Life in the trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir is harsh, despite its dreamy landscape. Situated at 10,000 feet above sea level, the region receives just about 50 mm of rainfall on an average each year. For people here, glaciers are a lifeline as the valley is highly dependant on their meltwater for livelihood. But over the past couple of years, glaciers have been shrinking quicker than ever before, resulting in frequent floods and droughts. As less water reaches Ladakh’s villages, the food security and livelihood of rural communities is at stake. This led Sonam Wangchuk, an engineer from Ladakh, (also the person who inspired Aamir Khan’s character in Bollywood film 3 Idiots) to build ice stupas to mitigate water scarcity. The first ice stupa prototype came up in October 2013, which lasted till May. He built a second one near a forest with thousands of trees that kept them watered through the driest months until it melted on July 6.
In November 2016, Wangchuk was awarded the Rolex Award Enterprise for his efforts. Back then, he had pledged to not only contribute money from the grant to build more ice stupas, but also fund an educational project he had been campaigning for the last 25 years: an alternative university for the mountains called the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL). Also Read: The green drive: Indian wins Rolex Award for philanthropic work
Rallying for a more contextual and experiential education in the mountains, Wanghcuk on Tuesday called for a need to devise education as per context and hoped that HIAL will break the rigid boxes of conventional thinking. In an event organised in New Delhi, Wangchuk argued that although a ‘lot has changed around us in the last 150 years, almost nothing has changed in classrooms’. “We should leapfrog our current educational system and show people an alternative mode of education. Most Western universities have been designed since the Industrial Revolution times and don’t reflect the current realities. Through this university, we want to encourage hands-on learning via practical application of knowledge.”
Wangchuk emphasised that the core focus area of the university will be its ‘live laboratory’, where students will spend more than two-thirds of their time learning real-life applications outdoors. Just like Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), also founded by Wangchuk, the HIAL will also empower students to chart their own course while giving them exposure to real-life skills and practical knowledge. More importantly, the university will continue to impart education that is relevant to people’s lives. “This is a people’s university sourced from the people of the world. The university is unique for now, but hopefully this will be the future model of how universities will shape up globally,” he said, adding that India will spearhead the next learning revolution.
To address the pressing issue of climate change, Wangchuk also brought to sharp focus his village in Phyang Valley in Ladakh, which he says has been badly affected by global warming. This is where Wangchuk believes HIAL’s ‘live laboratories’ will benefit the village through practical, on-ground training. He also expressed concern about Ladakhi youth moving to cities in search of better livelihood. On an average, Wangchuk said, 15,000 young Ladakhis have moved to metropolitan cities and when they come back, they not only bring back little knowledge but also lose some skill sets that they already had.
To arrest the flight of youth from villages as well as the revival of the local economy, Wangchuk has developed farm stays in his village, where farming is celebrated and earns revenue so that eventually the youth is compelled to shift back seeing monetary gains. “In the Phyang Valley, we have developed farm stays because villages are collapsing. Young people are now considering staying back in their own villages,” he said.
Through farm stays, Wangchuk hopes to not only to revive the local economy but also push for sustainable tourism. And while Ladakh receives a huge number of tourists each year, he cautioned that if tourism is not well managed, it can disappear too.
Meanwhile, the Ladakhi engineer is also looking at making ice stupas a tourism phenomena to drive home the point that climate change is a clear and present danger that needs to be addressed. “We are hoping to make ice hotels, ice restaurants which will eventually become a live learning lab for students of HIAL.” For this initiative, HIAL’s School of Sustainable Tourism will run hotels, homestays, and ice parks, while the School of Applied Ecology will work towards the restoration of the valley ravaged by climate change.
Through the HIAL, Wangchuk hopes to break barriers in conventional thinking and spearhead a new stream of consciousness in education aimed at solving real-life issues of people.
“This is an initiative that will start in India but spread globally. It’s time we started sharing educational initiatives with the world,” added Wangchuk.