Educational reformist Sonam Wangchuk believes in decolonising the mind and working for a more contextual and experiential education in the mountains. By Angela Paljor

Ladakh is the go-to destination for the tourists, and to accommodate the huge influx, hotels are popping up in every nook and corner and agricultural lands are being converted into camping areas. However, the place still lacks functional universities resulting in a mass exodus of youth to cities like Dehradun, Jammu, Chandigarh and Delhi, where they live as educational refugees learning little of relevance to their lives in mountains and return as misfits.

Sonam Wangchuk, who has been actively engaged in the educational reforms in the Ladakh region for the past 25 years, launched a campaign last year to support an alternative university for the mountain context, Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL). His intention is to address the growing need to reconnect with one’s roots. “How do we gear the instruments such as education system for our own benefit rather than aping the more advanced societies of the West. This is something that’s not only relevant to Ladakh, but the same can be applied to other cities as well. When India got independence from the British Raj 70 years ago, it was just a physical independence and not an ideological one — we are still unable to become self-reliant through rational judgement and self-belief,” says Wangchuk.

All of 51 years, the crusader believes that there should have been a Ministry of Decolonisation which would work towards cleansing the colonial hangover, making us believe in ourselves. One should think independently rather than relying on outsourcing of ideas. While there are initiatives like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, what we need is Swabhiman Abhiyan (Self-respect) or Swavlamban Abhiyan (Self-reliance) and learn from our traditional knowledge. The need for abhiyan or campaign is because of the malady of losing the self so that we can overcome the sense of being approved by someone based in New York or London.

The harsh reality of Ladakh’s winter is not unknown but the scientific technology has not been practically applied. Thus, a huge number of families migrate to warmer regions of India during the peak winter season. Wangchuk quips: “Science and technology should, in reality, help this city become more interesting and livable, but the education system has become dysfunctional, we tend to escape it and find comfort in the outside world. For now, it’s only during winters that people migrate to other regions. Luckily the outflow is not that high compared to other mountain areas, but it won’t remain the same if we don’t get our act together.” Thus, a need to imbibe and apply what we learn from books, making the cold bearable. This very aspect of practical application of knowledge is the backbone of Wangchuk’s initiative.

He won the Rolex Award Enterprise in November 2016 for supporting farmers in the arid Himalayan highlands of Ladakh and overcoming water shortages by tapping water to build artificial glaciers. He contributed the money (Rs 1 crore) that came from the award to the university project and also started a campaign on a crowdfunding platform, Milaap. He appealed to the nation to help raise half of the Rs 14 crore that will be needed to start HIAL. The other half is expected to be raised from CSR initiatives. Of the Rs 7 crore target on Milaap over Rs 4.6 crores have already been raised with contributions from over 1000 individuals.

For the first phase of the university, Wangchuk hopes to raise Rs 150 crore by 2020 out of which 70 per cent has already been achieved. A total of Rs 14 crore is required to set up the first school — School of Integrated Mountain Development — under the university. The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council supporting the HIAL initiative has provided roughly 200 acres of land.

Wangchuk came to the limelight for inspiring the movie character Phunsukh Wangdu in 3 Idiots, essayed by Aamir Khan. Just like Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) also founded by Wangchuk, “HIAL is about practical application of knowledge. I stay much warmer in Ladakh than in Delhi. Also, with ice hockey and other ice sports, Ladakh can become the adventure capital in winters. Rather than holding the fort and leaving with a defeatist mentality, one should not only try to bring change but also provide the tools required. Making tourism lucrative not just for Leh but also for the far-off villages so that they can earn good revenue from their respective places and have quality company coming to them. If there are buyers, then the village dairy will prosper and so will the local handicrafts. We have everything required for the sustainable growth but there is a need to manage it well before we lose everything,” says Wangchuk who has developed farm stays in his village, where farming is celebrated and earns revenue compelling the youth to shift back seeing monetary gains. He is also working towards making ice stupas a tourism phenomena to gain attention on the adverse effects of climate change. The day isn’t far when ice hotels and restaurants will become the USP.

In terms of academics, the university will have two wings — a skill development section along with classes having the provision of degrees. “While we don’t care about degrees, there is still a need to have one as the Government dictates it — it’s important to have rational people in the Government to take such initiatives forward. They will be recognised by the State government through an act of the State Assembly. The other will be the radical front but without degrees. There is a possibility that for degree classes, one will have to pay but since the students are already generating income through their work in the skill development sector, they don’t see the need to pay. But there will be a platform to integrate both.”

At this initial stage Wangchuck doesn’t expect much help from the State or the Central government as it is a radical approach and a critic to the existing education system. However, he is optimistic that in the years to come, the Government will not only help but also looks take over the university. Thus, he chose the crowdfunding way — setting up something that we as people need. “Give medicines where it hurts. At HIAL, students will spend more than two-thirds of the time in real life applications outdoors. The School of Sustainable Tourism will run actual hotels and homestays and ice parks, whereas School of Sustainable Architecture will build the university itself and the School of Applied Ecology will look at the restoration of the valley affected by climate change and the issue of water scarcity.” Once they have learnt the art of trade, they will work in different villages and practically put it to use, helping the society on the whole.

The initiative is aimed at empowering the mountain people but the university is not a closed one. “Roughly speaking, half of the total strength will be from Ladakh, another half from other mountain areas and a quarter for the ones who are really interested but don’t belong to mountainous regions.”

Talking about the mass dropout of students after their graduation and moving back home to take care of the family business, he said, “Apart from one’s own lethargy, our society and the educational system should give them the confidence of not being a part of the rat race and believe in themselves instead. More than just curriculum, this is something else that’s missing throughout their childhood and youth. I don’t know how but HAIL is a step towards making the youth realise their capability by giving them the opportunity.”

On a parting note, while Wangchuk appreciated the initiatives of NGOs talking about culture and engaging youth in it, he feels that there is a need for more such collaborations among agencies to avoid duplication in order to get better results.



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