The Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), the standard-bearer for the Ladakhi agitation since 1989, has been branching out into new activities, extending the scope of its fight against “social evils”.
On 2 January, the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG) called a meeting of representatives of the LBA, the local administration, village headmen, and the police and power departments. The topic of discussion was the problem of illegal consumption of electricity in the town. The diesel generator that supplies power to the valley has a very limited capacity. Its power supply is supposed to be supplemented by a line from the Stakna Hydel Project. However, in summer it silts up, and in winter it freezes. So, most of the time it falls on the diesel generator to fulfil Leh’s demand for electricity.
Leh winters are cold. Fuel for heating, be it wood, coal, or kerosene, is expensive. The low electricity rates make electric space heaters attractive, and their overuse by practically every household drains the power supply. Even though the rules ban use of electricity supply for more than a few lightbulbs and the odd TV or VCR, the lights in Leh were burning dim. And even this poor trickle was not always available due to the load-shedding which was rotated among the various localities.
LEDeG figured, correctly, that if there were no illegal heaters, everyone would have power every day, and at higher voltage. The lights would burn brighter. All present at the meeting agreed, and the LBA stepped forward and volunteered to go around ‘educating’ the populace.
The next day, eager volunteers of the LBA’s Youth Wing gathered at Gompa Soma. Unfortunately, the police and electricity departments, who were supposed to provide the necessary legal back-up, seemed to have developed cold feet and didn’t show up. But it was impossible to control the enthusiastic volunteers, according to LBA organiser Tsering Dorje, The job was thorough. The volunteers raided people’s houses, irrespective of class, caste, or community. They entered without asking and certainly without a search warrant, peering into rooms, under beds, in cupboards, and collecting whatever electrical equipment they could find. Operating in small groups, some members carrying sticks, the Youth Wing swept Leh clean of electrical appliances. One of them explained the purpose of the raid: “This is a new idea of Buddhism.” The young man asked one owner of a heater to sign a ‘receipt’, which he took with him…
The next day, dispossessed Ladakhis from all walks of life went to Gompa Soma to enquire about the fate of the seized goods. It was cheerfully explained that the 1400-odd heaters (averaging 1500-2000 watts) would be smashed on the main street, as soon as the little trouble with the police was straightened out. (It turned out that in their enthusiasm, some volunteers had beaten up a high-ranking police officer.) The District Commissioner had been threatened, even though he had parted with his heater without resistance.
In the afternoon, as promised, the offending objects were publicly smashed. Many onlookers wore a forlorn look, and more than a few expressed their disagreement with the procedures of the Youth Wing. In fact, the people from the telecommunications compound—most of whom were from the plains and having a hard time adjusting to Ladakh’s winter temperatures, which at the time hovered around -30C–went on strike for a day.
While the LBA seemed aware of the shaky legal basis for its campaign, the expected result was achieved: bright lights in every home, with no brownouts. Was this a harbinger of the procedures to be employed by the Hill Council that was to come? And did the Buddha ever say anything about space heaters…