For a man who’s just won the prestigious Rolex Award for Enterprise, Sonam Wangchuk comes across as very affable, humble even. His lithe frame betrays the years that he has put in engineering an educational and cultural movement in the remote ‘Land of high passes’ that is Ladakh. This movement has instigated an alternate, pragmatic approach towards education, leading to a massive drop in failure rates of school students. Concurrently, it has also led to the invention of Ice Stupas – “tall towers or little mountains” of ice, which can potentially help resolve the water scarcity problem in the cold desert region.
Wangchuk first came into the spotlight in 2009, when his story inspired Aamir Khan’s character of Phunsukh Wangdu in the film 3 Idiots. But there’s more to this engineer-turned-educationist than what celluloid could’ve done justice to. Born and brought up in a tiny village of five households about 70 kms from Leh, Wangchuk spent the first nine years of his life learning in what he calls “a holistic, harmonious way”. “There weren’t any schools in my village, so I learnt to read and write from my mother. I played in the fields, sowing seeds, working with animals, jumping in the river, climbing trees,” he says. “My early skills were so developed by these experiences that when I finally joined school at nine, I got promoted twice in a year!”
Afterwards, while pursuing his mechanical engineering, he began teaching children to earn an income. “That is when I realized how deplorable the state of education was in the region,” the 50-year-old says. According to statistics from the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives (HIAL), an alternative university for mountain development that Wangchuk is setting up, 95 per cent students failed their board exams in 1996. Over the next two decades, this number has steadily decreased to 25 per cent this year – courtesy the alternative learning practices and other innovative measures that Wangchuk helped develop.
“But then we wanted to take care of the ones who still failed, give them a new chance, re-launch them,” he says. Which is what the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) achieves through its school in Phey, around 12 kms from Leh. Home to 70-100 students, all of who failed their 10th boards, this school “has the distinction of taking failures from the system” and “making living there a learning experience in itself”. Wangchuk says that the students run the school themselves, “like a little country with its own elected government”. “They learn by doing – they farm, keep animals, make food products and engage in solving real life problems that they face in these harsh climatic conditions.”
It is while trying to solve one such real life problem, of acute water scarcity in the region, that Wangchuk came up with the idea of ‘Ice Stupas’. “There have been others before who’d worked in this field; a very senior engineer had come up with the idea of artificial horizontal ice fields. But it had problems, such as premature melting,” he says. To address these problems, Wangchuk built vertical ice towers instead, and all through a simple method.
“A pipe brings water from the upstream to the downstream. When you do that, the built-up of pressure in the pipe is used to run a fountain that sprays water in the air,” he explains. When the water is sprayed in the -20 degree temperatures of the Ladakhi winter, it cools and freezes as it falls. And slowly, naturally takes the shape of a giant conical structure. “The idea is to freeze the water in the winter and use it in late spring. The conical tower shape ensures that the surface exposed to the sun is minimal, so premature melting is avoided.”
It is for this simple yet genius invention that Wangchuk was bestowed with the Rolex Award for Enterprise last month. He now plans to use the Rs 1 crore prize money as seed fund for his dream project – the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives. The institute aims to “create a sustainable ecosystem of constant innovation”, wherein youth from different Himalayan countries will come together to research the issues faced by mountain people – in education, culture and environment. And formulate ways to solve those issues through out-of-the-box ideas and practical application of knowledge. “The world needs real-world universities, ‘doer’ universities. We’re going to set up one model of it in Ladakh. And if it is successful, we hope it’ll have a ripple effect from New Delhi to New York,” Wangchuk enthusiastically signs off.