Ka Iqbal: My host of Ladakh

By Anshul OjhaonMay. 13, 2021inEnvironment and Ecology

Written specially for Vikalp Sangam

2013. We’d started from Poonch early morning and decided to take the Mughal Road which was still under construction ever since the work initiated in 1980s. We’re going to meet few friends at Srinagar and further drive down to Leh crossing Drass and Kargil. Throughout the drive, (Anshu Meshak, then leading Charkha and I)  were discussing partnerships and priorities for frontiers – Thar desert, North east and frontiers in higher Himalaya. I’d never met or had heard of Ka Iqbal till then. Anshu introduced me to his work – his passion – inclusion and rights.

Ka Iqbal at his home, 2015

We met Ka Iqbal in Leh at PAGIR’s old office. We’re listening to his ideas and his thoughts. We kept talking for almost 4 hours. He wanted to expand his paper bag making unit and set up a papier mache unit. Till then PAGIR used to source old newspaper from wherever possible. Amidst shortage of old newspaper in Ladakh, they even used to receive from as far as Delhi. Sh. Shankar Ghose would collect newspaper and send to PAGIR through air transport now and then. Ka Iqbal wanted to consolidate this, secure big supplies of old newspaper, have Pagir recycling team (most physically challenged individuals) convert them into useful bags and supply across Ladakh. He wanted Ladakh to be plastic free and all the stores using recyclable or compostable material. But this was just one of the many areas he wanted to expand his work in.

His concerns were wide. Education, health and rights of physically challenged. But most important – the inclusion of physically challenged in the mainstream. He wanted the same government school to educate a cognitively challenged child. He wanted the Council office and the hospitals to have ramps so people on wheels could access these important places. Towards second half the same day, we visited the recently allocated land to PAGIR in Saboo village. He had many ideas to develop the new campus. I too offered some ideas including setting up a rural tourism centre to host responsible visitors. I subsequently connected him to an architect friend and we were very excited to help design the PAGIR campus and also raise funds for the construction, amongst many other areas of collaborations. The Saboo campus design was going to be one of many unfulfilled promises I made to him. Not that I realized it then.

We’d also planned to undertake a comprehensive livelihood assessment and mapping study focusing on physically challenged people in Ladakh. In the next few months, we undertook a very comprehensive field data collection from remotest possible areas and came up with a very powerful document. It covered various themes and short to long term strategies for livelihoods in Ladakh. Ka Iqbal was a very active contributor in this. Despite his frail health and physical condition, he travelled to many remote areas in deep Ladakh, in his very old Maruti Omni.  In the subsequent trip, few months later, he requested if a vehicle could be arranged for him. We tried. We requested armed forces. Also some donors in other parts. But this was going to be my second unfulfilled promise.

In the subsequent trip the same winter, Ka Iqbal hosted me at his home over some days.  Every public accommodation was shut in Leh, streets were empty and I wanted to go to Haniskote to live the winters there. This is when I met his family. Everyone firmly supporting and believing in the work Ka Iqbal was anchoring in Ladakh. At his home, he had arranged for accommodation for several migrant labour from Nepal. They were all part of his extended family. During these days, we would talk at length, evening till midnights.

We invited him to New Delhi to participate in a national workshop to discuss partnerships and priorities for frontier India. Despite the many issues a severely physically challenged person deals with when travelling in India, he joined. We had participants from all the fronts. He was fiercely vocal and inspiring, as always.

Two years later, Kunzan Dolma of PAGIR called. She wanted their team and many others from Ladakh visit Urmul, specially the crafts vertical. She wanted it replicated at PAGIR. The trip was organized and still remains one of the most memorable delegations to Urmul. I know for Pagir team too, it was once in a lifetime opportunity. Ka Iqbal requested support in marketing products which his unit had just started. Arvind ji gladly extended support. Urmul bought all their products of the season to market further.

Such was Ka iqbal’s determination and commitment. He would never hesitate asking for community; and, he would never ask for himself.  Without fail or compromise, Ka Iqbal would continue his work and inspire his team every single day in this fashion. How beautifully he had shaped his purpose.

In the last four years, he called several times, asking to visit him. They had advanced their campus development besides many other ideas at PAGIR. Every time I promised to visit soon. Again, without realizing these too would add to the list of the unfulfilled promises.

I’ll remember Ka Iqbal for his zeal and vigour. He will keep inspiring me and many more. In these dreadful times of hopelessness, his determination will keep inspiring to keep believing in the potential and priorities at the frontiers; and keep celebrating changemakers at the frontiers. 

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