Written by Anupama Pain – India Fellow alumni, fellowship program team member and Surya’s friend.
30th August 2016, while the rest of the country was experiencing the customary monsoon, the Sikkim bureaucracy was worried. They awaited the arrival of the delegation which comprised of scientists, engineers and officials from departments like the Department of Science & Technology, State Disaster Management Agency, Department of Mines & Geology, Water Resource and River Development, Forests & Wildlife, the Indo Tibetan Border Police and the Indian Army along with a shy but gritty team of four from a Ladakhi non-profit. The team was equipped and required to avert an impending disaster …
Suryanarayanan Balasubramanian (Surya from here on) from the Ladakhi sub-team, at 26 was perhaps one of the youngest amidst stalwarts. What were the series of events that landed him there or was it just serendipitous? We will have to look a little closer at his story to get here and subsequently if they were able to overcome the task at hand.
Born and brought up in Chennai to a middle class family, Surya was schooled in the neighbourhood Kendriya Vidyalaya and then an integrated post graduation in Mathematics from NISER, Odisha by 2015. Yes he was bright, but that would be a single story. He was equally interested and empathetic towards the society around and in his final years began volunteering his time, energy and mind in education of a few under privileged kids around the campus through the student’s initiative Zaariya. It was evident that he was going to search for his calling and will not be the one to settle otherwise. College ended and it was time. Some more volunteering, this time in education in the Himalayan school GEMS as a science lab teacher.
This was about the time, he got introduced, applied and selected to the India Fellow program. A commune run, young people’s fellowship giving a year of intense experience and catalyse their leadership trajectories. Surya joined them and as part of the fellowship was placed as an apprentice to Sonam Wangchuk – a dynamic and brilliant Ladakhi leader working in improving education and environment in the community.
This was it. The next year, everything Surya had learnt as a Math student and aspired to understand as a fellow about humanities, socio-climactic challenges, design thinking and problem solving, testing his endurance like never before and his true calling fell in perfect order. He got engaged in the project to set up an Alternative Mountain University that conducts research & development and higher educational courses for Himalayan youth in mountain studies and climate change adaptation strategies under the mentorship of Sonam Wangchuk. Within this, the Ice Stupa Artificial Glacier work happened; which was a pilot to see if water could be harnessed to bring it to the valley when it required the most – early summers.
As the pilot progressed, the scientists’ world was keen. The solutions to the global warming threats are bound to come from a symbiosis between the research world and practitioners. The Ice Stupa team, Sonam and Surya found themselves at the cusp of it all. They were beginning to make noise with the innovations and a very few in the world to be doing so.
Surya, completed his fellowship successfully and his journey with the Himalayas continued. He is one of the very few people who understand this subject so closely today. The practical knowledge of the team, gave hope to the Sikkim government when they were faced with the South Lhonak Lake threatening to flood the region and required immediate mitigation. Our memory does not fail to take us to the Kedar valley flood in mid 2013, which had wrecked havoc in Garwal parts of Uttarakhand.
As we speak, Sonam Wangchuk already is the prestigious Rolex Award Laureate for the Ice Stupa Artificial Glacier innovation; the Sikkim lake called Lhonak is flowing under dangerous marks and the Alternative Himalayan University dream is slowly turning into a reality. As for Surya, he is still only 27 with a world of possibilities. Has he found his true calling? Well he would tell you, he is not complaining and will definitely not settle as yet …
Anupama Pain, cofounder of India Fellow and now a good friend to him says, “When he came for his assessment day in Kolkata, I took the last leg of his selection which was the personal interview. An average interview lasts for 60 mins; his got over in 20. There was not much doubt that Surya was a select – there is no missing his silent determination and thoughtfulness. I kept the rest of our conversation reserved for the fellowship year that was to follow …”
Sonam Wangchuk during his fellowship year-end remarked – “I really like the IF program that gives youth an opportunity to engage in real life learning while being of sue to the society. And Surya definitely was the ideal personality to represent this spirit.I never thought it would be this good when we began! It was more like in some way we were obliging the nice looking program … but now it us who feel obliged!”
As on July 2023, Surya completed his doctorate in Glaciology from some of the most renowned names in the space in Switzerland and has started his own social venture after returning to Ladakh, called Acres of Ice