At the Crossroads: Continuity and Change in the Traditional Irrigation Practices of Ladakh

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"With growing interdependence and interconnectedness in the modern world, globalization has increased the ease of movements of goods, services, capital, people and information across, as well as within national borders, drawing remote corners of the world into a larger global web. One such example is the region of Ladakh, situated in the northern part of India, forming the western extremity of the majestic Himalayas. A frontier between Central Asia and Tibet, Ladakh has been inhabited for centuries by people living in a state of self sufficiency based on a tenacious if only subsistent agrarian economy and the movement of goods via ancient trans-Himalayan trade routes. "Ladakh is an ideal example of an optimized human-nature relationship in terms of resource utilization. Resources being naturally scarce both temporally and spatially, the people of Ladakh have developed ways of life and social institutions that enable them to minimize conflicts and optimize their use. Socio-cultural practices of polyandry, inheritance through primogeniture and the offering of children to the monastic institution of Buddhism ensured that the population did not exceed the carrying capacity of the land and that land holdings remained intact as viable units of economic production. "A short cultivation period and scarce water resources constrain agriculture. These constraints are overcome by following age-old institutions and rules governing irrigation, codified as part of the land settlement records, reflecting the design principles for successful CPR management as laid out by Ostrom (1990). Underlying this entire system is a deeply entrenched ethic of mutual cooperation and reciprocity reinforcing social cohesion. Ladakh's isolation and self-sufficiency has been gradually eroding over the past few decades with improved infrastructure and greater exposure to other cultures. Increasing tourism and military presence in the area have contributed to these changes by providing a broad spectrum of livelihood options along with an influx of goods, services, capital and information. This in turn has facilitated the gradual breakdown of the systems of polyandry and inheritance by primogeniture causing increasing land fragmentation. "The paper will examine the impact of globalization-induced influences on traditional irrigation practices to reflect on the challenges that these could present to traditional common property regimes in Ladakh. External influences have changed agrarian practices in certain parts of the region. These seem to be directly proportional to the accessibility of a village to external resources and are subsumed by the fact that the traditional economy of the region as a whole is being rendered fragile as these inputs and opportunities are of a contingent nature. The essential problematic of the paper therefore lies in two seemingly antithetical findings. Despite socio-cultural changes, increasing population and the ensuing land fragmentation, that have been facilitated by these external impetuses, the traditional rules governing water distribution for irrigation have consciously remained resilient. At the same time, the institutions that ensure the effective functioning of these rules are gradually being eroded by these same impetuses threatening to undermine the entire management system. Ladakh today is delicately poised at the crossroads of continuity and change."



IASC, common pool resources, traditional resource management, irrigation, social change, customary law, Himalayas, globalization, design principles, mountain regions, institutional change