected councillor from the region, wrote to Om Birla, the speaker of Indian parliament’s Lower House, demanding that people living in the border areas should be given land and shelter somewhere else. “I am also putting up this issue with different other officials and ministers,” said Stanzin. “People are living in fear and the government will have to do something for us.”
Stanzin said those fears intensified after the government unveiled plans for underground shelter homes, called bunkers, in the villages near the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Stanzin said the community bunkers were being built at a the cost of 500 million rupees (US$6.6 million), “the first time such a step is being taken”.
Indian government officials said these bunkers would be similar to those built in the border villages of Kashmir where skirmishes between Indian and Pakistani troops are a regular occurrence. There are 18,000 such underground concrete structures, which shield occupants from mortar shelling and gunfire.
Since the Galwan clash, elected representatives in Ladakh have been demanding the government build these types of bunkers for the safety of those living near the border.The army has also reportedly built more bunkers in the region to meet the needs of additional troops. Army officials said that since the Galwan clash, they have been focusing on weaponry, general army stock, and constructing insulated bunkers, as temperatures in the region can dip to as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius.
The villagers in the region, however, say they do not want the bunkers to be built for them.
“Instead of building these shelters, people should be given alternate places to live,” said councillor Stanzin. “There is fear among the people because of the tensions.”
The villagers say they are already facing hardships and if things escalate “they will have no option left but to fend for their lives”, he said.
Nobru, another local from eastern Ladakh, said the tensions have meant they have less land available to them.
“We have lost grazing lands to the Chinese incursions and those areas still under Indian control are not accessible to us as the army is now not allowing us to go near the border,” he said.
“We cannot live in a place where two militaries are locked in brewing conflict.”