An old story revisited; new chapters unfold:
The pile of twigs spoke little of the story. As did a couple of long pipes, collapsed over the heap. Prayer flags, still fluttering, indicated hope; a hope that had lived through the winter. Now it was summer. Whatever was in that pile, had gone, escaped. A few tiers below on the hillside, rows of saplings planted months ago provided a touch of green to bare earth. I was near the pile of twigs, on a piece of flat land between the lower reaches of Phyang village and its monastery further up. Behind me were brown hills and somewhere behind them, snowcapped mountains. Before me, Ladakh seemed a vast expanse, all the way to the Leh-Srinagar highway in the distance. Connecting Phyang to the highway was a straight road, so impressive for its straightness that it resembled an airstrip. To one side of the road lay vast tracts of unused land.
An hour or so before, we were on an unpaved road between the SECMOL Alternative Institute in Phey and the Leh-Srinagar highway, a little less than 20km from Leh. We were cycling to Phyang from Phey. It was past noon; hot. The bike below my writer self held up well. That morning in Leh, I had hired the best bicycle I could find within my budget. The bike had 24 gears, front suspension, water bottle carriers and 26 inch-wheels. My sea level lungs were not born for exertion at altitude. Multiple gears helped. The front suspension soaked up the bumpy passage to an extent and the 26 inch-wheels devoured a fine length of terrain for each rotation of the crank. I looked at the gentleman cycling alongside. He was perched peacefully on a small folding bicycle. The wheels may be small but the size of crank and apt gear ratios made the small bike adequate for commutes in Ladakh, he explained. I can cite the excuse that he was Ladakhi; born and brought up at altitude with lungs to match. That would be childish. Not to mention, it missed the point. I had impulsively chosen the sturdy looking-mountain bike, the SUV of the bicycle family. He used his head to imagine, analyze, attempt; match me on bigger set of wheels with his small ones. Very Sonam Wangchuk I thought.
The first time I met Wangchuk was in 2010. At that time, many people in Ladakh believed that the character of Ranchoddas Shamaldas Chanchad aka Phunsukh Wangdu, in the film 3 Idiots was loosely based on Wangchuk, a founding member of the Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL). That may or may not be true. Ahead of making the movie, the producers are said to have met him. But there has been no confirmation on whether the film’s main protagonist was modeled on anyone. After 3 Idiots was released to box office success, tourists however, went seeking Wangdu in Ladakh’s cold desert. A few discovered SECMOL; most followed the tourist trail to The Druk White Lotus School where portions of the film were shot. Others washed up on the shores of Pangong Lake. When I met him in 2010, Wangchuk was in Ladakh after a series of events that could hardly have been pleasant for the mechanical engineer and the then 22-year-old SECMOL.
SECMOL’s genesis can be traced to coaching high school students in a region notorious for its abysmally low pass percentage in the matriculation exams. The system was flawed. Textbooks lacked local themes. The medium of instruction till Class IX for Ladakh was Urdu, switching suddenly to English. In 1991, SECMOL’s pilot project on educational reform with village and government support, in Saspol, clicked. It saw other villages seeking the same. With Operation New Hope of 1994, planning better education for Leh district in league with local government and village communities, SECMOL graduated to a popular movement. Its work spanned redesigning textbooks and training teachers to monitoring schools through village councils. Later the newly set up Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) accepted Operation New Hope as its educational policy. From 5 per cent pass at matriculation exams in 1996, Ladakh’s pass percentage increased to 55 per cent by 2004.
Then a rash of problems surfaced. Some disgruntled schoolteachers protested. When the executive councilor in charge of education at LAHDC — he was formerly associated with SECMOL — was shifted, Wangchuk’s observation on the matter was seen as interference. SECMOL’s media wing published a magazine called Ledogs Melong. It played the role of a watchdog, the exposes of which may have displeased some, while its patronage of colloquial Ladakhi, as opposed to the classical Bodhi of scriptures, ruffled feathers. The exact spark is unclear. The administration’s Deputy Commissioner hauled up NGOs over issues like funding and then zeroed in on SECMOL. Among other things, Wangchuk was accused of being a spy and his organization was virtually banned. This was despite SECMOL’s work earning national respect. The Ladakh model of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme had been inaugurated by the then President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.
In the following months, after protests far and wide, SECMOL’s freedom was salvaged to some extent and the Deputy Commissioner, transferred. Wangchuk moved to Nepal to work in the educational sector there. SECMOL hibernated, keeping a few activities alive. Ladakh’s matriculation results began to dip again. For most observers, the story was puzzling. It wasn’t the ugly moments that rankled. It was the vendetta. Why did that happen? The answer probably lay in a variety of factors. Wangchuk’s father Sonam Wangyal was a politician who became state minister; that may have made the son’s rising stature worrisome. SECMOL’s work benefited those struggling in Ladakh’s educational mess; that may have endeared Wangchuk to one side of a class divide, something likely in the magazine’s language controversy, too. Ladakh is a small society glued together by mountain life; anyone stepping out of line is instantly noticed. Wangchuk and his unconventional work were likely out of line. Were these the reasons? Nobody knows. In 2010 in Leh, I had met people who were critical of Wangchuk. But none disputed SECMOL’s contribution.
With no higher education available at home, young Ladakhis travelled to Jammu; Chandigarh, Delhi and elsewhere to study. Many of them children of Operation New Hope, they knew SECMOL. They discussed it in cyber space. In December 2009, 3 Idiots was released. Over May-June 2010, interest in SECMOL revived. Ladakhi students invited the reluctant Wangchuk to address them in Jammu. On June 15, a meeting at Leh’s Polo Ground brought together a wider cross-section of Ladakhi society. According to those who attended, Wangchuk said he would resume SECMOL’s work if the LAHDC passed a resolution welcoming the organization. “Why did he leave and why does he want a resolution to return?’’ one of his fans who was also once a student at SECMOL had asked me. In Phey, where SECMOL is, I had posed the questions floating around, to Wangchuk. He said that both his withdrawal from Ladakh and the request for a resolution were because he wanted the idea of SECMOL to live in the people. If they enshrine it, neither authorities nor politicians can derail education. Good education would become systemic.
That was 2010.
Five years later, Wangchuk wasn’t anymore in Nepal, he was back in Ladakh. My first halt to meet him this July 2015 was the eco-friendly SECMOL campus in Phey. The road leading to it was in better condition than before. Previously it used to be rough with a particularly rough patch near and above a culvert just ahead of the school. Couple of years ago, a patch of ice surviving here in the shade of the culvert had become trigger for Wangchuk’s latest project, which in turn drew much from the work of Chewang Norphel. In 2015, 78 year-old Norphel was awarded the Padma Sri (India’s fourth highest civilian award) for an innovative idea implemented in Ladakh. A civil engineer, he retired from the state’s rural development department and joined a NGO, helping with watershed development. He introduced the concept of creating artificial glaciers as a means to overcome water shortage in the cold desert. The basic principle was simple. He diverted streams and small rivers to fill a large excavated area with water. The water’s flow was slowed down using check dams. In winter, the water body froze becoming an artificial glacier at lower elevation. According to Wikipedia, the artificial glacier helped increase groundwater-recharge, rejuvenate springs and provide water for irrigation. As they melted earlier thanks to location at lower altitude, the artificial glaciers helped extend Ladakh’s growing season. These artificial glaciers were created in several villages.
Norphel’s work caught Wangchuk’s fancy. Upon study, he felt the artificial glaciers had a few shortcomings. Although at elevations lower than natural glaciers, artificial glaciers were still far from the villages they serviced. This meant added labor cost and at times, inadequate attention. More important, they melted fast in Ladakh’s harsh sun. Wangchuk’s questions were two – can artificial glaciers be brought to still lower elevation; can they be made to last longer? That’s why the ice below that culvert in May had intrigued. SECMOL was close to the Indus, the drainage basin for Ladakh’s streams and therefore among the region’s lowest points (it is still around 10,000ft in elevation). Ice in May, under a culvert not far from the Indus, proved that ice can survive that long at lower elevation, provided it was shaded as under the culvert. But where do you get shade big enough for an artificial glacier, in cold desert open to the elements? To overcome this, Wangchuk altered the shape of the artificial glacier from being flat and spread out to being conical. The cone may resemble a structure rising upward, almost seeking out the sun. But as he explained, it isn’t an Icarus-situation. “ Cones and hemispheres are the geometric shapes that have the smallest surface area to given volume,’’ Wangchuk said. Used as shape for artificial glacier, it meant: the lesser the surface area exposed to the sun, the lesser the melt rate of frozen water within.
The stupa is a structure identified strongly with Buddhism. Wikipedia describes it as a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics, typically the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns. Buddhism has long held sway in Ladakh; the stupa is a commonly seen structure. The first ice-stupa (as Wangchuk’s artificial glacier concept was called given its shape) came up as a pilot project at SECMOL. Roughly two storey-tall, it did well, lasting till May 18th that summer. Among those impressed by the ice-stupa were the authorities of the Phyang monastery. They invited Wangchuk to put up a bigger one at Phyang. The second ice-stupa, implemented over the winter of 2014-2015, was significantly bigger in size, almost as high as a four or five storey-building. It was designed with an ante chamber that could be accessed via a narrow tunnel. Water was brought using pipes and tubes from a far off stream with the sourcing point adequately high so that gravity would ensure a high fountain at the ice-stupa’s lower elevation. No pumps were used; it was all gravity at play. From inside the chamber, the pipe dispersing water as a spurt or fountain could be raised higher and higher as needed. The fallen water froze all around in the shape of a cone. Ladakh’s winter temperature is low enough to ensure that the water sprayed out, froze quickly to ice. The eventual stupa was several floors high. The chamber within the structure served as test for the possibility of an ice hotel in Ladakh (a boutique hotel made of ice). Post winter, the ice-stupa melted fully only by early July underscoring the merit in the conical design. The entire project was crowd-funded. Contributions came from all over the world. The twigs I saw had once rested on the ice as a deterrent to quick melting. Ice gone, a pile of twigs remained. “ Next year, the ice-stupa will be five times bigger,’’ Wangchuk said.
The success of the ice-stupa inspired plans for the open space sprawling to one side of that airstrip of a road leading to Phyang. In the ice-stupa, Wangchuk has a potential means to green tracts of Ladakh’s desert, something already underway on a large patch of land not far from the location of Phyang’s ice-stupa. Here, 5000 saplings had sprung root, the initial water for their survival having come from the melting ice-stupa. If there are many more ice-stupas around, more areas of the cold desert can be greened. Wangchuk has dovetailed this possibility to a dream project. It is a known fact that he is critical of India’s educational system. In a television interview, where Norphel was also present and both spoke of artificial glaciers, I heard Wangchuk describe the exam-obsessed Indian approach and the tendency of the system to destroy self esteem in young people. In Phyang, elaborating on his desire to see Ladakhis solve their own problems and the problems of mountain people elsewhere, he told me, “ we are not just a linguistic and cultural minority. We are also a technological minority. Nobody innovates for Ladakh.’’ Wangchuk now wants to set up a university on the vast tract of unused land in Phyang. The land is currently with the Phyang monastery and the LAHDC.
Wangchuk visualized the university as an eco friendly campus featuring mud buildings, quite like SECMOL. The SECMOL campus has often been praised for its eco friendly architecture, its use of solar energy for daily needs and the use of simple materials to provide dwellings that are warm even in Ladakh’s winters. Concept papers for the university have been drawn up. According to it the new university – Ladakh’s first – is meant to address a few basic issues. The absence of a local university so far has meant students seeking college education leaving Ladakh for cities in the Indian plains. This education is very much the sort Wangchuk is critical of. But a handful of other factors add to the concern. One of the concept papers quoted an estimate by the Ladakhi Students Union: roughly 10,000 Ladakhi students currently study away from Ladakh. The expense incurred by parents for this is quite high; the paper pegged it as almost equivalent to the region’s annual earnings from tourism. Further, the majority of these students – the paper said: 80 per cent – were apparently on correspondence courses that don’t actually require them to be away from Ladakh. “ Unfortunately, Ladakhi people are caught in this social game where it has become stigma if a son or daughter is not away in some far away city after grade 10th or 12th. In fact, it seems to be this social pressure rather than the quest for knowledge that drives the exodus,’’ the paper said, adding, “ it is important to emphasize here that all this is not the fault of students or their parents; it is society that attaches so much value to pieces of paper called ‘a degree’ that has led to thousands of youth becoming educational refugees.’’
The Ladakh People’s Alternative University was proposed as a panacea for this problem. Wangchuk wanted the project to grow organically. Maybe, there will be a pre-university phase featuring no more than hutments – “ something like well appointed, solar heated, mud igloos or a university made of tents’’ – with the bigger, solid structures kicking in later. Eventually the solid structures take over. SECMOL has expertise in construction using natural materials, especially in Ladakh’s context of cold desert. The institute has a programme called ` Natural Building Apprenticeship.’ One of the interesting angles in the suggested educational approach was to conceive the project as a university township replete with resident enterprises, where the students gain practical training alongside theoretical studies. Day to day management of the university campus will be in the SECMOL-style. SECMOL has managed a much smaller campus in Phey – it is run by students – for the last 25 years.
Wangchuk admitted that formal recognition of the university’s courses will need the stamp of a ` degree.’ For this, the project was hoping to tie up with the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), already home to a variety of studies and therefore hopefully amenable to the unconventional themes of the alternative university. The concept of the Ladakh People’s Alternative University had been launched with the patronage of His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpochey. It was to be run jointly by SECMOL and the Drikung Kagyu Cultural and Welfare Society Phyang. Wangchuk estimated the total area of available land near Phyang at roughly 500 hectares. Of this, he felt, the university will need about 50 hectares. In the works was a design seminar for imagining the university. The overall cost of the university-project was estimated at Rs 40 crore (400 million) and Wangchuk was banking on the same crowd funding approach that worked for the ice-stupa to generate the funds.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. A portion of this story – the part from 2010 – was published that year in The Telegraph newspaper. Where photo credit has been mentioned as `by arrangement,’ the photo concerned has been sourced from Sonam Wangchuk.)