Sonam Wangchuck one of two Indians who has been awarded the Ramon Magsaysay award this year was born in Uleytokpo, near Alchi of Leh district, Jammu and Kashmir in 1966. His father Sonam Wangyal was a politician and later became a minister in the state government, he was stationed at Srinagar. As there were no schools in his village his mother taught him all the basics in their mother tongue until he was 9-years-old. Later when Wangchuk was enrolled to a school in Srinagar language created a major complication and his education suffered. He escaped to Delhi and was admitted to Vishesh Kendriya Vidyalaya. He considers himself lucky to have been spared the pains of schooling in alien languages which was forced onto other Ladakhi children.
Wangchuk finished his B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from National Institute of Technology, Srinagar in 1987 and studied Earthen Architecture at Craterre School of Architecture in Grenoble, France for two years.
After his graduation Wangchuk, his brother and five others started the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) in 1988. The organisation aimed at reforming the educational system of Ladakh. Students returning from university worked to help village students in their education, and to reform the government school system and tackle problems arising from inappropriate and insensitive schooling. They also designed and helped in building solar-heated eco-friendly buildings in mountain regions like Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim so that even in -30 Celsius the solar-powered school could keep the students warm.
In 2005, Wangchuk was appointed as a member in the National Governing Council for Elementary Education in the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. Wangchuk invented and built a prototype of an artificial glacier called the ‘Ice Stupa’ that could store the stream waters during the winters in the form of giant ice cones and release the stored water during late spring as they start melting which the farmers could use for agricultural purposes.
But his moment in the spotlight came when director Rajkumar Hirani’s movie ‘3 Idiots’ portrayed a character — Phunsukh Wangdu, played by Aamir Khan — said to be inspired by Sonam Wangchuk. He has been referred to as “The real-life Phunsukh Wangdu”, a comparison that Wangchuk keeps denying.
In 2016, Wangchuk initiated a project called FarmStays Ladakh, which provides tourists to stay with local families of Ladakh, run by mothers and middle-aged women. The project was officially inaugurated by His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche on 18 June 2016.