Tuesday, 16 May, 12.23 pm

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A unique university in Ladakh that aims to empower locals

In 1988, the year Sonam Wangchuk set up the Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), 95 per cent of Ladakhi students failed the Class 10 exams. Wangchuk was convinced that the high failure rate signified the failure of the system, and not the students. Twenty two years later, thanks to SECMOL's efforts to retrain teachers, form village education committees and design new textbooks and learning systems to suit the needs of Ladakhis, the pass percentage had gone up to 75 per cent. No wonder Wangchuk is today regarded as one of India's foremost technological and educational innovators.

But now Wangchuk is on to his next project, a unique venture called the Ladakh Alternative University. Mountain development will be the primary focus area, Wangchuk envisages. Business management students would operate real businesses, agriculture and forestry students would nurture farms and afforestation projects, and hospitality and tourism management students would run on-campus hotels and develop innovative tourism projects.
An ambitious project that will cost an estimated Rs 150 crore, Wangchuk has already donated the Rs 70 lakh that he got as part of the Rolex Award as seed money for the project. Wangchuk received the prestigious award on November 15 for his "ice stupas", which collect glacial ice in winter and use it downstream as an irrigation system in summer when the ice melts.

Wangchuk has planned the Ladakh Alternative University as a self-sustaining township with round-the-year water supply through ice stupas, solar power, food production, and zero-waste generation. He was in Delhi last week to kick off the fund raising activities for the university. With the help of the Future Institute, Wangchuk has tied up with crowdfunding portal milaap.org, which has waived off its five per cent fee for platform charges as a special gesture.

While pursuing his engineering studies, Wangchuk realised his calling in life and Ladakh's educational challenges, almost simultaneously, when he had to tutor high school students to finance his college education. "In two months, I was able to raise enough money to support me through three years of college. But I also found that the school system was in bad shape. Perfectly bright students were failing. This was a turning point in my life. On one hand, I found that money could be made any time; you work two months and earn for three years. I lost my craze for careers and money. On the other hand, seeing so many young minds chained to this system where 95 per cent is failing, I decided to work to make changes in the system," said Wangchuk.

Wangchuk realised that the problem was that students in Ladakh could not relate culturally or geographically to any of the things that were being taught. "We are not just a linguistic and ethnic minority but we are also a climate and ethnological minority. We cannot expect solutions to our problems to come from New Delhi or New York. In our education system, we need to find real-life solutions to real-life problems rather than a ritual where students study for a certain number of years to get a certificate."

"We started a very special school - its sole admission criteria was that you should have failed! The school was built keeping in mind Ladakh's unique features," said Wangchuk and added "But we also have to plan for the future. The spectre of climate change threatens Ladakh more than any other place. Glaciers are receding and we are seeing heavier rainfall and cloudbursts. The university site was a cold desert. Now, 5000 trees are growing." Along with requesting funding, Wangchuk signed off with a simple message from Ladakh: "Please live simply in the cities, so that we in the mountains can simply live."