Pandemic Woes at 13,000 Feet in Villages on Conflicted India-China Border in Eastern Ladakh

May 30, 2021 Updated: May 31, 2021

NEW DELHI—The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the persisting problems faced by people living in high-altitude, trans-Himalayan villages on the India-China border in eastern Ladakh, which have witnessed intense conflicts over the past year.

The Epoch Times spoke with Konchok Stanzin, the councilor of the Chushul constituency, which consists of 12 villages on the de facto border and includes the area near the Pangong Tso lake—one of the main epicenters of the past year’s tensions.

Eight villages in Stanzin’s constituency are on “zero-border,” which means Chinese villages are visible from these locations, with four villages sitting adjacent to the Indian border villages.

The pandemic and resultant lockdown have added to the difficulties faced by the people residing in this inhospitable terrain, just as they’re emerging from extreme, isolating winter conditions and the tensions of the past year’s standoff with China, which eased in February following high-level talks ensured military disengagement.

Fear of renewed conflict remains high as snow melts and summer sees the Chinese maintaining some of their newly gained positions in the region.

“Health and education” remain the two areas of concern for citizens in the region, Stanzin said. Prior to Ladakh becoming a federally governed territory in 2019, a job assignment there was considered a punishment, because of the harsh conditions.

A special constitutional measure in 2019 created two federally governed territories, referred to as Union Territories—Jammu and Kashmir, which shares a disputed border with Pakistan, and Ladakh, which rests on a conflicted border with China.

The 13,000-foot altitude region of Chushul is of extreme strategic value for India, as it includes an important airstrip. The Chinese tried to capture the region during the 1962 war between the two countries.

Sparse Internet

The lockdown has exposed the inadequacies of the internet in the area, which came to the region only this year and is still only sparsely available.

“[It was possible in] Chushul only this year because the foundation work of Jio [Indian telecommunication company] was done last year.  But the rest of the villages are equally important because these are also zero-border villages,” said Stanzin, adding that 4G connectivity covers only 20 to 30 percent of the entire Ladakh region at present, whereas the Chinese villages visibly have two internet towers.

The lockdown made things particularly tough for young children because of the need for online schooling. Many villages in the region either don’t have internet or have only 2G connectivity, according to Stanzin.

As a result, children are required to travel three to nine miles one way to reach local government offices, called Panchayat ghars, to download their coursework.

Epoch Times Photo
Children study at Mann Panchayat Ghar (local council office) in the Chushul sector on the India-China disputed border in Ladakh on May 25, 2021.  Under lockdown, schools are closed and there’s no internet in the village, so children have to travel miles to the council office to download their lessons. (Picture courtesy Kunchok Stanzin)

“Because of COVID-19, we have online classes. All schools are closed. Because we don’t have internet in Chibra, we aren’t able to attend online classes. We request the government to get us internet so that we can study like all other children,” said Kunsal Zangmo, a 4th-grader from a village called Chibra in a video shared by Stanzin with The Epoch Times.

Another child, 7th-grader Jigmat Stobdan, said since everyone comes to the Panchayat ghar for the internet, there is an overload on the services offered there, and he hasn’t been able to get connected to his classroom.

“I have been marked absent and the teachers scold me. I request that our villages be provided 4G towers,” said Stobdan in the video.

Stanzin said there are Panchayat ghars or village council offices at Yourgo, Maan, Satoo, and Chushul villages in his constituency, where children from other villages come to download their lessons.

“Children are the most disadvantaged in this situation, because in normal times they study in Leh City. But during lockdown, they had to return to their villages in these remote border regions [where there is no internet],” said Stanzin. “If 4G connectivity happens in every village, all children will be able to attend to their lessons.”

Epoch Times Photo
A wide view of the Panchayat ghar or the village council office and the trans-Himalayan terrain in Mann village in Chushul sector in eastern Ladakh. (Picture courtesy Kunchok Stanzin)

Health and Infrastructure

The population density in Chushul is very low, and there are only 2,959 people in 12 villages. Fourteen people in the area are currently COVID positive and in quarantine, according to Stanzin. Stanzin himself is currently under quarantine after testing positive in Leh, the capital city of Ladakh. He said there’s a primary health center in his constituency, and each village has a health sub-center which are staffed and working.

“Health workers are trying their level best. They are trying to give all health facilities in border areas, the way people get in other towns,” said Stanzin, noting that they have oxygen concentrators and there are local doctors as well as outsourced doctors.

“Every village has four to five asymptomatic people,” he said. “Contact tracing is being done and testing is happening. Asymptomatic people are being shifted to the COVID care center.”

The region was facing problems in vaccinating its people early in the country’s vaccination effort, but now vaccines have arrived even for those in the 18-plus age group, said Stanzin. However, transporting critical cases for intensive care in Leh hospitals continues to remain a challenge, as transportation by road at such high altitudes in emergency situations is very difficult.

“Because just one week ago, we shifted a COVID patient from Chamtang to Leh in a helicopter of the Indian Airforce,” said Stanzin, noting that it’s not simple to place such requests, and there should be “single-window mechanisms” in such situations.

Epoch Times Photo
Villagers in the 60-plus age group show their vaccination certificates at the Medical sub-center in Spangmik village in the Chushul sector in eastern Ladakh, on April 22, 2021. (Picture courtesy Kunchok Stanzin)

He demanded that the Indian government build a helipad in every border village, keeping in mind the situation, the high altitude, and the strategic importance of the region.

Stanzin said the villages in this region are extremely significant because, while the Chinese can infiltrate the rest of the empty regions of the area, they can’t do so in the villages on the border.

The pandemic has delayed the construction of buildings and roads in the region, because the labor can’t move to the region from Leh and local laborers can’t move to the construction sites because of the lockdown, according to Stanzin.

Stanzin expects the situation to be better after June 6 if the “administration gives some relaxation for this.”

Follow Venus on Twitter: @venusupadhayaya