Sonam Wangchuk? ‘Wait, isn’t he the guy who inspired Rajkumar Hirani to create the character Phunsukh Wangdu in 3 Idiots?’ Plenty of people are struck by that thought when they hear about the reticent innovator, but that is what worries this education-reformer from Ladakh. Wangchuk did play a big role in changing the face of Ladakh, a cold desert otherwiseacknowledged only by adventure junkies. But everyone still asks about the movie first.
An engineering degree was not a ticket for Wangchuk to migrate to the West, but instead, he chose to stay back in his homeland and work for the people. He founded the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) in 1988. This is a place where students are taught to make use of the available technology for sustainability. Get ready for a surprise here. In a place like Ladakh, SECMOL runs completely on solar power and is built with mud! (Yes, it is much better than the school you saw in 3 Idiots).
Ladakh has its own set of problems, water shortage being one of them, especially during April and May. Blame it on global warming and the shrinking glaciers for making the problem worse. But Wangchuk had the ideal solution in the form of ice stupas. Along with his team, he managed to freeze glaciers as ice stupas, where meltwater solved the crisis for farmers. This invention is what won him the Rolex Award last year and much more.
But if you thought that this innovator would stop there, you’re wrong. He is currently campaigning for something that he’d call his ambitious project — an alternative university. Named the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL), he calls it the university of the future, which would help in solving the problems of the mountain people.
Curious to know about the university and more about his project, we caught up with this trailblazer on a busy evening.
You must be tired of being called the real life Phunsukh Wangdu.
More than tired, I’m worried. Indians are too obsessed with films. Unless somebody is somehow linked with a film, they aren’t given due importance. There are many innovators and talented young people who do not need a film to be recognised. I happened to meet Rajkumar Hirani and Aamir Khan at an award function and that is how they adopted my story as a part of the film.
What made you stay back in Ladakh and not migrate to a bigger city?
Well... I stay here because this is my home. It should not be unusual for a person to want to stay in his own place. I became involved in education reforms here as I saw young Ladakhis facing problems in education. I wanted to bring reform and hence I stayed.
What inspired you to become an education reformer?
I’d say that it was not the pull of any great person, but the push of a miserable system. Things weren’t working well and this made my people look like failures, when in reality they are not. When your house is on fire, you throw water. One wouldn’t ask what inspired you to throw water. That’s natural. Educationally speaking, my house was on fire. One shouldn’t need an inspiration to put it out. You need empathy.
I often say instead of asking people why they are doing something to solve a big problem, one should be asking the others why they don’t. How can they just ignore it and move to more comfortable places?
What was the first thing you did after you got your BTech degree?
Not after, but even before completing my course, I was helping students. I continued with that later on. I became interested in education while I was an engineering student. At that time, I was teaching a few students to earn for my expenses. It was more like continuing what I had started.
What do you think should be the primary step to change the education system?
Each place should have its own education system, instead of the country having a common one. Education is the solution. Solutions are specific to the problem and problems are never the same. Therefore, education cannot and should not be the same.
So are you saying that something like the CBSE syllabus doesn’t make sense?
No, it doesn’t make sense. Each state should have their own syllabus, according to their problems and conditions.
What could the solutions for this be?
You should be able to innovate with the resources around you. Why should you burn resources when you can very well use natural sources like the sun? Mountains receive ample sunlight. Also, traditional technology like building with mud can be improved on. In our campus, for the past 20 years, the sun has been our only source of heat and the buildings are built with mud. Our toilets and showers work throughout. Such things need to be studied and taught. But no one’s doing that. What they are learning is not even relevant to Delhi. When you say CBSE, which place are you concentrating on? Because Delhi and the mountains each have their own issues. We cannot expect solutions for climate change from New Delhi or New York.
Could you elucidate a few problems that the mountain people face?
No one knows how to carry tourism forward in this high altitude. Things are mismanaged and I’m surprised that tourists still come. One needs to study how tourism should be managed in a place that has extreme weather conditions and that is very sensitive, ecologically. Different mountain ranges will have different conditions and someone from Mumbai or Delhi will not be used to it.
Why is HIAL called ‘the university of the future’?
I hope that one day all the universities will be like this, where young people are engaged in real life things rather than mock things and case studies that aren’t real. There are enough problems in the real world. This university will be run by the students on self-generated funds rather than on the high fees that students generally pay. There will be hotels and tourism development projects that the university will be engaged in.
Your crowdfunding campaign for the university hasn’t earned much funds. Do you have a plan B?
The initial aim was to make it a people’s university by collecting funds from the people. Plan B was to approach the corporates. We’ll try to make it a people’s university and approach corporates too. Discussions are going on. Hopefully, some of them will cooperate. We have an investment that has returns. Part of it will be charitable and part of it will be enterprise.
Reach Out: secmol.org