Illustration by Saurabh Mehta, 2010 India Fellow of Suryanarayanan (2015 India Fellow) & Mentor Sonam Wangchuk
I’m fascinated by those rare people in history who manage to dramatically change the world during their short time here, and I’ve always liked to study those people and read their biographies. Those people know something the rest of us don’t, and we can learn something valuable from them. Getting access to Sonam Wangchuk gave me what I decided was an unusual chance to get my hands on one of those people and examine them up close.
For the past 3 months, I have not only been buried in the things Sonam is doing but have also experienced first hand the difference he created through his actions that dated as far back as the day I was born. Writing here in a house heated to thrice the temperature of the surroundings bears testimony to this fact. Sonam Wangchuk, for those unfamiliar, is the real life inspiration of the character of “Phunsuk Wangdu” in the Bollywood blockbuster “3 Idiots”.
Sonam spent the first seven years of his childhood with his mother in a remote Ladakhi village, climbing trees, helping her with housework, and learning to read and write Ladakhi. He feels that the opportunity to learn Ladakhi was one of the best things she provided, particularly since the schools he attended later did not teach the language. His father, Sonam Wangyal, a politician who later became a minister in the state government, was stationed in Srinagar. There, Sonam Wangchuk looked different from the other students and was addressed in a language he did not understand. Many adults regarded his lack of responsiveness as stupidity. Unable to bear the treatment, he escaped to a Delhi school he had heard of, pleaded his case to the principal, and got himself admitted. It was a free, residential, government-run school for children from the border areas of India. The encouragement of the teachers in the school brought him out of his shell; he studied, participated in extracurricular activities, and blossomed into a confident young boy.
Sonam later opted to go to Ladakh where he opened a tuition center to help students take their first board exam (Class 10). The response was overwhelming. He tried new teaching methods in his class and encouraged peer learning. The experience led Sonam to realize that the core difficulty was with the language. Students who knew the answers well had difficulties expressing themselves in a language they began to learn so late in their school life. He returned the next year and decided to continue helping the students with free supplementary classes. But surprisingly, the response to free classes was not at all encouraging. He decided he would return to Ladakh to help the students.
In 1988, a year after graduating as an engineer, Sonam, with his brother and five peers, formed the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL). Their first fundraising effort, a Ladakhi cultural show, proved to be a huge success. Until 1990 Sonam coached school students and offered vocational training courses to dropouts. Sonam had to get to the root of the problem, and the solution to that lay in localizing the system of elementary education. He did not think of building an alternate system because it would have resulted in a waste of resources. Besides, most of the children in Ladakh attended government-run schools. In 1991 Sonam started his first intervention in the government school of Saspol with permission from the chief education officer of the region. The success of the model created popular demand for his training, and 33 villages came forward to adopt the model before the newly formed Hill Council adopted it as official policy.
Stalwarts in so many fields have evolved from humble beginnings at the SECMOL Alternative School (SAS). Thinlas Chorol, who spent a decade in SAS, started the first ‘Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company’ in 2009. Stanzin Dorjai is another student from SAS, who is today a renowned film maker in Ladakh, having started Himalayan Film House in 2006. Chozang Namgial launched his own brand of agro-products ‘Ladakh Fine Foods’. Tsewang Rigzin, who failed matriculation(10th board) 5 times, after SAS did journalism from IIJNM Mumbai and later became the Minister for Education in Ladakh Hill Council. Stanzin Dolkar joined SAS in 2003, focussed on sports and became a National Ice Hockey Champion. Tsewang Tharchin cleared Indian Administrative Services (IAS). The list goes on and on…
Before SAS, Ladakh used to have a 95% failure in the board exam. With SAS, Sonam proved that its the system, not the students, that was failing. This is not just the case in Ladakh but all over India where colleges make even students who obtain 99% feel like failures. If those who failed their exams miserably can achieve these feats, are they any different from the others?